In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section New Multilateralism in the Early 21st Century

  • Introduction
  • General Overview and Antecedents
  • The MUNS Conceptualization of “New Multilateralism”
  • Related Research on Multilateralism and Global Governance
  • The Practice of “New Multilateralism” as a Research Agenda

International Relations New Multilateralism in the Early 21st Century
Jason Rancatore
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0121


Compared to the body of work being produced on multilateralism and global governance, “new multilateralism” is still emerging as a research topic. With the end of the Cold War, new conceptualizations of the international system and its institutions began to be developed. In this evolving political context, which no longer consisted of two dominant superpowers struggling for influence, how could states now pursue their policy objectives? How could multilateral institutions now operate, given the changing patterns of membership and distribution of power? What political issues could now be addressed through multilateral diplomacy once the threat of global thermonuclear war had seemingly evaporated? One set of answers to these questions resulted from the conceptual development of “new multilateralism,” a reconception of the entities within the international system; what rules, roles, and functions they might play; and what those entities should address given the phenomenon of the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the advent of globalization. This concept primarily grew out of group of scholars endeavoring to explore new forms of multilateralism. They participated in the Multilateralism and the UN System (MUNS) project sponsored by the United Nations University in 1990 and coordinated by Robert W. Cox. Out of this project emerged a number of scholarly works on “new multilateralism,” and it was through this project that the concept gained relevance in the field of International Relations (IR) as a reference point to the study of how world order is constructed, and how it is changing to meet new challenges. After the MUNS project concluded, numerous scholars employed the term “new multilateralism” to underscore differences between politics as usual and the new forms of interaction. What ties this research together is: 1) the theoretical attempt to look at the international system not simply in terms of great power politics, and 2) the empirical move to look at political processes that involve other entities. This annotated bibliography is divided into a short General Overview and Antecedents, three larger literature sections consisting of research during and after MUNS project and the related research agendas of multilateralism and global governance, and a conclusion on Practice of “New Multilateralism” as a Research Agenda.

General Overview and Antecedents

There is no single textbook that comprehensively reviews the theory and empirics concerning new multilateralism. At the moment, perhaps the best introduction is the combination of Cox 1997a and Cox 1997b, the latter of which was published in the journal Global Governance. Indeed, a number of influential studies on new multilateralism can be found in this journal, which began after the MUNS project ended in 1995 and is published in association with the ACUNS (Academic Council on the United Nations System). The topic’s appearance, however, is not consistent. Although “new multilateralism” was born from new perspectives after the Cold War, there was still conceptual work being done that sought to move beyond the bipolar, state-centric understanding of the international system. Multilateralism had traditionally been used in economics to describe an interrelated system of exchange that was nondiscriminatory. In 1944, the Bretton Woods institutions (the International Monetary Fund and World Bank group) were established to promote multilateral clearing and avoid the harmful practices of “economic warfare” during the inter-war period. In the 1970s, “new multilateralism” was used in two articles to describe potentially new political formations. Hassner 1974 is written from the perspective of a scholar thinking about the future of NATO, while Kaser 1972 takes the perspective of a practitioner of multilateral diplomacy. These perspectives typify how the concept would be employed and hint at the added value of using a term such as “new multilateralism” to signal a break from standard research and policy. In the 1980s, “new multilateralism” not only referred to these topics, such as in Hassner 1984, but they also referred to potentially reformulated economic institutions, as well as political formations. Camps and Diebold 1983 focuses on economic theorizing about what new economic policies and organizations might emerge. That vision was shaped, like those of many other scholars who supported multilateral trade and its mechanisms, by their involvement in developing US international economic policy at the end of World War II, the most ambitious global plan to facilitate and achieve multilateral relations at that moment in time. However, these understandings of a “new multilateralism” that improved upon the plans of the World War II era were relatively isolated occurrences, and remained largely unnoticed in IR. Note that these works remain focused on multilateral institutions and their member-states; while they attempted to think through an international system that was not simply structurally determined by the two superpowers, they remain distinct from the radical reformulation characterized by the MUNS project.

  • Camps, Miriam, and William Diebold Jr. The New Multilateralism: Can the World Trading System be Saved? New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1983.

    This well-cited monograph details the challenges facing governments and the Bretton Woods institutions for managing the world economy, and potential reforms (the “new multilateralism”) to meet these obstacles.

  • Cox, Robert. “An Alternative Approach to Multilateralism for the Twenty-First Century.” Global Governance 3.1 (1997a): 103–116.

    This article contains the definitive statement of the MUNS conceptualization of new multilateralism.

  • Cox, Robert, ed. The New Realism: Perspectives on Multilateralism and World Order. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1997b.

    This edited volume contains a useful introduction and series of reflections by the MUNS coordinator as well as a variety of perspectives on world politics based on different countries, regions, cultures, identities, economic systems, and civil society organizations.

  • Hassner, Pierre. “How Troubled a Partnership?” International Journal 29.2 (1974): 166–185.

    DOI: 10.2307/40201191

    The first article Hassner wrote on NATO, examining the shifting relations and policies among the members of this organization in the 1970s.

  • Hassner, Pierre. “Frustrated but Frozen: Europe and the Atlantic Relationship.” International Journal 39.2 (1984): 410–428.

    DOI: 10.2307/40202341

    In this second article on NATO, Hassner speculates on the future of the organization, referring to the potential challenge of a more expansive membership and institutions of greater reach as the new multilateralism develops. International Journal is one of Canada’s leading IR outlets.

  • Kaser, Michael. “COMECON and the New Multilateralism.” The World Today 28.4 (1972): 162–169.

    A former British diplomat and UN officer discusses the implications of the economic integration of the Soviet bloc as its members also simultaneously operate as individual member-states in the world economic system. Such a process of integration opened up possibilities for rapprochement, but ultimately had little effect. The journal World Today is the monthly publication of Chatham House, an influential nongovernmental think tank also known as the Royal Institute for International Affairs.

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