Work with others or go it alone? Both strategies have their advantages and disadvantages.
Working together—known as multilateralism—can allow countries to more effectively tackle transnational challenges, like climate change and global pandemics, that require collective solutions. Multilateralism allows countries to pool resources, enabling them to share the burden of complex and costly operations. Working with others can also give actions greater domestic and international legitimacy, garnering them more support. On the other hand, acting independently—known as unilateralism—can allow countries to quickly pursue their goals and retain more freedom of action.
Multilateralism does not necessarily mean the entire world works together on an issue. Indeed, it’s rare for nearly two hundred countries to agree on even the most basic topics. More often, multilateralism takes the form of smaller coalitions like the Group of Seven (G7), a bloc of powerful democracies that meets annually to discuss the critical issues of the day. Military alliances, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, are another form of multilateralism. Countries can also choose to form new, ad hoc groups to handle specific challenges, bringing together “coalitions of the willing.”
Equally important, unilateralism does not necessarily mean countries advance their goals without regard for the rest of the world. Many countries act independently to defend human rights, promote security, and combat climate change—especially when they believe other countries do not take those issues seriously enough.
Unilateralism and multilateralism are not binary options; rather, these two approaches exist on a spectrum. Even the most seemingly unilateral actions like drone strikes often rely on behind-the-scenes multilateral cooperation in the form of agreements to fly over foreign airspace or to operate military bases in other countries.
Most countries oscillate between degrees of unilateralism and multilateralism depending on the issue at hand. Neither approach is inherently right or wrong, as both have benefits and drawbacks.
In this resource from World101, students will explore why leaders address some challenges independently and others as part of a team.
CFR Education is an initiative within the Council on Foreign Relations that aims to make complex foreign policy and international issues accessible for middle, high school, and college students through its educational products: World101, Model Diplomacy, and Convene the Council.
World101 is a free collection of multimedia resources on the fundamentals of international relations and foreign policy. Designed to help your students understand the essential issues, forces, and actors that shape global affairs, World101 aims to support teachers with its videos, charts, essays, and timelines that can easily be added to any part of your lesson plan.