On The State Of Play Of Multilateralism And New, Comprehensive Terminology – Analysis


By Martin Kreutner


Current concepts and terminology on multilateralism are confusing and inconsistent. Moreover, multilateralism in practice is in one of its biggest crises in (at least) decades. Conceptually, clarity needs to be created here, among other things with an appeal for comprehensive omnilateralism – in compliance with universal frameworks, as alternatives to such a reinvigorated comprehensive and vivid omnilateralism (and a likewise multilateralism) are rare if we do not want to end up in Thomas Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes again.

Problem statement

The (apparently not fully recognized) scope and multidimensionality of the proclaimed, but also factual, Zeitenwende(n) painfully show the theoretical and de facto limits of “classic” multilateralism – it arguably needs to be rethought and revitalized in a more (self)reflective, honest, and comprehensive format.

So what?

Ensure – both academically and in practice – conceptual comprehensiveness and semantic clarity by effecting a comprehensive system of “-lateralisms”, including the new categories of omni-, regio-, and telolateralism, and – urgently – reinvigorate the entirety of the multilateral canon in order to cope with the numerous Zeitenwende(n) and Thucydides’ famous (and fatal) trap …

Foreseeable crises 

It was more than a decade ago (and, as a matter of fact, prior to the Crimea-issue), when more and more diplomats, scholars, and other experts started sharing and discussing the argument that the world is heading towards a global crisis of international cooperation, of dialogue, of collective action and responsibility, of confidence and trust – a global crisis of multilateralism in its present form.[ii] Sadly enough, this analysis and assessment has been painfully confirmed by now. There is almost universal consensus that the world lives through a period of high geopolitical tensions, multiple insecurities, through a shift, often reversal of former global paradigms, and a paralysis of previous conflict prevention and conflict resolution mechanisms. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in his ear-catching address[iii] to the German Bundestag on 27 February 2022, called it a Zeitenwende, a turning point in history, triggered by war in Europe – war, what a grossly illegal means of politics, which was expressis verbis presumed “unthinkable” in Europe. Many Western political leaders and most media commentators echoed that assessment and the “unthinkability of war”.

The contention of a factual Zeitenwende will matter-of-factly go unchallenged, even if most analysts and commentators have probably not yet fully recognized the scope and multidimensionality of the associated changes.[iv] The assumed cemented exclusivity of a pax aeterna in Europe, however, rather mirrors a considerable degree of self-deception, complacency, and hubris than serious engagement with long-standing geopolitical contingencies and global realities – the more so from non-European or non-Western perspectives. It is quite unlikely that families in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Gaza, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Palestine, Russia, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, or Yemen – to name just a few – would subscribe to the notion of “war unthinkable” and the exclusive nature of current consequences. As a matter of fact and as sobering as that may sound, war has been a constant companion rather than an exception in the socio-historical evolution of humankind.

Various Zeitenwenden

The present international architecture is the result of several Zeitenwenden. Modern story usually sets the starting point at the Order of Westphalia (1648), ending the Thirty Years War (1618-1648)[v] in Europe, and enshrining already such central postulates as state sovereignty, legal equality of states, non-intervention, and inter-state diplomacy. 

Further marking points in time were the publishing of Emmanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” (1795) as an idealistic philosophical tractatus on (perpetual) conflict prevention; the Congress of Vienna (1814-15)[vi]establishing the post-Napoleonic architecture; the unilateral proclamation of the so-called Monroe Doctrine by (then) US President James Monroe about 200 years ago, which – in an expanded or modified formula – has formed and still forms a key pillar of US foreign policy in the 20th century and today;[vii] and US President Woodrow Wilson’s address to Congress in 1918, presenting his famed 14 points, [viii] intended as guidelines for shaping the post-World War I order (even if the US subsequently declined to join the newly established League of Nations). What was supposed to serve as a building block for a durable peace order ultimately saw a period later labeled by, inter aliaCharles de Gaulle as the “Second Thirty Years War” or Henry Kissinger as the “Thirty Years War of the 20th century”.[ix]

Reportedly first discussions between (then) US President Franklin Roosevelt with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and others,[x] and the subsequent conferences of Moscow, Tehran, and Cairo (all 1943), Yalta and Potsdam (both 1945) led, as one of their main outcomes at the end of WWII and under the auspices of the victorious powers, to the founding of the United Nations (organization)[xi] by eventually 51 Founding Member States [effective] on 24 October 1945. That was augmented by the Bretton Woods conference (held in 1944), which created the postwar monetary and financial order,[xii] and – more importantly – by the adoption on 10 December 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)[xiii] by the UN General Assembly at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris during its 183rd plenary meeting.[xiv]

The overall result(s) of the latter events are universally acknowledged as “point zero” of the present international order, its multilateral international system, and their underlying norms and principles.[xv]

In the European arena, the Helsinki process, a series of events that followed the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) in 1972, which Soviet leaders initiated in the era of détente,[xvi] culminated in the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975.[xvii] Seeking to reduce tension between the Soviet Union and Western bloc(s), the Helsinki process initiated discussions on human rights and fundamental freedoms. It was also called to enhance economic, scientific, and humanitarian cooperation between East and West. Against that backdrop, it was later – by the Charta of Paris 1990 and the Budapest Summit of 1994, resp. – “upgraded” into the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and the consequent dismembratio, i.e. dissolution of the former Soviet Union in December 1991 not only allowed for the aforementioned fostering of regional (CSCE/OSCE) cooperation but brought an end to the global Cold War (rather than of history per se, as some had, enthusiastically yet prematurely, proclaimed)[xviii] but also saw the transformation of international relations towards a de facto unipolar world – an order that would last for around three decades.

