International relations has always been a complicated sphere of human activities over which economists and politics could wrangle incessantly. It represents the study of global issues and foreign affairs among the states which are involved in inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations, as well as in multinational corporations. It also deals with such fields as political science, philosophy, economics, law, history, anthropology, cultural studies, etc., and such issues as globalization, human rights, state sovereignty, economic development, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and ecological sustainability. On the level of political science and economics, international relations operate with such terms as multilateralism and regionalism both of which are familiar to the governments of world countries most of which are involved either in multilateral or in regional organizations. The main similarity between multilateral and regional organizations is that they help member-states or regions gain economic benefits without risk or loss; however, politically, multilateral organizations are more neutral than regional ones.
Multilateralism takes place when several countries work together on an international level to achieve the same goal. Steinmo defines this term as a “diplomatic tactic of acting in concert with several countries under the aegis of an international regime, using previously agreed-upon rules and procedures for achieving policy coordination.” (194) The most vivid example of a multilateral organization is the World Trade Organization which involves a number of countries and functions on the international level. As a rule, the main proponents of multilateralism are middle powers, such as Canada, the Nordic countries, and Australia. This is connected with the fact that smaller states have smaller direct powers in international affairs and entering a multilateral organization makes them more influential.
Economically, multilateralism has several benefits. One of its most important benefits is that it removes trade restrictions thus facilitating the movement of people, goods, and services. Free trade, also maximizes the efficiency of resource use, develops mutually dependent economic relations between states, and increases economic wealth. (Ryan 149) One of the greatest disadvantages of multilateralism is that benefits are distributed hierarchically, which means that they are unequal. Commonly, major parties benefit more, since they play major roles and their commitment to multilateralism is expected to serve as an example for other members of the organization. In addition, multilateral organizations act through consensus, which means that they move forward rather slowly, and their adopting of economic policies and concluding agreements may last for several months, if not years. Despite this, economically, multilateralism is beneficial for all the participants, because they gain at least some profits anyways.
From the political point of view, multilateralism also has several advantages. According to Reus-Smit, it became the most widely accepted and preferred mode of rule enactment only “with the shift in terms of legitimacy that accompanied the rise of popular sovereignty and its associated norm of procedural justice.” (39) Politically, multilateralism is based on the principles of self-legislation and non-discrimination and unites the members of the multilateral organization by common international legislation. This means that political conflicts among the member-states are reduced to minimal and each of the countries acquires certain political protection on the international level because each of the member-states is bound by international legislation. Though the responsibilities under this legislation are greater, the level of political security, which the country obtains when entering a multilateral organization, increases significantly.
Regionalism is also one of the terms used in international relations; it may be regarded as a special type of foreign policy that defines the countries’ international interests concerning their geographic location. Along with multilateralism and unilateralism, it constitutes the international commercial system; regionalism expresses shape collective action, as well as a common sense of identity within that geographic region to which a particular country belongs. Regionalism started developing in Europe in the late 1940s. One of the first regional organizations was Benelux Customs Union created by Belgium, Netherland, and Luxemburg in 1947. Another example is the Nordic Council established by Norway, Iceland, and Denmark in 1952 (with Finland joining the organization later, in 1955). Regionalism is believed to foster economic competitiveness and political cooperation.
Regional organizations offer numerous economic incentives to member-states. The most important is the fact that regionalism deals with those fields of national policy which promote regional integration and economic growth of the participants. Regional (or economic) integration is a form of alliance with regionalism being a type of an alliance motivated by economic incentives “to cooperate beyond the scope delineated by the non-building nature of the international regime.” (Preusse 8) In addition, regionalism increases financial stability and productivity within a separate region and helps to create an integrated investment and trade market; this will allow more powerful countries to strengthen their positions while developing and underdeveloped countries will gain an opportunity to deal with poverty, inequality, and the like issues. Besides, it is always more efficient to deal with the problem on a regional scale, rather than on the international one.
Politically, regionalism helps to increase the region’s political power by forming loose federations united by a central government. The influence of a particular region can be increased through achieving a limited form of autonomy (using decentralization or devolution), as well as through acquiring a greater degree of autonomy (for instance, becoming independent, sovereign, or separated). Regional parties exist in several European countries, such as Italy (Lega Nord), the United Kingdom (Scottish National Party), Spain (Basque National Party and Republican Left of Catalonia), etc. On a larger scale, The European Union is also a result of regionalism. It combines economic and political features of regionalism since it grew into a political body after 40 years of integrating the European countries economically.
Comparison of Multilateralism and Regionalism
Judging from the facts presented above, multilateralism and regionalism are quite alike, since there are only a few distinctions between them. This is the reason why most economists and political scientists keep discussing these terms at once interweaving their advantages and disadvantages and trying to create a perfect system that would be equally advantageous economically and politically. It seems that, from the economic point of view, multilateralism and regionalism are almost equally beneficial, because the countries (or regions) which enter into the agreements improve their economies and gain some other economic benefits. In the case of multiculturalism, smaller countries are motivated to enhance their development to get more profits from the membership in the organization, while being a member of a regional organization allows a region to reduce poverty rates and deal with other economic problems. Thus the main similarity between multilateralism and regionalism is that they unconditionally bring economic benefits to the countries or regions. At this, in both cases, members of the organizations (either multilateral or regional) have a strong motivation for membership.
In contrast, multilateral organizations are less politically involved than regional organizations. Perhaps, one of the main reasons for this difference is the scope in which the organizations may implement their policies. Multilateral organizations function on an international level and they are united by common legislation, which deprives them of a possibility to interfere with the political affairs of member-states. Moreover, the profits within the organization are distributed hierarchically. In regional organizations, however, the region can be increased or turned into an independent one, which can considerably influence the political gains. This testifies to the fact that, politically, regional organizations give the regions more freedoms, because they may increase their influence by changing the form of their autonomy. On the one hand, it serves as a motivation for the political development of a region, but on the other hand, the ability to increase political power while already being a member of a regional organization creates unfair competition among the member-states (or regions).
Multilateral and regional organizations bring numerous political and economic benefits to their members, but uniting them into one common organization would be more advantageous for their members. The biggest similarity between the organizations is that both of them develop member-states and regions economically and promote the economic integration of different countries. However, these kinds of organizations have a distinct difference consisting in the fact that regional organizations lack political stability as well as equal political development and security which multilateral ones guarantee to their members.
- Preusse, Heinz G. The New American Regionalism. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2004.
- Reus-Smit, Christian. The Politics of International Law. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
- Ryan, Michael P. Playing by the Rules: American trade Power and Diplomacy in the Pacific. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1993.
- Steinmo, Sven. Growing Apart? America and Europe in the twenty-First Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.