What in the world is ‘multilateralism’?
Multilateralism … It’s not a word we use every day, but it lies at the heart of the biggest issues facing the world today: promoting peace and security, trade, and human rights, ending hunger, preventing health epidemics, tackling climate change, and protecting the environment.

These issues go beyond individual countries and cultures. They need a common global understanding, a common global approach and, often, common global rules. Establishing this common ground between countries is the essence of multilateralism.

It underpins everyday systems and safeguards we take for granted. It means that imported food you buy on the supermarket shelf meets international safety standards. It means when you travel, your passport is recognised internationally as official ID. It means whales passing our coast are protected in most oceans they swim in.

It also underpins many services we assume as a given and couldn’t do without: international aviation rules allow airlines to fly over and land in other countries; international laws and co-operation against drug or human trafficking; systems for allocating radio frequencies and satellite orbits which enable global communications; safeguarding world heritage sites; international postal systems; finance and investment for projects that help developing countries; or agreements to end the use of chemicals that harm health, the environment and the atmosphere.

The multilateral system is best suited to finding solutions to issues that: have universal application - that is, they affect all people (like human rights); address issues that cross country borders or jurisdictions (called transboundary problems, like pollution or climate change); or involve managing things that nobody (or everybody) owns or has a stake in protecting (known as the global commons, such as the high seas or atmosphere).

Many of the every day activities we take for granted rely on global cooperation.

Click on the images below to learn more about why global cooperation is so important to some of the every day things that we take for granted.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern clearly aligned multilateralism with New Zealand’s identity as a nation when she told the United Nations General Assembly in 2018 that “our engagement with the world has helped shape who we are”.

“Going it alone is not an option.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, 2018

Watch her speech here:

Before the First World War, the concept of multilateralism barely existed. Empires, colonial interests, and alliances of a few powerful nations dominated world politics. There was little sense of the global common good, or that national interests could also be international interests.

The League of Nations was the first major grouping of nation-states. It was set up after the First World War as a forum for resolving international disputes and preventing war. It failed in this aim, as the onset of the Second World War proved. But some aspects did endure, with the League successfully embedding wide acceptance of multilateralism as a valid approach to global affairs.

After the Second World War the League was replaced by the more multipurpose United Nations (UN) system. The UN's principle mandate is to promote peace and security, human rights and fundamental freedoms, international law, and international co-operation to solve international problems. These can include workers’ welfare, humanitarian issues, education, science and culture, and the rights and needs of children, to name just a few. A plethora of independent but UN-affiliated or aligned special purpose organisations followed, with some of the best known focused on trade, health, finance, and justice.

New Zealand is an active member of the Commonwealth, a voluntary association of 56 member states, most with a shared history as part of the former British Empire.

Home to 2.4 billion people, the Commonwealth is a diverse group that includes some of the world’s largest, smallest, wealthiest and poorest countries, spanning the globe. Although member states have no legal obligations to one another, they are connected through their use of the English language and their stated shared values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.  Today, the Commonwealth's focus is on supporting its members to achieve development, democracy and peace. It is also a voice for small and vulnerable states and a champion for young people.

It is from history that our association emerged, but it is our shared values and goals that unite us today. What the Commonwealth does can be summed up in two words: Democracy and Development. In policy work and practical assistance, all our energies go towards entrenching democracy and bringing about development, both economic and human.
Former Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon, 2007

Whatever the issue, the peaceful settlement of disputes remains the key underlying principle that multilateralism promotes - for the benefit of all.

Another key principle that benefits especially small and less powerful nations is the 'sovereign equality of states'. This holds that every country has the same legal rights as any other country regardless of its size or power. In the UN General Assembly this means that New Zealand and Samoa, for example, have an equal vote - and therefore an equal voice - to China, India or the United States.

One exception is the UN Security Council where the five permanent members (the US, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China) hold the power to veto or block resolutions. This is because the UN founders agreed that decisions affecting war and peace should have the support of the major powers. Supporters cite this as the reason for the long period of relative peace and security in the second half of the twentieth century. Others, including New Zealand, think the veto is a fundamental weakness in the UN's governance.

Other multilateral institutions

For the past 100 years multilateralism has shaped our world. Today, multiple organisations involve most – or all – the world’s nation-states, while others represent specialist or regional groups with global interests. Many are commonly known by their acronyms: IMO (International Maritime Organization), WHO (World Health Organization), APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation), FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization), or UNICEF (UN Children's Fund).