“We will drive that 100-year change …”

The list of further most influential geopolitical developments in the last 30 years or so must remain incomplete and naturally also includes a certain personal value judgement. Nevertheless, a few key events should be mentioned: NATO’s eastward expansion in several rounds (particularly in 1999, 2004, and 2009), which has seen the organization grow from 16 to 32 member states to date;[xix] the terror attacks of 9/11 with the subsequent 20-year war in Afghanistan and the hasty and disastrous withdrawal of Western coalition forces on 15 August 2021; the US-led, international law violating attack on Iraq in 2003;[xx] the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring Movement in Tunisia in December 2010, which, inter alia, also triggered the civil war and (continuing) foreign interventions in Syria (ongoing since 2012); the assumption of office by Xi Jinping in China in 2012 and the decision by the Chinese government in 2013 to start and invite to The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)[xxi], a global infrastructure development strategy adopted to invest in more than 150 countries and international organizations; the revolution on Kiev’s Maidan in early winter 2013 with the fall of the Yanukovych government and the subsequent occupation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia on 18 March 2014; the election of the 45th POTUS in persona of Donald Trump in 2016 (subsequently holding office from January 2017 to Jan 2021); the global Covid-19 pandemic (starting in 2019/2020); Russia’s attack on Ukraine on 24 February 2022 in violation of international law; Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, which ended on 22 March 2023 with the dialogue: “Change is coming now that hasn’t been seen in 100 years. If we stand together, we will drive that change” (Xi), “I agree” (Putin), “Take care, dear friend” (Xi);[xxii] Mali, Gabon, Niger shaking off the historically grown influence of France in sub-Saharan Africa and thus finally ending La Françafrique;[xxiii] the enlargement of the BRICS group of states (founded in 2006) on the occasion of the Highlevel Summit in South Africa from 22-24 August 2023 to include a further five [originally intended: six][xxiv] states (Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates); finally, the attack by Hamas and other radical militant groups on Israel with atrocious crimes and 1,139 dead[xxv] (mainly civilians)[xxvi] and with the subsequent military attack by Israel on the Gaza Strip (reportedly with more than 20,000 casualties,[xxvii] mostly civilians, as of the third week of December 2023)[xxviii] and a Palestinian death toll of 34,094 by mid April 2024 (ongoing)[xxix][xxx]. The brutality of this conflict has prompted even former German Foreign Minister Sigmund Gabriel to explicitly speak of outright war crimes on both sides.[xxxi]

Poor(er) countries affected the most

Back in the global arena, numerous Permanent Representatives at the United Nations in New York (and beyond) describe the current situation [mirrored in international relations per se] at that important international forum as follows: there is the Western bloc, the “other [war] bloc”, and the countries of the Global South, the latter of which – once again – find themselves in the designated roles of presumably mere bystanders.[xxxii]

Even though this observation may prima vista sound simplistic, it holds a strikingly clear relevance. It is especially the least developed and the developing countries that suffer foremost from, inter alia, sharply climbing energy, grain, commodities, and food prices, soaring inflation, interrupted supply chains, the collapse of transnational trade and global markets, and an increasingly unmanageable spider’s web of sanctions and power-politically motivated regulatory transgressions – in fact, unilateral coercive measures which only recently the UN Human Rights Council (once again) stressed as being “contrary to international law, international humanitarian law, international human rights law, the Charter [of the United Nations] and the norms and principles governing peaceful relations among States” (A/HRC/52/L.18)[xxxiii] – as well as likewise interruptions of the international financial and (central) banking system. What is more, accompanied by a proliferating bellicose general rhetoric from various sides, the states of the Global South (and beyond) feel an ever-increasing pressure to join one of the first two political camps as vassal allies – déjà-vus for many, reminding them of the Cold War period.[xxxiv]

Principles and dicta being corrupted or (arbitrarily) replaced

On a similar note, they also witness  ̶  with varying degrees of consternation and alarm  ̶  that former dicta such as globalization and `trust through trade´ now seem to have been replaced by the opposite, by `decoupling´ and `reshoring´; they see new arms race of sheer proportions and concepts of neutrality severely undermined; they see how exposed and aggravated the poor state of world affairs and how crippled the United Nations are;[xxxv] they no longer perceive Europe as an independent, mediating stakeholder, but rather the concepts of membership to the European Union vs. membership to NATO becoming increasingly blurred. Within Europe, they witness a shift in the centre of gravity away from Berlin and Paris towards the more Eastern member states, in particular towards Warsaw (and the Baltic states), as well as an EU/EC-Brussels ad-hoc-oscillating in between and – what is more – exposing an astonishing level of uncritical and one-dimensional, transatlantic subservience; last but by far not least, they feel puzzled and perplexed by authentic and outspoken, yet grossly misplaced `garden-jungle´ metaphors[xxxvi] of high-level Brussels-based diplomatic representatives.[xxxvii] 

However, the times are no longer those of “point zero”. While, e.g., China was commencing to recover from long years of Japanese occupation and India was still a British colony back then, today they are not only the most populous countries in the world but has India become a sovereign state and the largest democracy since. To illustrate such developments and changes, one may recall what Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said as recently as June 2022 on the occasion of the Globsec Conference in Bratislava: “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe‘s problems are the world‘s problems, but the world‘s problems are not Europe‘s problems“; and on the question which of the two camps (“axes”) India intends to join: “This is exactly where I disagree. This is the construct you’re trying to impose on me. And I don’t accept it. I don’t think it is necessary for me to join this axis or not, and if I’m not joining this, I must be with the other one. I don’t accept that. I am one fifth of the world’s population, I am today the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world. [So,] I think I’m entitled to have my own side, I’m entitled to weigh my own interests, make my own choices, […] and my choices will be a balance of my values and my interests.”[xxxviii][xxxix] In his most recent book, Minister Jaishankar is even more straightforward and blunt when he argues: “Our overall posture does radiate the message that India will no longer be a punching bag in the politics of others.”[xl] Such statements, I guess, would come with similar wording these days from many countries, e.g., Brazil, China[xli], Egypt, Indonesia, and South Africa to name just a few.[xlii]

