Multilateral Diplomacy In A Post-9/11 World.

How valuable is multilateral diplomacy in a post-9/11 world?
{Department of War Studies, King’s College London}



[dropcap]M[/dropcap]ultilateral diplomacy is academically defined as diplomacy conducted via conferences attended by three or more states on the basis of generalised rules of conduct[1], while a UN envoy has defined it in simpler terms, depicting the diplomatic form as ‘a bunch of countries pushing their own barrows, but in the one room.’[2] The rise of multilateral diplomacy can be traced back to the nineteenth century when the Concert of Europe sat around the table together at the Congress of Vienna. Yet, this mode of diplomacy developed in its full form in the twentieth century with the creation of the League of Nations in the aftermath of the First World War and with the United Nations, the embodiment of multilateral diplomacy, born after the Second World War. Today, the United Nations has a worldwide membership and the global landscape is peppered with economic and regional institutions that are multilateral in nature, such as the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the G20.[3]However, the multilateral structure has been confronted with a multitude of challenges since the inception of the United Nations in 1945 and the relevance of both multilateral diplomacy and the UN has been vigorously debated, which begs the question: is multilateral diplomacy still relevant in a post 9/11 world?

This article will argue that, in an increasingly interdependent and globalised world, multilateral diplomacy is of value more so than ever before in its history. The UN, if reformed accordingly, will continue to be used as a viable multilateral channel to counter fresh global challenges which confront not just a few states but all states. In which case, multilateral diplomacy will indeed continue to hold importance and utility in a twenty-first century world. The first section will argue that, after a period of American unilateralism in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the arrival of Barack Obama at the Oval Office has rejuvenated multilateral diplomacy and substantially restored UN credibility. The second section will posit that the effects of globalisation have preserved multilateral diplomacy as an essential tool for the international community in adapting to the global issues of the twenty-first century. The third section will acknowledge that the UN is not perfect and that reform in the Security Council and its peacekeeping missions would restore the standing of the institution as the effective multilateral vehicle for the powers of the world and consequently increase the value of multilateral diplomacy. The final section will summarise and conclude the key points that have been argued in this article.

US Foreign Policy: From Unilateralism to Multilateralism

At the turn of the last century, 189 world leaders convened at the Millennium Summit and approved the Millennium Declaration which outlined eight specific goals that the United Nations was to achieve by 2015.[4] Yet, just a year later the 9/11 terrorist attacks tilted the world upon its head. The Security Council was rallied into action after the attacks and unanimously backed the United States against the threat which had caused so much devastation.[5] However, a wounded United States became increasingly relentless and unilateral in their ‘War on Terror’; when the Security Council refused to authorise a US attack upon an allegedly nuclear-armed Iraq, the United States, led by George. W. Bush, launched the assault anyway without UN approval.[6] This has been referred to as the ‘crisis of multilateralism’, as the United States undermined the very institution of which it is the biggest financial contributor and the most influential player.[7] If the founding member of the UN was refusing to follow the guidelines of the institution then why should other states follow the rules? This act set a worrying precedent for the rest of the world and, as Kofi Annan asserted, ‘undermined confidence in the possibility of collective responses to our common problems’.[8] Other instances of American unilateralism are Bush’s abstention from the Human Rights Council, his refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol and the US departure from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The United States was losing sight of the benefits that multilateral diplomacy has to offer.

However, the arrival of Barack Obama at the Oval Office has revived multilateral values within US foreign policy. The Obama administration has realised that it must now engage with the UN and this has marked a ‘transitional moment in the history of multilateralism’.[9] In his 2010 National Security Strategy, Obama acknowledged the fact that the US had been successful after the Second World War by pursuing their interests within multilateral forums such as the United Nations and not outside of them.[10] The global financial crisis of 2008 and the European Union’s sovereign debt crisis have demonstrated just how interdependent the economies of the western world are and these crises have created an age of austerity in which multilateralism is needed more than ever before.[11]  The US has overstretched its resources and is now currently winding down two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; they have realised that they simply do not have the means to conduct their foreign affairs exclusively anymore.

Clear indications of Washington’s improved multilateral engagement with the UN since Obama’s inauguration, and the changing attitude in US foreign policy, are the economic sanctions negotiated over Iran, Obama’s decision for the US to join the Human Rights Council and, more specifically, its participation in the recent Libya mission. In Libya, the US provided support for the mission, yet played a subdued role in the campaign, allowing its European counterparts to take the lead. In contrast to his predecessor, Obama is displaying pragmatism rather than sentimentalism in his search for partners, making alliances in order to adapt to the emerging multipolar world; this is typified by Obama’s recent visit to the Asia-Pacific and his tour of South America (Brazil, Chile and El Salvador) in 2010. For the time being, US unipolarity looks to be a thing of the past; its foreign policy is changing from Bush’s unilateralism at the start of the century to a more multilateral approach at the beginning of a new decade under Obama.[12] This is the correct precedent that the most powerful nation in the world should be setting for other states to follow. The fact that the US is now engaging with the UN to counter global problems has restored the credibility that the UN had lost after the Iraq debacle and, by setting this example, other nations will follow suit and the international community as a whole can only benefit. From this change in US foreign policy, it is clear that multilateral diplomacy is of more value today than it was a decade ago.

