A defining feature of twenty-first century multilateralism is the rising prominence of alternative forms of collective action as complements to—and often substitutes for—traditional intergovernmental cooperation. Conventional bodies—chief among them, the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions—may persist, but states increasingly participate in a bewildering array of flexible, ad hoc frameworks whose membership varies based on situational interests, shared values, or relevant capabilities. These institutions are often “minilateral” rather than universal; voluntary rather than legally binding; disaggregated rather than comprehensive; trans-governmental rather than just intergovernmental; regional rather than global; multi-level and multi-stakeholder rather than state-centric; and “bottom-up” rather than “top-down.” We see this across issue areas, from the Group of Seven (G7) and Group of Twenty (G20) in the realm of economic cooperation, to the growing importance of regional organizations like the African Union and ASEAN, to the emergence of alternative international financial institutions, like the BRICS New Development Bank.
Is this patchwork quilt of international cooperation a good thing? The answer isn’t black or white. Such ad hoc, disaggregated approaches to international cooperation bring certain advantages, including speed, flexibility, modularity, and possibilities for experimentation. Still, the benefits of minilateralism should not be exaggerated—nor should its risks be ignored. Unless used deftly and judiciously, minilateralism could undermine the legitimacy and effectiveness of indispensable international organizations and even accelerate the world’s coalescence into rival coalitions.
I invite you to explore these themes in my new article [PDF] for Global Summitry, in which I trace the origins of minilateralism, its advantages, and its potential downsides—for the United States, and for global governance more broadly.