All dimensions – but one

In parallel, the global community, in particular the Global South, is ever more stunned and increasingly upset by the fact that two conflicts in Europe and her immediate neighbourhood are being (apologetically) fought and dealt with on all dimensions – but one. While the military dimension (weapons, escalation, etc.), the economic one (unilateral coercive measures such as unprecedented sanctions packages, etc.), the information sphere (censorship, propaganda, banning of media, etc.), and the cyber component (cyber-war, etc.) are significantly gaining dangerous momentum; while in many debates simple and exclusive dichotomies of victory vs. defeat, perpetrators vs victims, black vs. white prevail, one dimension stays persistently (too) silent: multilateral diplomacy and international conflict resolution.[xliii]

Undoubtedly, the cornerstone of peace and collective security is the general prohibition of the threat or use of force. In line with the UN Charter, force is only permitted in the case of self-defence or after authorization by the UN Security Council (UNSC). As history has shown, however, this prohibition only works in selected cases, not the least because there is a gap in sanctioning possibilities in many instances. Neither the United States or Israel nor China or the Russian Federation have ratified the Rome-Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC); some openly oppose the Court’s legality and authority and have adopted national laws even criminalizing[xliv] any cooperation with the ICC.

What is more, the privileged status of those states – along with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council (“Permanent Five”, P5) – as nuclear powers is enshrined in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). A nuclear power with a veto right in the Security Council and not submitting to any international court cannot be held legally accountable in praxi. This brings us to the legal `concept of prerogative (power)´ which can be understood as the power to act at one’s own discretion without legal authorization and, if decided so, also against general norms – and not to be sanctioned in the process.[xlv]When today there is growing debate (and intent) on a shift from a unipolar to a multipolar world order, it is essentially also about a presumed pursuit by the Russian Federation and China – ostensibly in executing reciprocity – to exercise prerogative power themselves. While the members of the UN Security Council, in particular the P5, are called by the UN Charter and the entire UN constituency to act as de facto custodians of that very Treaty, it is historically evident that (most of) the Permanent Five are among the most frequent and severe violators of that very Charter.

This perception that the dictum “All animals are equal” is stressed and loudly pontificated at every opportunity, only to realize that ultimately some are “more equal” after all, the moralizing and/or apologetic application of double standards, depending on the interests and alliances involved, not only undermines the credibility of individual states, but has further damaged – and severely so – multilateralism as a whole. As argues Henry Foy in the Financial Times, just four weeks prior to the assault by Hamas on Israel on 07 October of last year, leaders from the US, the EU, and Western allies attended the G20 summit in New Delhi and asked developing countries to condemn Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian civilians in order to uphold respect for the UN Charter and international law. Ever since, the Western world has had the argument read back at it in demands for condemnation of Israel’s unproportionate retaliatory assault on Gaza, and of its decisions to restrict water, electricity, gas, and communication supplies there. One senior G7 diplomat is quoted there by saying: “We have definitely lost the battle in the Global South. All the work we have done with the Global South [over Ukraine] has been lost . . . Forget about rules, forget about world order. They won’t ever listen to us again. […] What we said about Ukraine has to apply to Gaza. Otherwise, we lose all our credibility. The Brazilians, the South Africans, the Indonesians: why should they ever believe what we say about human rights?”[xlvi]

So, we, the world, need to start talking to each other again -however, this time on an honest and true equal footing, on the basis of simple, fundamental, yet universal rules, in order to deal with and solve the world’s most pressing problems. And to eventually re-establish the minimum level of trust necessary to settle relationships and conflicts of interest by peaceful means only. Revitalized and reinvigorated multilateralism (or concepts beyond)[xlvii] shall be the exclusive way to achieve this, shall be the conditio sine qua non.

In order to energize the discussion at this juncture and strengthen the mechanisms, it is equally necessary to talk about the underlying theoretical, conceptional, and semantic structures. 

Approaching the subject

Even in ancient times, there were considerations and, in some cases, rules for dealing and maintaining relations with the extranei, the outsiders (peregrini), the foreigners (see, for example, the Attic Sea Alliance of ancient Athens in the 5th century B.C.E., the Roman ius gentium,[xlviii] the Huainanzi Compendium of the Chinese Han dynasty or the Tianxia system of the Shang-dynasty, resp.). The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 (and its “Westphalian system”) already brought with it – as was briefly mentioned – four central principles in the interaction between states (in the broader sense) which are still valid today as cornerstones of international relations: (1) state sovereignty, (2) legal equality, (3) peaceful coexistence (non-intervention), (4) maintenance of (formalized) inter-state relations (inter-state diplomacy).[xlix] These first forms of multilateralism and consequent evolutions have been in a state of flux since their beginnings and specific branches have crystallized in the process, such as human rights, economic, security, or environmental multilateralism.

Multilateralism – the Definition(s)

Science and practice have not agreed yet on a single, universal definition of “multilateralism”.

In 1990, American political scientist and international-relations scholar Robert O. Keohane defined multilateralism “as the practice of co-ordinating national policies in groups of three or more states, through ad hoc arrangements or by means of institutions.”[l] For Miles Kahler, another US political scientist, it is the “international governance of the `many´ in terms of certain principles, particularly opposition to bilateral and discriminatory arrangements that are believed to enhance the leverage of the powerful over the weak and to increase international conflict.”[li] While Kerr & Wiseman argue that multilateralism “organizes relations between three or more states along a set of basic principles that lay out certain expectations of behavior that all parties must agree to and abide by, including the strongest party”,[lii] the Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy emphasizes not only the quantitative, but also the qualitative additional requirements, standards, and challenges that come with multilateral engagement.[liii]

In my analysis and conceptualization,[liv] multilateralism – in its simplest form and also deriving from its etymological genesis[lv] – represents “the conscious exchange between at least three parties (states/sides)“. Furthermore, multilateralism is thus first and foremost:

(1) the (potential) basis and platform(a factuality) of this exchange, it is a “factual convening reality”, in some cases also a mere “convening option”, “convening incentive”, or a “convening power”[lvi].

