Multilateral Diplomacy

Has multilateral diplomacy overtaken bilateral diplomacy in importance? Such assertions are made from time to time, but this is really a nonissue. Each plays its role, as processes through which countries pursue their objectives. Some issues are best handled in a multilateral forum. But as someone observed, all diplomacy is bilateral, in that countries take positions on global issues on the merits of the case and on the basis of the quality of relations with the country sponsoring the issue under debate. Simply put, bilateral and multilateral processes are the two legs of the international system. We should not leave out regional diplomacy, which is a special form of multilateralism.

Multilateralism has grown dramatically in the past three decades. The start of the annual UN General Assembly session, in the third week of September, has become a global forum that draws 60 to 80 heads of state and government, and scores of foreign ministers. Several thematic global summits meet each year. Regional summits have also multiplied, with the proliferation of new groups. MFAs deploy their best diplomats in multilateral diplomacy.

  • When complex functional issues are debated, it is the line ministries that take the lead; MFA diplomats play a supporting role. Over the years, these agencies have built considerable subject negotiation expertise.
  • Professional diplomats bring to the table wider relationship management expertise, including knowledge of interconnections between different issues that are in play with a partner country, allowing leverage and tradeoffs.
  • Mastery of conference technique is part of the professional’s compendium of skills, honed through training and frequent exposure to bilateral, regional, and multilateral negotiations.
  • Most working diplomats blend bilateral and multilateral skills, each reinforcing the other; they rotate between bilateral and multilateral posts. The Chinese are among the few that treat multilateralism as a distinct expertise area for their personnel.
  • A multilateral diplomat should, ideally, master two languages besides English; possess sharp drafting ability; excel at people skills and intercultural communication.

The skills involved in multilateral work are as follows:

1. Liaison, negotiation, representation, and confl ict resolution, involving the craft of communication, advocacy, and persuasion.

2. The work is labor-intensive, with great effort in building personal ties, aimed at getting colleagues to tilt in one’s favor, within their “zone of discretion”.

3. The envoy often has latitude for local improvisation; good MFAs ensure that this is given to their representatives on the spot.

4. Committee or conference management is a special skill, aimed at getting into the “inner group” that plays a key role at each.

5. Chairing a meeting needs sensitive judgment of the mood, a special “listening” sense, and anticipation of problems before they emerge—of course, fairness, humor, and a winning personality are taken for granted.

6. Knowledge of procedures and rules, which makes it possible to manipulate the conference to one’s purpose and block others from doing the same.


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