What are the advantages and disadvantages of multilateralism?

In the age of globalisation, international cultures and economies are intertwined in a variety of ways. Any action that a country takes, including actions that impact their internal economies, have an impact on other countries. For many nations and governments, this makes working multilaterally on issues of mutual concern more important. This includes military action, trade agreements, disaster relief and general economic cooperation through international organisations.

Different Priorities

One disadvantage of multilateral actions is that it can make taking any action more difficult or at least slow things down. It may also mean that a government does not get everything that it wants or does not get what it wants in a timely manner. Different countries and governments will have different priorities and different ideas what actions should be taken, in what order and with what goals. Acting multilaterally can mean compromising on both the timeline and goals of a proposed action.

Costs and Efficiency

An advantage of multilateral action is that different countries have different resources and areas of expertise. Nations working together can pool these resources and achieve more successful outcomes as well as cost savings. Additionally, in a multilateral operation, no one country will have to use all of its available resources on a single operation. In economic and environmental areas, a number of countries acting in concert can achieve greater results than each country acting alone. One example of this is the Kyoto Protocol, in which a number of countries agreed to simultaneously reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Organizational Issues

Another disadvantage of multilateralism is in conducting operations with other countries. While sharing resources can be beneficial to countries, it can also complicate matters. Many countries have strict rules in place for their armed forces, relief agencies and other workers. Different nations have differing ways of doing things and varying chains of command, and some countries do not like their personnel to be under the command of another nation. This can lead to confusion, miscommunication and difficulty in making decisions and getting things done. In order to function in a peacekeeping or military matter, chains of command must be discussed, negotiated and settled between countries. In some cases, one country may have to make a request of another country's forces rather than ordering them. In some situations, such as in the joint occupation of Afghanistan, this situation has been largely resolved by dividing up responsibility geographically, with different countries in charge of different regions.

Diplomatic Respect

A final advantage of multilateralism, and perhaps the most important one, is that it engenders goodwill and respect from other nations. When a country acts on its own, without regard to the impact on trade, investment and the economy of other nations, it can cause a chill in diplomatic relations and generally damage a nation's international reputation. This can make it more difficult for that nation to work with other countries in the future on other matters.

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