In its already developed and more established form, multilateralism is also 

(2)  a process, based on various fundamental procedural agreements and/or requirements of the participating parties (states/sides) and the resulting qualitative elements and derivations therefrom. Frequently mentioned in this context are a common value basis, indivisibility of interests, the principle of reciprocity, mediation and dispute resolution, durability and influence, non-discrimination,[lvii] plus the aforementioned (four) principles of the Westphalian system. 

In its distinctive, established, condensed, and consolidated form, however, multilateralism is also the 

(3)    International system and its institutions, above all the United Nations (with its principal and subsidiary organs, its related Organizations, its functional Commissions, specialized Agencies, Funds and Programmes, etc.), the regional organizations (such as ASEAN, AU, Council of Europe (CoE), EU, OAS, SCO, etc.), or interest-led alliances (OSCE, OPEC, NATO, etc.).

(Status quo) Multilateralism “in a nutshell” and as daily inter-state practice

(Political) Multilateralism thus means – briefly summarized – political and/or normative frameworks (subsequently: likewise processes and institutions/systems), in potentially different compositions, for the pursuit and implementation of interests, ideally through (an idealiter peaceful) balancing of interests, of three or more parties (states/sides).

Core characteristics & approaches 

Compared to bilateral processes or an [alternative] network of bilateral (individual) relationships, multilateralism has a number of specific parameters and influencing factors, including several advantages (and challenges): By way of example (and without prioritization), these include the elements already mentioned above under “(2) Process”, as well as its broad immediacy; its peer-footing and (greater) peer-accountability; its greater general transparency; its (sometimes) greater efficiency and effectiveness with regard to broad, complex interests; its potential for (broad) burden and responsibility sharing; its potential to discuss and solve global, universal and complex, interdependent problems (through multilateral system approaches, e.g., in the areas of climate protection, technological development, international trade); as well as its intrinsic, generally trust- and confidence-building function, and – in some cases – its supranational conflict resolution instruments (including enforcement). Multilateralism is in principle better suited to dealing with complexity and diversity in particular; what is more, its universality per se can also provide legitimizing acceptability and accountability.[lviii]

The approaches to multilateralism can be diverse, for instance:

normative-binding, constitutive, or voluntary; obligatory or optional; soft law or hard law-based; consolidated, permanent, institutionalized, or ad hoc; trans-, inter-, or supra-national; with a universal or particularistic focus or outreach; value- and/or interest-driven; with a classical/exclusive or progressive/ inclusive approach.

A wide variety of sub-concepts and typologies[lix] have emerged in this context (such as universal multilateralism, regional multilateralism, values-based multilateralism, and minilateralism, to name but a few); however, their conceptual and semantic coherence, consistency, and completeness leave much to be desired. For example, Kerr & Wiseman – referring to Moises Naim (2009) – define minilateralism as “bringing to the table the smallest possible number of countries needed to have the largest possible impact on solving a particular problem”[lx], whereas Cohen & Fontaine see a separate (and strong) case for microlateralism under the definition of “a combination of small-country leadership and large-state participation”.[lxi][lxii]

Revised conceptualization and added terminology

In the interests of greater coherence, clarity, and stringency, but also completeness, I propose the following revised categorization of inter-state (et alia) relations, while partially retaining existing concepts and adding three (plus) new terms:[lxiii]

(1) Unilateralism: the process or fact of deciding a policy or action/omission without involving another person, group, country, state, or entity (of/within a given system/framework);[lxiv]

(2) Bilateralism: in its pure form, the exchange between two parties (states/sides); in political terms, regularly the trade or diplomatic relations between two parties (states/sides);[lxv] including, mutatis mutandis, the trifold conception/manifestation (i.e., platform/factuality – process – system/institution(s)) as mentioned above; 

(3) [new:] Regiolateralism: the exchange between three or more parties (states/sides) from one geographical (or institutional)[lxvi] region; in political terms, regularly the trade or diplomatic relations between such regional parties (states/sides);[lxvii] including, mutatis mutandis, the trifold conception/ manifestation (i.e., platform/factuality – process – system/institution(s)) as mentioned above;

(4) Plurilateralism: The exchange between a limited number of (normally like-minded) parties (states/sides) with a particular interest in the subject of the exchange.[lxviii] This form of relationship is particularly common in trade relations, especially in the WTO context.[lxix] The primary difference between a plurilateral agreement and other multilateral instruments is that the availability of reservations is more limited under a plurilateral regime. Due to the limited nature of a plurilateral treaty, the full cooperation of the parties to the treaty is required for the object of the treaty to be met. As a result, reservations to plurilateral treaties are not allowed without the consent of all other parties to that treaty. Article 20 para 2. of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties codifies the latter principle in international law.[lxx]

(5) Multilateralism: see my definition and conceptualization above

(6) [new:] Telolateralism:[lxxi]the exchange between three or more parties (states/sides) in order to achieve a particular interest or a specific (operational or strategic) goal.[lxxii] One could cite the example of multilateral efforts focussed on specific climate protection targets.[lxxiii] Similarly, the gathering of the BRICS (+) states is also likely to ultimately have telolateral objectives: even if the different interests and the manifold diversity of their participating states are repeatedly put forward by critics – and BRICS is thus tendentially disclaimed long-term survival and the accomplishing of concrete global objectives – one of its (main) teleological (and possibly achievable) goals is an intended alternative to the existing international order and the breaking of (almost eight decades of) Western dominance and hegemony.[lxxiv]

(7) [new:] Omnilateralism:[lxxv] the exchange between all parties (states/sides) in a given system or framework.[lxxvi] The classic example here would be the United Nations, in which all 193 States have equal voting rights in the General Assembly.[lxxvii] It is obvious that the globe’s major challenges, such as security, economic, climate, or technological crises, to name just a few, can only be solved with the participation of, by consultations among, and the help of all states, i.e. the global community. However, precisely these crises and challenges would require significantly more omnilateral efforts and results, more omnilateralism per se, as classic multilateralism increasingly is transforming into competitive, if not confrontational (regiolateralism and) particularism.

