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Critiques of Multilateral Organization

Realist: “Leveling Impulse” Critique

Realist criticism asserts that multilateralism cannot succeed because powerful states will always try to exploit their advantage by engaging in bilateral bargaining, which affords them both more control over negotiations and a lesser degree of scrutiny from other states. Multilateralism promotes a “leveling impulse” that does not exist in the international system. Powerful states will not risk collaborating in, “institutions that risk dominance by the many.”

Neoliberal: “Universalist Impulse” Critique

Neoliberal criticism focuses on the fact that cooperation is more difficult in large groups due to the inefficiency of rules and governance in such groups. Neoliberals would also argue that one of the barriers for collective action in large groups is the fact that the fraction of benefitting group decreases as the group gets larger.

  • Kahler’s rebuttal of the neoliberal argument: Neoliberals argue that member benefits decrease as total membership increases. However, this characterization would only hold true for goods susceptible to crowding. Kahler says that international regimes are not this type of collective good; unlike goods that could fall victim to crowding, the benefits to members of multilateral groups grow as more countries join. Although a smaller group structure may be more efficient, individual gains may decrease with smaller group size, offsetting and making less desirable the overall benefits of any increased efficiency (minilateral groups). The neoliberal arguments support the hegemonic stability theory, but minilateral cooperation does not require a hegemon. A minilateral organization can supplant hegemonic power by allowing major Western powers to engage in collective action. In the postwar years, institutions were frequently built using minilateral cooperation without relying on the hegemony of the United States. During this same time, most multilateral organizations were actually minilateral organizations disguised as multilateral. [1]

  1. Kahler, Miles. “Multilateralism with Small and Large Numbers.” International Organization 46, no. 3 (1992): 681-708.