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Multilateral v.s Bilateral

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  When is multilateral diplomacy more rewarding than bilateral diplomacy?   by Juan “Jed” E. Dayang, Jr.  Between bilateral diplomacy and multilateral diplomacy, I believe that many diplomats would say that bilateral diplomacy is more rewarding. For the “bilateralists”, multilateral or conference diplomacy is time-consuming and could be frustrating. Arguably, the benefits and impact of bilateral diplomacy are easier to measure given that there are only two players with agenda items somewhat limited in scope. However, bilateral diplomacy is not a  panacea . Due to the imbalance of power relations between strong and weak states, the latter may find it incapable of pushing for its national interests in a bilateral negotiation. Thus, some issues are best addressed among various states. Some of these issues include addressing international challenges in trade relations, climate change, migration, and transnational crimes. Multilateral diplomacy, which takes place when there are three or more states in a conference, could address the limitations of bilateral diplomacy and, in these circumstances, is likely to be more rewarding.  A More Level Playing Field   One significant benefit of multilateral diplomacy is levelling the playing field among states with different political and economic levels. The British Foreign Secretary Canning, after returning from a series of conferences after the 1815 Treaty of Vienna, praised normal bilateral diplomacy when he said  “ each for himself and God for us all  ”. Such remarks sum up why multilateral diplomacy limits self-interested motivations of the states. In the United Nations, the veto powers enjoyed by the five permanent members of the Security Council prevent the tyranny of the powerful by ensuring that one veto can outvote any acts with selfish intention or when one state resort to aggression. Thus, it could be said that multilateral diplomacy is an effective safeguard against unilateralism and hegemonic ambitions of powerful states. Coalition-building  In the United Nations, states can form coalitions based on geographic and regional considerations. Some examples or regional groupings includes the Africans, Latin Americans and Arabs, and European Union. The Group of 77 is an aggrupation based on economic commonalities of developing countries. These sub-groups form coalitions, cooperate, and promote their common interests that may subdue more power states. For instance, the G-77 countries plus China called for the ending of the Doha Round of trade talks last year. Another example is how member countries of ASEAN are able to navigate a region which is surrounded by powerful neighbours such as China and India through the regional body. Venue to Address Transnational Issues and Harmonise Policies of States  Multilateral diplomacy is also more rewarding in finding and formulating solutions to global challenges which are transnational in nature. Some of these issues include peace and security, international trade, climate change, human rights and solving transnational crimes. Through multilateral diplomacy, states could come up with agreed norms through treaties that harmonises the foreign policy of member-states. The League of Nations and the United Nations were created to provide a forum for nation-states to prevent war and conflict. Although the League of Nations failed, the U.N. has succeeded in minimizing the possibility of World War III. Promotes Peace and Security   The U.N. is also involved in peace-keeping operations and promotes peace in conflict zones. The U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDG) agenda also provides the states with a clear target and  benchmarks for global elimination of poverty. In the U.N., states are able to discuss and formulate common agenda on issues such as human rights, including the rights of women and children and rights of migrant workers and their families, which may not be tabled in bilateral diplomatic exchanges. In the Asian region, the ASEAN+3 is the only confidence-building mechanisms and venue where rival countries such as China, Japan and South Korea could sit and negotiate on issues not just related to North Korea. At the same time, the Six-party Talks, which has as its members the United States, China, Japan, South and North Koreas, is another example of the effectiveness of multilateral diplomacy in discussing and diplomatically engaging North Korea. Representation through Candidatures  Multilateral diplomacy is also a venue for states to exert influence in the international stage through candidatures in International Organisations. For instance, countries, regardless of political or economic levels, could field their own candidates to the U.N. bodies and International Organisations. One example is that South Korea supported the candidature of former Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon as U.N. Secretary-General to project South Korea as an economic model to the developing world. Likewise, the Philippines fielded the candidature of a Department of Foreign Affairs Undersecretary, who lost his bid as Deputy Director General of the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) , aimed at projecting the Philippines as model in managing labour migration. Inclusivity to Non-state Actors  Lastly, multilateral diplomacy can be more inclusive and therefore more rewarding to non-state actors. Although the primary actor of multilateral diplomacy remains primarily the state, civil society groups are recognised for their valuable role and contribution to development and may sometimes be consulted in in decision-making process.
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