(+)  [new:] Prefix/adjective(s) “extended” and “extended plus”: For a long time, traditional inter-state relations only took place between fully-fledged and equal states. In recent decades, however, other stakeholders such as CSOs/NGOs, interest groups, representatives of the academic world or of “Big Tech”, special social groups or particular segments of society, etc. have been progressively more invited and admitted as “observers” or for particular consultations and deliberations. In many cases, formal accreditation procedures (e.g., to achieve consultative status with ECOSOC) were or are still necessary, but increasingly such invitations and authorizations are also granted on an ad hoc and/or situational basis. It is therefore suggested that the respective (and aforementioned) lateralisms (1) to (7) be preceded by the prefix/adjective “extended” or “extended plus” in such cases.[lxxviii] The respective area of application and scope need to be clearly defined, but as a first step, the “extended” could be used for stakeholders that are already (partially or as a whole) accredited and/or recognized, while the “extended plus” goes even beyond those.

Challenges & transformation(s) 

Since the aforementioned “point zero”, since the founding of the UN and the existing international system, there have been many geopolitical shifts and evolutions, some of them tectonic. A number of these have already been mentioned (such as decolonization, the Cold War, the dismembratio of the Soviet Union, etc.); in addition, there is the increasingly broad questioning and rejection of hegemonic and unilateral concepts, emerging and declining states (and associations thereof), the battle of narratives, diverging security interests, as well as increasingly strong non-state dimensions (techno-clusters, de facto overpowering individuals,[lxxix] etc.). All of this leads to (in some cases considerable) losses of trust and credibility, and ultimately to an increasing global crisis of multilateralism in its current form.

Several global transformation agendas of major players such as the UN, EU, SCO, G77, China, IND, RF, USA, but also of (small) individual states (and their co-sponsors) (e.g., Liechtenstein’s initiative to reform the UNSC)[lxxx][lxxxi] are today often in parallel, but almost always in concurrence with each other. Various multilateral circles have overlapping core interests, the protection and promotion of which should be part of the common rules of the game. One of these fault lines increasingly manifests as a conflict between the forms of government/rule of “democracies” versus “autocracies”.[lxxxii] Furthermore, the factual relevance of non-state actors has increased significantly (arg. “extended”)[lxxxiii]. However, a revitalization, a discursive opening of multilateralism, also requires a discussion about instruments of effective checks and balances as well as sustainable responsibility and accountability and, in particular, a (re)focusing on the constitutive core elements of [at least: relatively] peaceful and prosperous global coexistence.

The way forward & responsibilities

All this is hardly good news for a revival of multilateralism, the (urgent) call for omnilateralism, (cooperative) diplomacy, and the applicability of universal norms. So, what would be ways to get there? First, the principle of equality of nations needs to be reinstated and, conversely, concepts of national exceptionalism[lxxxiv], cultural supremacy, natural hegemony,[lxxxv] surges of triumphalism[lxxxvi], and unilateral full spectrum dominance be abandoned once and for all. So are all undertakings that may cause, rightly or wrongly, impressions of applying different or double standards, or of moral hubris and hypocrisy.[lxxxvii]

Second, with the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is a globally accepted basic acquis, a common denominator and solid foundation of global order (in parts, on the level of customary international law). It is therefore difficult to understand why its judicial instruments and means (e.g., the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, resp.) should not apply to all UN Member States (and beyond); and be it, ultimately, via the plausible avenue of a debate over the applicability of customary international law.

Third, UN Security Council reform, whose history dates back (at least) thirty years, needs to be enhanced and carried in particular by the non-P5 Member States. Such reform shall, inter alia, focus on significantly increasing the political costs of exercising the veto card. Liechtenstein’s initiative of April 2022 indicates a viable avenue thereto. [lxxxviii]

Ultimately, the international institutions, particularly the UN Secretariat, cannot be spared the question of what they actively contribute to conflict prevention and conflict resolution. The UN Charter does not contain a prohibition but rather an immanent, implied invitation for the UN Secretary-General to proactively engage in conflict prevention and conflict resolution. As a consequence, retrospective rhetoric and lamentation that the world is in big trouble would not suffice to fulfil Charters and job descriptions.[lxxxix] Former UN Secretary-General Sithu U Thant, e.g., was most instrumental in resolving the Cuba crisis in 1962. Historians will determine to what extent this also applies to today’s international organizations and their organs.

It is very unlikely that renewed transnational trust and a new international order will be implemented peacefully from scratch. This makes it all the more important to breathe new life into the existing mechanisms and, in parallel, pro-actively enhance all forms of open dialogue and discourse, allowing for conflict resolution by enhanced diplomacy  –  fully recognizing that all that requires the “powerful drilling through hard boards, with a mixture of passion and a sense of proportion”.[xc] By the end of the day, alternatives to a reinvigorated comprehensive and vivid omnilateralism and a likewise multilateralism are rare if we do not want to end up in Thomas Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes.