Multilateral Diplomacy in a Globalised World

Towards the end of George W. Bush’s second term in office, Ban Ki-moon asserted that the forthcoming period would be the ‘most intense period of multilateral diplomacy ever in the United Nations’ history’.[13] The Secretary-General’s claim is debatable but there are substantial reasons to believe that this statement is likely to prove accurate. As the world becomes smaller through advances in technology and communications, and the more interdependent the world becomes, the further multilateral diplomacy will develop as a vehicle for international cooperation on major global issues. Regional multilateralism is beginning to develop further with the creation, in the last decade, of organisations such as the African Union and the Eurasian Union, the continued enlargement and integration of the European Union after 9/11, and established organisations such as NATO and the Arab League remaining prevalent.[14] Growing regional organisations in the multilateral system such as the EU can be of useful assistance to the United Nations and both have already outlined their will to cooperate.[15] A fully integrated and stable Europe which specialises in soft power can only be an advantage to the multilateral system and the international community. Additionally, other regional organisations have cooperated together to produce flourishing results, such as the Arab League’s recent coordination with NATO allies on the successful Libya campaign.

It is this need to cooperate in an increasingly globalised arena that ensures that multilateral diplomacy still holds value in today’s world. 9/11 symbolised the era of globalisation and the borderless evils that it has bred. The attackers used the internet, mass travel and the attack itself was covered across the world by the mass media. International threats now permeate the unregulated global space and are no longer conscious of territorial borders; issues such as disease, famine, terrorism, transnational crime, cyber warfare, nuclear proliferation, migration, economic security and climate change all rank high on the international agenda.[16] These global issues are precisely why the United Nations requires assistance from regional organisations and are consulting with non-state actors from civil society more frequently. Since 9/11, international institutions have played an important role in multilateral counter-terrorism, energy security and nuclear non-proliferation, whilst non-state actors have assisted with the reconstruction efforts of areas struck by disaster or war and have supported scores of people affected by disease and famine.[17] Participants in multilateral diplomacy are evidently rising and, as a result, it is becoming increasingly polygonal as the threats that now confront the world affect the security of humanity as a whole and not solely the security of states.

Multilateral diplomacy looks set to continue in importance because of these threats and also because of an emerging multipolar world. The world is now moving away from US hegemony and the emerging states of Brazil, China, Turkey, South Africa and India are becoming important regional powers. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that ad-hoc coalitions of the willing are to decrease in importance as states will have to accommodate the new power centres of a multipolar world. In a recent speech, Paddy Ashdown made the intriguing point that the emergence of a multipolar world in the twenty-first century will bear some resemblance to the nineteenth century ‘Concert of Europe’ whereby states will have to cooperate with each other upon common interests and not upon mere common values.[18] On his first trip to Europe, President Obama outlined this idea, asserting that the United States were no longer ‘looking to be patrons of Europe’, but to be ‘partners of Europe.’[19] Major powers will become increasingly pragmatic in their diplomatic relations and will have to work outside of fixed alliances to achieve their economic and foreign policy aims. Consequently, it is reasonable to assume that multilateral diplomacy will be nothing short of essential in an increasingly multipolar world.

United Nations Reform

With the United States now working multilaterally through the UN and with the onset of a multipolar world, it appears that multilateral diplomacy will continue to be relevant in the twenty-first century, with the United Nations as the foremost institution for international cooperation. However, the United Nations is not perfect and for multilateral diplomacy to be effective and efficient in an increasingly challenging environment, the UN must embark upon a programme of comprehensive reform. The Security Council is especially outdated and reform of the Council has been debated at length with many proponents for modifying the most powerful UN organ.[20] The fundamental purpose of the Security Council is to ensure the ‘maintenance of international peace and security’ and the permanent members of the Security Council consist of China, Russia, France, Britain and the US (otherwise known as the P5).[21]  This power arrangement represents the world in which the Security Council was created, and there have been calls for the Security Council to be enlarged to represent the real distribution of power in the world today, with the emerging nations of Brazil, China, Turkey, South Africa and India specifically referred to.[22]. It can also be argued that France, Britain and Russia are shadows of their former selves and that Japan and the EU deserve a seat on the Council as Japan is one of the biggest financial contributors to the UN’s budget and, if the EU was to be given a seat, Britain and France would retain influence within the council.

However, there remains a lack of consensus over the exact countries to bestow membership upon and what power these countries will hold within the Council itself[23], and there has also been much proposed reform which has failed to enact real change to the formation of the Security Council such as the Razali Paper.[24] Reform is especially difficult to achieve as all of the P5 retain the power to veto any modification to the Council and, understandably, none of the members wish to relinquish the power in their hands. Nevertheless, reform to the Security Council is essential to maintaining its authority and credibility in a burgeoning multipolar world. The Security Council has had its successes; the fact that a quarter of all Security Council resolutions in the UN’s history were implemented from 2001 to the present, that the Anglo-French led mission in Libya was successful[25], and that the sanctions placed upon Iran through the International Atomic Energy Agency were pushed through with the coordination of the P5+1 group[26], illustrates that the Security Council continues to be of use in a modern world that is more demanding than ever.[27] Yet, this does not negate the fact that reform to the Security Council by enlarging its membership to become more representative of the world today would make it more credible and effective.

