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Multilateralism – Polarity – International Relations

International Relations – Multilateralism

  • The Hindu Article: talks about failing multilateralism due to competition between regional powers and changing global order.

Multilateral – Regional – Intergovernmental – Bilateral – Unilateral

Many countries from various regions working in concert on a specific issue or issues. Selected group of regional countries working in concert on a specific issue or issues. Selected group of like-minded countries working in concert on a specific issue or issues. Two counties working in concert on a common issue or issues. A single country trying to make one-sided decisions without consulting or involving the other stakeholders.
All the respective players have a say. [Even small and weak players get to participate in decision making] [E.g. WTO Doha Round of Negotiations 2008 were a failure because of India] Regional groups constitute a unique set of players working towards a common cause.

Powerful countries steer the decision making process.

Weak countries simply fall in line or exit. [U.S.A steers the decision making in TPP. Vietnam simply falls in line]

Intergovernmental groups constitute a unique set of players working towards a common cause. [They are mostly like-minded] Both the players have equal rights. One-sided action. Such action may be in disregard for other parties (stakeholders).
Decisions are made mostly by majority vote. Decisions are made mostly by consensus. Decisions are made by consensus. Decisions are made by consensus. Decisions are one sided
WTO, UN etc. TPP, RCEP, Bricks Bank, AIIB etc. Warsaw Pact, NATO etc. Indo-Pak, Indo-China etc. UK [Colonialism]

U.S.A [Neo-imperialism]

China: South China Sea dispute [Neo-imperialism].

E.g. WTO working towards a globalized world economy. E.g. TPP working towards a trade block involving Pacific Rim Countries. E.g. All NATO countries have a common security threat – Russia. E.g. Indo-Pak Ceasefire Agreement. E.g. 1) U.S.A waging oil wars in Middle East. 2) China building artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea region amidst opposition from the rest of the world.
Multilateralism encourages members

to bury differences for greater good.

Kills multilateralism.

Power blocks strive for undue advantage.

Everything depends on the objectives of the group. Positive outcome = good for both, negative outcome = bad for both. High levels of damage for the countries on the receiving end.

[E.g. 1) Pre-Independent India in the hands of UK. 2) Afghanistan, Iraq etc. in the hands of USA. 3) South East Asian countries in the hands of China]

Polarity: Bipolar world – Unipolar world – Multipolar world

Polarity - International Relations - Multilateralism

  • Depends on how many power centers or spheres of influence exit at a given point of time.
  • Power center or sphere of influence: A powerful country rallies behind it a group of less powerful countries. All these countries come together based on a common ideology or/and common economic or/and strategic or/and political
Bipolar world Unipolar world Multipolar world
Distribution of power in which two states have the majority of economic, military, and cultural influence internationally or regionally. Distribution of power in which one state exercises most of the cultural, economic, and military influence. Distribution of power in which more than two nation-states have nearly equal amounts of military, cultural, and economic influence.
The United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War era (1947-1990). The post-Cold War international system is unipolar with the United States being the sole power center of unmatched capabilities.
  • The United States’ defense spending is close to half of global military expenditures;
  • a blue-water navy superior to all others combined;
  • a defense research and development budget that is 80 percent of the total defense expenditures of its most obvious future competitor, China; and
  • unmatched global power-projection capabilities.
Growth of China and India, weakening Russia and reduced American hegemony are all signs of the path to a  new multipolar world. [Multipolarity is not yet achieved. The world at present is in a transition phase where power is shifting from west to east. (The balance of power is shifting from west to east)]
Two distinct spheres of influence. [Western and capitalist states would fall under the influence of the USA. Communist states would fall under the influence of the USSR.] Only one distinct sphere of influence. Others are negligible or overshadowed by the most powerful one. More than two spheres of influence. [spheres of influence are not as rigid as in the case of unipolar and bipolar world]
  1. USA led NATO etc.
  2. Russia led Warsaw Pact
  3. China led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and AIIB]

Other strategic agreements

  1. USA backed TPP
  2. China backed AIIB, RCEP, BRICS Bank

Not really



[Hegemonic stability theory]