About the author: Martin Kreutner is spiritus rector and First Dean (emeritus) of the International Anti-Corruption Academy (IACA) as well as former Executive Secretary of its Assembly of Parties. He advises, inter alia, the UN, the Council of Europe, the EU, the OSCE, the World Bank, et alia. He holds a law degree and one in social sciences. He spent five years of his professional life in peacekeeping and peace-building missions on three continents. Mr. Kreutner was recognized twice by Ethisphere (USA) as “One of the Most Influential People in Business Ethics for his efforts to improve human welfare through his work with the United Nations and other global organizations”. He is a member of many boards, inter alia the IFIMES Advisory Board.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect IFIMES official position.

[1] IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has Special Consultative status at ECOSOC/UN, New York, since 2018. and it’s publisher of the international scientific journal “European Perspectives”.

[i] This article was first published – as of mid-December 2023 – in the Brussels-based magazine The Defence Horizon Journal – Special edition (https://tdhj.org/) and has been updated and marginally edited for this IFIMES publication. Overall, it merges and further develops two separate pieces by the author from 2023, i.e., What is Multilateralism? in Ursula WERTHER-PIETSCH (ed.), Multilateralismus neu denken – Wiener Denker:Innenkreis(Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2023): 16-18, a thematic paper presented at the New School of Multilateralism working group (https://unipub.uni-graz.at/obvugrveroeff/download/pdf/9150456?originalFilename=true), and the opinion piece Multilateralism at its dead end? – the forthcoming geopolitical chessboard and the necessity for the revival of diplomacy, published in May 2023 by the International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES), resp.

[ii] e.g., the author at the 5th session of the UN Conference of the States Parties (CoSP) to the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), in Panama (City), 25-29 November 2013

[iii] https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-en/news/policy-statement-by-olaf-scholz-chancellor-of-the-federal-republic-of-germany-and-member-of-the-german-bundestag-27-february-2022-in-berlin-2008378

[iv] In a general, historical comparison, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers or – in impressive prose – Stefan Zweig’s Die Welt von Gestern are highly recommended to anyone interested.   

[v] compare, e.g., Henry KISSINGER, World Order – Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History (UK, Penguin Books, 2014): 23-35

[vi] e.g., COOPER & HEINE & THAKUR (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy (Oxford University Press, 2013): 263-264, 581-582

[vii] Henry KISSINGER, Diplomacy (New Yor: Simon & Schuster Paperback, 1994): 35-39, 812-813; Zbigniew BRZEZINSKi, Strategiv Vision – America and the Crisis of Global Power (New York: Basic Books, 2012): 40-41; plus, e.g.:  Cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy enunciated on 02 Dec 1823 by (then) US President James Monroe in his annual message to Congress. Declaring that the Old World and New World had different systems and must remain distinct spheres, Monroe made four basic points: (1) the United States would not interfere in the internal affairs of or the wars between European powers; (2) the United States recognized and would not interfere with existing colonies and dependencies in the Western Hemisphere; (3) the Western Hemisphere was closed to future colonization; and (4) any attempt by a European power to oppress or control any nation in the Western Hemisphere would be viewed as a hostile act against the United States. (Source: https://www.britannica.com/event/Monroe-Doctrine)

[viii] https://www.britannica.com/event/Fourteen-Points

[ix] The concept of a “Second Thirty Years’ War” is said to have originated in 1946 with the former head of French government Charles de Gaulle in his speech in Bar-le-Duc (28 July 1946) evoking “the drama of the Thirty Years War we just won”. 

[x] Michael J. MAZAAR, The Real History of the Liberal Order in Foreign Affairs (07 August 2018)

[xi] Conference of San Francisco, 25 April to 26 June 1945

[xii] As the historian Mark MAZOWER notes in Governing the World, the postwar economic order “represented a concerted intervention to mange international capitalism far beyond anything the League [of Nations] had ever attempted.” (quoted in Michael J. MAZAAR, The Real History of the Liberal Order in Foreign Affairs (07 August 2018))

[xiii] https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[xiv] https://www.ohchr.org/en/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[xv] compare, e.g., Josef BRAML & Mathews BURROWS, Die Traumwandler – Wie China und die USA in einen neuen Weltkrieg schlittern (Munich/Germany, H.C. Beck Verlag, 2023): 36 sequ.

[xvi] an interesting read, that draws the bridge to the current geo-political situation: Niall FERGUSON, Kissinger and the True Meaning of Détente – Reinventing a Cold War Strategy for the Contest with China in Foreign Affairs March/April 2024 (article published on February 20, 2024)

[xvii] e.g., https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/5/c/39501.pdf

[xviii] “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of the post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.“ Francis Fukuyama in The End of History, National Interest 16 (Summer 1989), pp 3-18.

[xix] Sweden joined as #32 on 07 March 2024.

[xx] see, e.g., The Economist, Everything, everywhere, all at once – How diplomats and generals are running out of bandwidth (18 Nov 2023): 56-58

[xxi] https://eng.yidaiyilu.gov.cn/; https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative

[xxii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMSv-jALIAM

[xxiii] Bernd ULRICH, Wucht – Rapide verliert der Westen den Respekt des Globalen Südens – und den von Teilen der eigenen Jugend. Kein Wunder in Die ZEIT (07. Dezember 2023): 4

[xxiv] Argentina pulled out of plan to join BRICS after the recent run-off Presidential elections on 19 November 2023; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-67842992

[xxv] Source: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/longform/2023/10/9/israel-hamas-war-in-maps-and-charts-live-tracker

[xxvi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXEu7lGOAl0; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDfbbdlOfKY; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDn10nDnk_k; et mult al.