Multilateral institutions were pivotal in rebuilding the shattered post-war global economy and promoting international economic co-operation. Key amongst these were the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) both established in 1944 at Bretton Woods. These were followed in 1947 by GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) which eventually led to the WTO (World Trade Organization).

Of the world's multilateral institutions, the UN is perhaps the best known. In 1945, fifty countries, including New Zealand, signed the Charter that brought it into existence. Today, it has nearly 200 nation-state members and enables involvement by more than 7000 non-government and major corporations that together make up the modern multilateral system.

As empires waned and independent nation-states emerged, multilateralism became more diverse and also more inclusive. With that came increasing complexity, but it remains an important mechanism for creating a functional and fairer world.

As the UN has grown it has attracted more criticism. It is often characterised as bureaucratic, expensive to run, a forum for political posturing, unable to make decisions, and ineffective in acting on the decisions it does make. For all its flaws, real and imagined, the UN has undeniably played a pivotal role on issues that defined 20th Century global politics: decolonisation, development, peace and security, public health, education for girls, universal human rights, justice, and the environment.

For all its flaws, real and imagined, the UN has undeniably played a pivotal role on issues that defined 20th century global politics.

Former director-general of the WTO, New Zealander Mike Moore has said the global landscape has dramatically changed in the last 50 years.

“Challenges that must be globally managed keep popping up: genetic engineering, aids, and global terrorist networks. Yet the extent of these borderless forces has exploded faster than the institutional, moral, and political capacity to cope with them has.”
Former WTO director-general Mike Moore

A nation's domestic interests too often get in the way of a global response. And, like all big bureaucracies, many multilateral institutions struggle to control costs and maintain modern processes and systems.

Nevertheless, New Zealand believes that global challenges require global solutions. We are a strong supporter of a multilateral approach to contemporary global issues. We want to see multilateralism succeed. As a result, we are amongst a number of countries calling for reforms to ensure the UN and other multilateral institutions remain responsive and effective, and are modernised to deal with today’s challenges.

“At its best, an effective multilateral architecture can defuse tension, overcome challenges, and promote social and economic progress. But, such an architecture needs to be backed by the strong will of political leaders and member states, and it needs to be based on governance structures which promote inclusive, legitimate, and effective agreements.”
Former head of the United Nations Development Programme Helen Clark , 2010

New Zealand is a small trading nation, distant from global markets. We simply don't have the global heft or easy access to systems to help us get what we need or want. We don't have the resources or influence to individually negotiate with multiple countries for all the things we need to be a successful, contemporary, globally-connected country.

Our economy and our way of life relies on a network of international agreements that provide trade access, global communication and connectivity, such as the ability for people and goods to travel through seas or skies controlled by others in craft that meet universally agreed safety standards.

Global rules by definition apply to all countries equally. They are generally more robust and transparent than alternatives such as bilateral 'deals', and compliance is easier to monitor.

New Zealand continues to promote and protect global rules for principled reasons as well as the pragmatic benefits we receive from legally-binding international rules.

For example, we owe our extensive exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and extended continental shelf - and the living and non-living natural resources that come with these - to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Our fishing industry and conservation interests both benefit from international rules on high seas fishery resources. We are strong supporters of the International Criminal Court and its mission to hold war criminals to account. And as a trading nation, we all benefit from international rules banning trade discrimination.

As a country, we have strong values around fairness, democracy and respect for others. Multilateralism gives small countries like us a forum for our voice and our values.

And it works both ways. We are not simply ‘takers’ in the multilateral system. Small and less powerful nations have much to offer. Our economies and political structures can be relatively nimble. We can act quickly, provide leadership, and experiment with innovative policies and institutions.

Multilateralism gives small countries like us a forum for our voice and our values.

Small countries can be ‘bridge builders’, moderators or peacemakers because we are often seen as impartial or non-threatening. Our lack of size – and commensurate lack of power – means we have to rely on being reasonable, cooperative, consultative, and solutions-oriented. We can build coalitions of like-minded countries and come up with creative compromises.

Big powers equally benefit from the clarity, predictability and transparency of the multilateral system and the peaceful settlement of disputes.

That's why we believe a multilateral system based on global rules remains the best avenue to develop solutions to some of the world's most pressing issues.


Click here to find out what young New Zealanders wanted to say to world leaders at the UN General Assembly, September 2019.