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Multilateralism is now in crisis

Multilateralism is failing to provide solutions to the various current crises. This situation has become even more acute since the outbreak of war in Ukraine. These are the findings of Jean-Vincent Holeindre and Julian Fernandez in their book, Nations désunies? The book brings together leading specialists in multilateralism to shed light on the various factors behind the decline of this central phenomenon in international relations.

Let's start with a definition. Julian Fernandez and Jean-Vincent Holeindre* describe multilateralism as "A concept with two facets, that of a technique and that of a hope, coupled with a project of a political nature"..

As a diplomatic techniqueMultilateralism refers to peaceful cooperation between at least three States within a jointly defined framework. ". It can be used in two contexts. On the one hand, a A "one-off concerted response to a crisis". On the other hand, " an institutionalised consultation technique through international organisations".

Politically, the UN multilateral system, established after 1945, is shaping a new, less brutal vision of international relations. The hope and the project are based on the will to " to go beyond the state of nature in inter-state relations, to introduce regulation". This optimism accords a major role to international organisations in the post-1960 period of world peace.


The history of multilateralism is not linear. Julian Fernandez recalls the different stages. There are phases of progress after a period of founding chaos: the Napoleonic Wars, the two World Wars, the end of the Cold War, etc. Then there are phases of regression, often multifactorial but linked to an international environment that has become more competitive than cooperative. Then there are phases of regression, often multifactorial but linked to an international environment that has become more competitive than cooperative. It has to be said that we are now in a period of ebb.

How deep is this crisis in multilateralism? For Jean-Vincent Holeindre, the answer is nuanced. As a diplomatic technique, "multilateralism has never been used or called upon so much".. For the author, the crisis concerns the project and lies in the trust placed in multilateralism to resolve crises. With the war in Ukraine, certain countries in Asia and Africa are not clearly positioning themselves in favour of the Western camp, even though they once had strong links with it. These Western powers, which are at the origin of today's multilateral system, are therefore now in a delicate situation. For Jean-Vincent Holeindre, the hardening of international relations is another possible explanation. The new geopolitical configuration is amplifying this crisis of multilateralism.

Jean-Vincent Holeindre confirms that a certain conception of multilateralism is being called into question. The universalism of the organisations created in the Western orbit is now being criticised by China and Russia. This doctrine is presented by these powers as a deceptive promise. According to Jean-Vincent Holeindre, this criticism should be understood as " not to indulge in self-flagellation, but to understand the shift in Asian and African countries today".  For these countries, the narrative embodied by this form of multilateralism no longer inspires enthusiasm. This crisis is not temporary, it is structural. The Western powers must therefore accept it and adapt to it. The Western powers must take stock of what has worked and what has failed, before defining a new positioning.

Multilateralist countries are also questioning it. So it is also an internal challenge. Julian Fernandez cites as an example the " America firstby Donald Trump. "We can all the more wonder about the future of multilateralism when the world's leading power, which has supported it since its origins, calls it into question in this way". To sum up, the "inclusive" multilateralism of cooperation, with its universal vocation, is tending to be on the wane in favour of a protective, "exclusive" multilateralism, where everyone is his own man.


How can we talk about a crisis in multilateralism when several countries are expressing a desire to join organisations such as NATO or the EU? Many observers believe that the war in Ukraine has given the European Union (EU) and NATO a new lease of life. For Jean-Vincent Holeindre, however, this rhetoric conceals a major problem. Neither the EU nor NATO has a common vision of how to end the conflict in Ukraine. Some European states believe that peace with Russia is impossible. Others, like France, take a different view. For them, the European security architecture must include some form of partnership with Russia. Russia will always be there, so we need to prepare for tomorrow's peace together. Yet it is hard to see a clear line among NATO member nations. On the one hand, these organisations remain attractive and resilient, but on the other, the meaning of their action and their project are raising questions.


So how can we overcome this crisis of multilateralism? According to Julian Fernandez, certain factors are structurally handicapping the process, such as the saturation of concertation techniques. "There are now three times as many states as there were in 1945, and four times as many as in 1900! We now have to negotiate multilateralism with... 193 States (there were 51 when the UN was created). The complexity of reform is also explained by the rigidity of these instruments, many of which were built in the last century. Julian Fernandez explains: "If governments wanted to create the same multilateral tools today, they would not achieve such a liberal result. That's why it's so complicated to get them to evolve. On the one hand, we are observing the strategic recomposition underway in multilateral forums. But there are other aspects that make this diagnosis and the response to it particularly delicate. 


France still has a way out of this crisis in multilateralism "a major challengesays Julian Fernandez. Our country "is a member of 190 international organisations and contributes to "215 international forums. There are 20,000 French people working in these organisations, making France the second most represented country after the United States! France invests 6 billion euros a year in multilateralism. It is the main vector of its influence in the world.

"It is essential to maintain this investment in multilateral organisations to enable France to continue to stand above its economic power. "adds Jean-Vincent Holeindre. The Ukrainian, health, climate and environmental crises reveal the absolute need for cooperation, and therefore for multilateralism. France has a vocation to deal with all the issues of multilateralism, but it must set a course and priorities. In other words, it must try to replace the saturation of techniques with the redefinition of a project.

*Jean-Vincent Holeindre is Professor of Political Science at the Université Panthéon-Assas, Director of the Centre Thucydide and a member of the Scientific Council of the IHEDN. From 2016 to 2022, he was Scientific Director of the Strategic Research Institute of the École Militaire (IRSEM).

Julian Fernandez is a professor of public law at Panthéon-Assas University, on secondment to Galatasaray University, and co-director of the analysis platform The Rubicon. The collective work "Nations désunies", which they edited, is not their first collaboration. They also have editorial responsibility for theFrench directory of international relations (AFRI).