[xxvii] Maggie FICK & Bassam MASSOUD, Gaza death toll: why counting the dead has become a daily struggle(REUTERS, 22 Dec 2023, 3:54 PM GMT+1), https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/fight-keep-counting-dead-gaza-2023-12-21/; Emma GRAHAM-HARRISON & Julian BorgerPalestinian death toll in Gaza nears 20,000 with nearly 2 million people displaced in The Guardian (19 Dec 2023), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/dec/19/palestinian-casualties-in-gaza-near-20000-with-nearly-2m-people-displaced

[xxviii] Yagil LEVY, The Israeli Army Has Dropped the Restraint in Gaza, and the Data Shows Unprecedented Killing in HAARETZ (09 Dec 2023) https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2023-12-09/ty-article-magazine/.highlight/the-israeli-army-has-dropped-the-restraint-in-gaza-and-data-shows-unprecedented-killing/0000018c-4cca-db23-ad9f-6cdae8ad0000; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/dec/09/civilian-toll-israeli-airstrikes-gaza-unprecedented-killing-study; William M. ARKIN, Israel’s War on Hamas: How Many Palestinian Deaths Is Too Many? in NEWSWEEK (13 December 2023), https://www.newsweek.com/israels-war-hamas-how-many-palestinian-deaths-too-many-1851121Yuval ABRAHAM, “A mass assassination factory”: Inside Israel’s calculated bombing of Gaza in +972 Magazine and Local Call (30 November 2023), https://www.972mag.com/mass-assassination-factory-israel-calculated-bombing-gaza/

[xxix] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/longform/2023/10/9/israel-hamas-war-in-maps-and-charts-live-tracker

[xxx] https://www.ochaopt.org/data/casualties

[xxxi] Interview in the Pioneer Briefing – Business Class Edition on 14 April 2024; https://www.thepioneer.de/originals/world-briefing/podcasts/begeht-israel-kriegsverbrechen-sigmar-gabriel?utm_campaign=20240413&utm_content=textlink&utm_medium=newsletter&utm_source=thepioneer-briefing-business-class-edition&utm_term=1399-3227_4&cid=3529879&login_hint=true&mid=61732&target=app

[xxxii] compare, e.g., Leslie VINJAMURI, Why Multilateralism Still Matters – The Right Way to Win Over the Global South in Foreign Affairs (02 October 2023)

[xxxiii] https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/LTD/G23/059/34/PDF/G2305934.pdf?OpenElement

[xxxiv] compare: compare Leslie VINJAMURI, Why Multilateralism Still Matters – The Right Way to Win Over the Global South in Foreign Affairs (02 October 2023), or The Global Times (19 Feb 2023): 2, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202302/1285749.shtml

[xxxv] Marwan BISHARA, The World after the Ukraine war – Another senseless war started by a superpower is wrecking the world in Opinion (ALJAZEERA, 20 February 2023)

[xxxvi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufAHg6hN4OA; https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/european-diplomatic-academy-opening-remarks-high-representative-josep-borrell-inauguration-pilot_en

[xxxvii] https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2022/10/19/josep-borrell-apologises-for-controversial-garden-vs-jungle-metaphor-but-stands-his-ground

[xxxviii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmsQaWZPvtQ

[xxxix] He repeated likewise sentiments at numerous occasions.

[xl] Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Why Bharat Matters (New Delhi/India, Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd, 2024): 18

[xli] compare, e.g., XI Jinping, Endeavor to Shape the Future of Humanity (26 March 2019) in The Governance of China III (PRC: Foreign Languages Press, 2020): 535-537

[xlii] compare, e.g., Henry FOY, Rush by west to back Israel erodes developing countries’ support for Ukrainein Financial Times (FT, 18 October 2023), citing “What New Delhi, Jakarta and Brasília want to see is a common position on these issues, and consistency. And if they don’t see that . . . then on the major global issues there’s a certain danger EU, G7, Nato will not be taken seriously,” said Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, former Nato secretary-general. “We, the west, do not call the shots anymore, and the Global South says: ‘Please, we have a voice as well which you have neglected for some time,’” added de Hoop Scheffer.

[xliii] Admittedly, the slow awakening of the diplomatic component must be conceded for the ISRAEL-GAZA conflict, at least since the beginning of 2024 and the steady wheel of escalations.

[xliv] American Service-Members’ Protection Act, https://2001-2009.state.gov/t/pm/rls/othr/misc/23425.htm

[xlv] Matthias KUMM, Der Ukrainekrieg und die Zukunft der internationalen Rechtsordnung in Perspektiven nach dem Ukrainekrieg (Herder, 2022): 33-61; et alia

[xlvi] Henry FOY, Rush by west to back Israel erodes developing countries’ support for Ukraine in Financial Times (FT, 18 October 2023)

[xlvii] see below

[xlviii] Immanuel KANT differentiated in this context between ius gentium and ius cosmopoliticum (in Zum ewigen Frieden (Germany / Hofenberg-Contumax, 2016): 11)

[xlix] compare Art 1-2 of the UN Charter 

[l] Robert O. Keohane, Multilateralism: An Agenda for Research” in International Journal 45(4), 731

[li] Miles KAHLER, Multilateralism with small and large numbers in International OrganizationVol. 46, No. 3 (Summer, 1992), pp. 681-708, referring to Richard GARDNER in Sterling-Dollar Diplomacy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), pp. 42-47 and 56-62

[lii] Pauline KERR & Geoffrey WISEMAN, Diplomacy in a Globalizing World, (Oxford University Press, 2013): 177

[liii] COOPER & HEINE & THAKUR (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy (Oxford University Press, 2013): 57; plus, e.g., https://www.britannica.com/topic/multilateralism

[liv] compare Martin KREUTNER, What is Multilateralism? in Ursula WERTHER-PIETSCH (ed.), Multilateralismus neu denken – Wiener Denker:Innenkreis (Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2023): 16-18

[lv] Latin multus/-a/-um = many; Latin latus = party, side, flank

[lvi] including a “power to convene”

[lvii] www.britannica.com/print/article/2041364

[lviii] see, e.g., the notion of customary international law etc.

