DOING UNILATERAL AND MULTILATERAL? Ambivalent Foreign Policy of States

Two mainstreams of the study in international relations, realism and liberalism, have proven their stance in major events and international relations of the world. Realism’s standpoint is leaning on the conflict between states, whereas liberalism’s tries to mitigate or lessen the tendency of conflict between states with cooperation (Walt, 1998). States are trying to implement these by foreign policies -unilaterally or multilaterally- in order to fulfill their priorities. We have seen, over the last few decades, how states engaged their foreign policies ambivalently between doing unilateral or multilateral actions. Should states choose the former rather than the latter? Or could they just engage both of them?

In today’s world politics, states have come to recognize that the global concerns such as human rights, international security, spread of infectious diseases, instability of global economy and environmental issues among others are too vast and complicated for any nations, regardless of their power, to effectively manage on their own. Multilateralism as one of the means of foreign policy is therefore has been widely accepted as one of the approach to world politics and international relations. However, in the past few years, multilateralism has been undermined by sovereign states by disregarding any international cooperatives norm i.e. military force on sovereign states, ignoring international consensus, rejecting major international treaties and agreements. These actions are also known as unilateralism. Nevertheless, Nye (2002) explained that a state has the right to act unilaterally in case of self-defense as stated in Article 51 of the UN Charter. Nye (2002) also discussed that even when survival of a state is not at stake, unilateral actions sometimes contribute to compromises that advance multilateral interests.

Nye (2002) discussed how to choose between multilateralism and unilateralism in the context of US foreign policy. Nye (2002) argued that in choosing between them, US government should consider the effects of the decision on U.S. soft power, which can be ruined by excessive unilateralism and arrogance. Nye (2002) added that if US could consult others and try a multilateral approach, its occasional unilateral actions are more likely to be tolerated, but if it gives to the unilateralist temptation too easily, it will invite the criticisms. Will these approaches considerably compatible with other nations? Nye (2002) concluded that even a sole superpower should follow the rule of thumb “Try multilateralism first.”

Nye, J. (2002, June 13). Unilateralism vs Multilateralism. Published in International Herald Tribune. Retrieved May 03, 2010, from

Walt, Stephen M. (1998, Spring). International relations: one world, many theories.


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