Reform to the UN’s peacekeeping operations is a necessity also; the value of multilateral conflict prevention is evident as there are presently sixteen UN peacekeeping operations situated on four continents and there have been some notable successes in Namibia, Nicaragua and El Salvador.[28] These successes have been tempered by a number of UN failures in its peacekeeping mandate, specifically in the 1990s. In 1994, the Security Council refused intervening action in the Rwandan Civil War and approximately 800,000 people (a mixture of Tutsis and Hutus) were killed. This led to UN admittance that their reaction had been a failure. This, combined with the UN failure to intervene in the 1995 Sbrenica massacre and the placing of food aid in the hands of warlords in Somalia in 1993, offers evidence for the need of swifter multilateral action and emphasises the fact that the UN must reform its peacekeeping operations to provide quicker warning and response times.[29]  The Brahimi Report asserted that a lack of a standing army in the UN was hindering its response time to atrocities.[30] The notion of a standing army in the UN is plausible but it is a simple fact that powerful states need to contribute more to the UN’s peacekeeping operations; such contributions would ensure that the failures of the 1990s would not be repeated. As stated above, the UN is not perfect; there is always room for improvement and if reforms to the Security Council and the UN’s peacekeeping operations serve to make these divisions of the UN more efficient and effective, the credibility of the institution in the international community would be greatly improved and this would only serve to increase the value of multilateral diplomacy.


It is realistic to conclude that multilateral diplomacy remains relevant in a post 9/11 world and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Multilateral diplomacy, especially through the United Nations, plays a crucial role in the global interaction of sovereign states and non-state actors. After 9/11, multilateralism undoubtedly experienced a period of crisis with the onset of the Iraq War yet, today, Barack Obama has shifted US foreign policy from a unilateral to a multilateral stance in light of the economic downturn and the emergence of a multipolar world. This position has restored UN credibility and revitalised multilateral diplomacy. The increasingly global nature of the threats that the world faces and the interdependency that is present amongst states mean that multilateral diplomacy remains, and will continue to remain, relevant in the twenty-first century. The Libya campaign and the efforts to counter Iran’s nuclear threat are perfect examples of multilateral diplomacy being used effectively in a post 9/11 world. Furthermore, with reform to the United Nations, by increasing and altering the membership of the Security Council in order to represent the current global hierarchy, and by learning from past failures and by increasing commitment to ensure fast and responsive peacekeeping operations, the UN will be in better shape to deal with the problems of the globalised world. By taking all of these factors into account, it is therefore logical to concur with G. R. Berridge that ‘multilateralism is here to stay’.[31]

[toggle title=”Citations”]

[1] Berridge and James (2003); Keohane (1990), p. 732; Ruggie (1993), p. 11.

[2] Downer diary, Spectator Magazine (2011).

[3] The United Nations Today (2008), p. xvii.

[4] UN Millenium Declaration (2000).

[5] Resolution 1368 (2001).

[6] See Ikenberry (2003), and Glen (2006), p. 312; Also, the Security Council did approve the US occupation of Iraq after the fighting had ended with Resolution 1483 (2003).

[7] Hutchings speech (2003).

[8] Newman, Thakur, Tirman (2006a), p.1.

[9] Forman (2009), p. 1; Brimmer speech, Brookings (2011).

[10] National Security Strategy (2010).

[11] Hamilton and Quinlan (2011).

[12] Obama speech, Strasbourg (2009).

[13] Ban Ki-moon press conference (2007).

[14] Mylonas and Yorulmazlar (2012).

[15] EC Commission, The European Union and the United Nations: The Choice of Multilateralism, (2003).

[16] Abbot, Rogers, Sloboda (2006).

[17] Romaniuk (2010).

[18] Ashdown speech (2011).

[19] Obama speech, Strasbourg (2009).

[20] Wilenski (1993), p. 442; Annan (2005); Weiss (2003).

[21] UN Charter, Chapter V, Article 24.

[22] Slaughter, Foreign Policy (2011).

[23] Muldoon (1999), pp. pp. 7–77.

[24] Razali Paper (1997); Weiss (2003), p. 149.

[25] Resolution 1970 (2011); Resolution 1973 (2011); Quarterman (2011).

[26] P5+1 members consist of US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany; Resolution 1929 (2010); Duss (2011).

[27] Forman (2009), p. 3.

[28] Current UN peacekeeping operations, of note, in Kosovo, Sudan, Haiti, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan.

[29] Tanner (2000), p. 557.

[30] Brahimi Report (2000).

[31] Berridge (2005), p. 170.


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