  • Unipolarity favors the absence of war among great powers;
  • Unipolarity favors comparatively low levels of competition for prestige or security [competition for prestige or security are the main reasons for war among big powers].
  • Constantly changing power balance discourages fixed alliances [Everyone wants to be a friend with everyone]
  • Due to the complexity of mutually assured destruction scenarios, with nuclear weapons, multipolar systems may be more stable than bipolar systems.
  • International decisions will often be made for strategic reasons to maintain a balance of power rather than out of ideological or historical reasons.
  • World is always on a brink of war. [E.g. Cuba Missile Crisis]
  • Mutually assured destruction scenarios. [Nuclear capable Intercontinental Ballistic missiles everywhere]
  • Neutral players are somehow forced to take sides. [NAM became irrelevant. USA created hurdles to contain India which was leaning more towards USSR.]
  • Wars on ideological basis: Korean war and Vietnam war (Democracy vs. Communism)
  • Oil wars and wars to gain strategic advantage.
  • Unhealthy competition in every sphere.
  • Power imbalance in the world creates bullies, imperialists and warmongers. [The United States has been at war for thirteen of the twenty-two years since the end of the Cold War. All these wars are waged against weaker countries like Iraq, Afghanistan etc.].
  • Weaker countries are the worst sufferers.
  • Resource curse: Oil wars and USA’s meddling in the affairs of resource rich countries. [Libyan Crisis, Oil wars in the Middle East, War in Iraq etc.]
  • Struggle for power, influence, strategic advantage and resources: Ukraine Crisis, Annexation of Crimea by Russia, Syrian crisis, South China issue, China’s String of Pearls etc.
  • Hegemonic stability theory: Powerful states foster international orders that are stable. [No competition = no war]
  • The Balance of power theory: as long as the international system remains in balance [(mostly multipolar world)(without unipolar power)], peace is maintained.
  • Regionalism in International relations: The theory or practice of forming regional groups rather than going with a central system/systems of administration. [Pacific Rim countries initiated a regional trade group called as TPP – Trans-Pacific Partnership. TPP is seen as a regional rival/alternative to WTO (WTO has become too rigid with its trade negotiation rounds inconclusive and chaotic).]


Failing Multilateralism

UN (The most important Multilateral Institution) is undermined by
  • The regional security pacts like NATO, Warsaw Pact, Shanghai Cooperation Agreement etc.
  • Russia’s absorption of Crimea.
  • U.S.A’s military mobilization against Bashar Al Assad’s Syrian regime without the approval of the UN.
  • China’s rejection of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision in the South China Sea case, despite signing up to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
WTO’s (the most important multilateral trade organization) decline.
  • WTO was driven to irrelevance by the collapse of the Doha trade round in 2008.
  • Cluster of regional and bilateral trade agreements such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, Trans-Pacific Partnership, RCEP etc. are making WTO irrelevant.
Competition for IMF and WB
  • AIIB and BRICS Bank are seen as rivals of IMF and WB.

Reasons for failing Multilateralism

  • Geopolitical competition. [E.g. USA vs. Russia = NATO & Warsaw Pact & Syrian Crisis]
  • Faith in multilateral institutions has dropped because of rigid rules, and slow paced reforms.
  1. WTO negotiations are stuck in gridlock.
  2. India is not getting UNSC membership.
  • Multilateral institutions have become prone to conflict instead of consensus.
  • Bilateral and Regional groups are considered as offering better deals through access to deep market, while balancing free trade with social goals (Subsidy, poverty etc.).
  • Developed societies have changed, embracing individualism over social democracy [Joint family to Nuclear family].
  • Negative consequences of Globalization – income inequalities between developed and developing, crony capitalism, WTO like organizations favoring developed countries over developing etc.

Fodder Points

British Economic liberalism
  • The British Free Trade system, established by 1860 replaced the protectionist state of the late 18th-19th centuries with cheap imports of food and raw materials for industry.
Political Philosophies – Communism, Democracy etc.
  • World trade was split into imperial trading blocs with the rise of the U.S. and Germany as manufacturing powers post WW I.
  • This liberal retreat was soon characterized as the victory of fascism and communism amidst the ruins of social democracy.
Britain’s EU exit and Scotland Independence movement
  • The trade-off between globalization and a country’s sovereignty and democracy is giving rise to nationalist movements.
Brief History of Multilateralism
  • Concert of Europe: The end of the Napoleonic wars in Europe saw the establishment of the Concert of Europe, with the great powers redrawing European borders peacefully at the Congress of Vienna.
  • League of Nations: The First World War destroyed the European Concert and replaced it with League of Nations.
  • UN, IMF & IB: The post-World War II world saw the creation of a new world order sustained by multilateral and supranational institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Feel free to add more points in comments.

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