The Two Interpretations of Multilateralism

Multilateralism can take on many different forms. On the one hand, it can be used — as in the case of the Westphalian Doctrine and the formation of the United Nations — to preserve peace and stability. Alternately, it can be used — as in the case of the Iraq War — to sow conflict and advance hegemony.

Against the backdrop of an unprecedented COVID-19 crisis and the worst economic recession since the end of the Second World War, UN Secretary-General António Guterres made an impassioned call for greater international cooperation and a “renewed approach to multilateralism”.

In order to combat the key challenges of our time, he said, the world needs a multilateral approach that “goes beyond crisis response and boosts long-term investments in prevention and peacebuilding”.

The UN chief’s timely call received notable support from the international community with Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden each affirming their support. Unfortunately, the two leaders appear to have fundamental differences regarding its use and application.

China’s vision

President Xi Jinping set out China’s understanding of multilateralism in a keynote address to the World Economic Forum Davos Agenda on January 25.

He explained that multilateralism is about having international affairs addressed through consultation and the future of the world decided by everyone working together. It is about staying committed to openness, abiding by international law and international rules, and keeping up with the times instead of rejecting change, he said.

Multilateralism is also about saying no beggar-thy-neighbor policies and rejecting an outdated Cold War and zero-sum mentality, Xi added.

“To build small circles or start a new Cold War, to reject, threaten or intimidate others, to willfully impose decoupling, supply disruptions or sanctions, and to create isolation or estrangement will only push the world into division and even confrontation”.

The right choice, Xi insisted, is for countries to pursue peaceful coexistence based on mutual respect and on expanding common ground while shelving differences, and to promote exchanges and mutual learning.

Turning to the threats that arise when nations do not subscribe to multilateral in its true form, the Chinese leader said multilateralism should not be used as pretexts for acts of unilateralism. “The strong should not bully the weak”.

In finishing, Xi called on leaders to cooperate, embrace difference, and most importantly, pursue peaceful development. “Difference in itself is no cause for alarm,” he noted.

“What does ring the alarm is arrogance, prejudice, and hatred; it is the attempt to impose hierarchy on human civilization or to force one’s own history, culture and social system upon others”.

Logo of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland (Photo/Xinhua)

US multilateralism

President Biden has not yet provided a definitive guide on what his vision of multilateralism actually looks like. He has, however — through a string of policy announcements and statements on the matter — given a clear indication as to the form it may eventually take.

During his first day in Oval Office, the US leader ratified his multilateralist credentials by passing a slew of executive orders designed to quickly reverse the previous administration’s descent into unilateralism and protectionism. As promised, President Bide rejoined the US into the Paris Climate Agreement and halted its withdrawal from the World Health Organization.

That said, however, there doesn’t appear to be much of an appetite in Washington to extend a cooperative hand to all nations equally. Biden made this much clear during his first call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Referring to his call with the German leader in a Twitter post, Biden said he had conveyed his commitment to multilateralism and that he was ready to work “with allies” to tackle global challenges.

“I spoke today with German Chancellor Merkel, conveying my commitment to multilateralism, the transatlantic alliance, and close coordination with allies on a range of global challenges from COVID-19 and climate change to China and Russia”.

The president’s tweet was revealing for two reasons. The first was that it confirmed support for “allies” – and not, notably, the international community. More worrying, however, was the labeling of China and Russia as “global challenges” analogous to the pandemic and climate change.

Does this mean that the US under Biden is unwilling to work with certain countries to tackle global issues? Or, worse still, could it indicate a desire to use multilateralism in order to threaten and intimidate nations – a sort of Coalition of the Willing 2.0?

Peace or conflict 

As the two opposing interpretations show, multilateralism can take on a variety of forms. On the one hand, it can be used — as in the case of the Westphalian Doctrine and the formation of the United Nations — to preserve peace and stability. Alternately, it can be used — as in the case of the Iraq War — to sow conflict and advance hegemony.

Taking the latter approach will only impede collective efforts to tackle the global challenges and will lead to much greater problems. China-US cooperation is essential to tackle the global crisis challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, but it is also integral for economic prosperity and the preservation of peace.

Bilateral relations have been on a downward spiral for some time now, but President Biden, crucially, has the power to hit the reset button. In this sense, the most important bilateral relationship on the planet currently stands at a historic crossroads.

China has repeated that it is prepared to work with the United States “to move the relationship forward along the track of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation”. The all-important question is, will the U.S. reciprocate?


The article reflects the author’s opinions, and not necessarily the views of China Focus.