International Relations Return to Multilateralism (1992–)
James P. Muldoon, Jr.
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0103


Since the end of the Cold War, scholars and practitioners of international relations (IR) have exhibited a growing interest in the concept of multilateralism as a way to describe, analyze, and/or explain world politics. Traditionally, multilateralism is defined as the practice of policy coordination among three or more states through formal and informal international governmental institutions such as the United Nations, the European Union, and nonproliferation regimes or ad hoc arrangements such as the G-77 and the “coalition of the willing” during the 1990–1991 Gulf War. It had become a norm of diplomatic practice and a fundamental feature of international organizations, reflecting the structure and processes of intergovernmental and interstate relations and a core characteristic of the post–World War II international order. But with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the onslaught of globalization, and the rise of nonstate actors in the 1990s, IR scholars recognized that the conventional understanding of multilateralism had to be revised to reflect a dramatically changed political, economic, and social landscape of a globalizing international system. Initially, the discussion focused on how to make the existing multilateral system, especially the United Nations system, work within the rapidly changing international environment of the early post–Cold War period. This evolved into a broader debate about the nature and direction of globalization and the implications of global change for the international system and world order in the 21st century. It became abundantly clear that globalization and the revolution in telecommunications technology were making the world a much smaller place and changing patterns of interaction among states, business, and civil society on the international level. Moreover, it was no longer practical to minimize or ignore the role played by nonstate actors in contemporary world politics, nor did it make sense to think of multilateralism only in terms of states and interstate relations or of intergovernmental organizations and regimes. This led to the notion of global governance that enlarges the scope of multilateralism to include a range of nongovernmental and societal forces transforming the international system. The objective of this article is to familiarize readers and researchers with the evolution of multilateralism, both in theory and in practice, since the end of the Cold War, using various works from the 1990s to 2011. The article examines multilateralism from a variety of perspectives found in the literature of diplomacy studies, international organizations, and global governance.

General Overviews

Several edited volumes broadly discuss the theory and practice of multilateralism and its development since the end of the Cold War. Ruggie 1993 marks the revival of academic interest in, and the beginning of a spirited academic discussion on, multilateralism. Building upon this initial discussion, Krause and Knight 1995 and Cox 1997 introduce a critical/reflectivist approach to the subject as part of the Multilateralism and the UN System (MUNS) project of the United Nations University. Newman, et al. 2006 highlights the real-world challenges of multilateralism and considers its potential and relevance as an organizing principle of contemporary international relations (IR). Zartman and Touval 2010 questions the theoretical and practical utility of efforts by the academic community to make multilateralism the cornerstone of international relations, arguing that multilateralism is simply an extended policy of cooperation that has reached its limit in today’s world. Finally, Alexandroff 2008 introduces the notion of “effective multilateralism” to the discussion, and Muldoon, et al. 2011 examines the development of multilateralism as an idea and a practice both in the academic and in practitioner communities.

  • Alexandroff, Alan S., ed. Can the World Be Governed? Possibilities for Effective Multilateralism. Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008.

    This collection covers the main theoretical perspectives on multilateralism in the context of global governance. It contains case studies of key multilateral institutions that explore the obstacles to, and the challenges of, reforming international organizations such as the UN Security Council, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund.

  • Cox, Robert W., ed. The New Realism: Perspectives on Multilateralism and World Order. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997.

    This text advocates moving beyond traditional state-centric approaches to the study of world order and presents an alternative framework that critically examines how multilateral structures come into being, the forces changing them, and the possibilities for a more broadly defined multilateralism.

  • Krause, Keith, and W. Andy Knight, eds. State, Society and the UN System: Changing Perspectives on Multilateralism. Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 1995.

    The variety of perspectives found in this book offers intriguing studies of the changing relationships between several states/societies and the organizations of the UN system. The case studies focus on Germany, India, Romania, Sweden, Chile, Jamaica, and Sierra Leone and highlight the evolution of multilateralism as practiced by these countries within the UN system.

  • Muldoon, James P., JoAnn F. Aviel, Richard Reitano, and Earl Sullivan, eds. The New Dynamics of Multilateralism: Diplomacy, International Organizations, and Global Governance. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2011.

    Contributors to this text examine the changing roles of, and the interactions among, states, nonstate actors, and international secretariats in contemporary international relations. It includes a theoretical discussion of multilateralism and how it has developed in recent years in three fields of international relations: diplomatic studies, international organizations, and global governance.

  • Newman, Edward, Ramesh Thakur, and John Tirman, eds. Multilateralism under Challenge? Power, International Order, and Structural Change. Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2006.

    This text provides a comprehensive assessment of multilateralism both as an approach and an institution in international relations. The contributors explore the capacity and effectiveness of multilateral institutions in addressing major global challenges that pose a serious threat to the international system and order.

  • Ruggie, John Gerard, ed. Multilateralism Matters: The Theory and Praxis of an Institutional Form. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

    This edited volume defines multilateralism and its role in post–Cold War international institutional order. Contributors examine the theoretical dimensions of multilateralism as an institutional form that had not been addressed in the IR literature. A baseline work on multilateralism and an excellent starting point for research on the subject.

  • Zartman, I. William, and Saadia Touval, eds. International Cooperation: The Extents and Limits of Multilateralism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    The concept of international cooperation within international relations as developed in the 1980s is revisited and reassessed in light of new questions and analytical methods. The book focuses on sorting out the various meanings of cooperation in international relations, with a particular emphasis on its relationship with multilateralism.

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