[lix] see, e.g., Pauline KERR & Geoffrey WISEMAN, Diplomacy in a Globalizing World, (Oxford University Press, 2013): 180-183

[lx] Pauline KERR & Geoffrey WISEMAN, Diplomacy in a Globalizing World, (Oxford University Press, 2013): 182

[lxi] Jared Cohen & Richard Fontaine, The Case for Microlateralism – With U.S. Support, Small States Can Ably Lead Global Efforts in Foreign Affairs (29 April 2021)

[lxii] Mini- versus micro-, with terms that are (more than) difficult to quantify and scale.

[lxiii] without ranking in quantitative and/or qualitative sequence

[lxiv] compare, e.g.: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/unilateralism

[lxv] For the sake of clarity, further quantified lateralisms such as tri-, quadri-, etc -lateralism are skippedhere, as on the one hand they are self-explanatory and on the other hand no real added value can be identified in listing them here.

[lxvi] For example, relationships within the essentially historically grown “UN regional groups”, which do not automatically belong to a geographical region, but – as, e.g., in the case of the WEOG group – can also belong to a common (political) interest group.

[lxvii] e.g., ASEAN, AU, CoE, EU, OAS; GRULAC, EEG, WEOG; et mult. al.

[lxviii] including, mutatis mutandis, the trifold conception/manifestation (platform/factuality – process – system/institution(s)) as mentioned above;

[lxix] Michael DUPUY, Plurilateralism – The Key to Saving the WTO and Boosting Global Trade Liberalization in JIOS, Vol 6, Issue 1 (2015): 47

[lxx] Oliver Dörr & Kirsten Schmalenbach (ed.), Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties – A Commentary(Heidelberg: Springer, 2012): 296

[lxxi] from the Ancient Greek τέλος = aim, purpose, goal (but also squadron, department, platoon)

[lxxii] including, mutatis mutandis, the trifold conception/manifestation (platform/factuality – process – system/institution(s)) as mentioned above

[lxxiii] Another example would be the Five Eyes alliance, an intelligence network established post-World War II between the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Its genesis lies in the post-war 1946 UKUSA Agreement, intended as a cooperative arrangement for sharing signals intelligence (SIGINT). Over time, this partnership has extended its reach, becoming an integral part of global intelligence and security operations (https://www.forbes.com/advisor/business/what-is-five-eyes/; https://www.dni.gov/index.php/ncsc-how-we-work/217-about/organization/icig-pages/2660-icig-fiorc)

[lxxiv] compare, e.g., Graham ALLISON, The Myth of the Liberal Order – From Historical Accident to Conventional Wisdom in Foreign Affairs (14 June 2018)

[lxxv] from Latin omnis/omnes = everyone, all, the entirety

[lxxvi] including, mutatis mutandis, the trifold conception/manifestation (platform/factuality – process – system/ institution(s)) as mentioned above

[lxxvii] I am aware that the principle of equality of the Member States is ultimately not implemented throughout by the institution of the Security Council and the veto right of the P5. The de facto tautology or circular reasoning of the full status/recognition of states (only) through formal admission [as a result] to the General Assembly (disregarding all the other +/- 30 territories, jurisdictions, etc.) shall not go unrecognized either.

[lxxviii] The question arises as to whether the form of unilateralism can conceivably be expanded to include this “extended (plus)”. The answer is a clear “yes”, as the unilateral approach refers to a defined system/framework in each case. So, if, for example, a state makes unilateral decisions vis-à-vis its peers and in doing so obtains support from representatives of the “extended” (such as CSOs or the business community) in advance or in parallel, one can rightly speak of extended unilateralism.

[lxxix] e.g., Elon Musk, who – inter alia – operates a global satellite communication system and has de facto already decided in interstate war situations which party can communicate when/where and which cannot.

[lxxx] e.g., https://www.passblue.com/2022/04/26/liechtensteins-veto-initiative-wins-wide-approval-at-the-un-will-it-deter-the-major-powers/

[lxxxi] also see Art 109 of the UN Charter as a potential mechanism to table and bring to the attention of Member States (and others) reform proposals

[lxxxii] e.g., Anna Lührmann & Staffan I. Lindberg (2019) A third wave of autocratization is here: what is new about it? (Democratization 26:7, 2019): 1095-1113; Martin WOLF, The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (UK: Penguin Books, 2023): 40-50

[lxxxiii] see the revised, new terminology above

[lxxxiv] e.g., Henry KISSINGER, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1994): 471, 809-810; Georg NOLTE & Helmut PHILIPP AUSTEuropean Exceptionalism? (Cambridge University Press, 2013); https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufAHg6hN4OA; https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/european-diplomatic-academy-opening-remarks-high-representative-josep-borrell-inauguration-pilot_en

[lxxxv] compare, e.g., Edward W. SAID, Cultural Imperialism (UK: Vintage, 1994): 362-388

[lxxxvi] Michael J. MAZAAR, The Real History of the Liberal Order in Foreign Affairs (07 August 2018)

[lxxxvii] e.g., Marwan BISHARA, The World after the Ukraine war -Another senseless war started by a superpower is wrecking the world in Opinion (ALJAZEERA, 20 February 2023) et mult. al.

[lxxxviii] e.g., https://www.passblue.com/2022/04/26/liechtensteins-veto-initiative-wins-wide-approval-at-the-un-will-it-deter-the-major-powers/

[lxxxix] To be fair, it must be recogniszed that the current UNSG is now much more proactive in the ISR-GAZA conflict than it ever was in the RF-UKR war.

[xc] Max WEBER, The Vocation Lectures (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2004): 93


IFIMES – International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council ECOSOC/UN since 2018. IFIMES is also the publisher of the biannual international scientific journal European Perspectives. IFIMES gathers and selects various information and sources on key conflict areas in the world. The Institute analyses mutual relations among parties with an aim to promote the importance of reconciliation, early prevention/preventive diplomacy and disarmament/ confidence building measures in the regional or global conflict resolution of the existing conflicts and the role of preventive actions against new global disputes.

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