Revue Européenne du Droit
Answering the crisis of multilateralism with polylateralism
Issue #2


Issue #2


Pascal Lamy

21x29,7cm - 186 pages Issue #2, Spring 2021 24€

To overcome the crisis of multilateralism that surged in a world full of tensions, one of the keys is polylateralism 1 . This concept aims to rethink international relations, going beyond the quasi-monopoly of sovereign States, by developing hybrid forms of organizations able to bring together new and diversified actors driven by efficiency.

The outdated Westphalian theory

The Westphalian system, which entrusts the international order to the sovereign States, and to them alone, faces a deep crisis, blatant for all since the 1990s. The asymmetry between this continued weakening and the rise of systemic crises in a globalized world has led global governance to chaos, making it broadly powerless to address the immediate and longer-term challenges of our contemporary societies. The latest evidence of this has just been cruelly provided to us by the Covid pandemic.

The reason for this disintegration is simple. The current multilateral order rests on one principle, the sovereignty of the nation-State 2 . Yet, this notion is a mere fiction 3 . Fictions can obviously be useful, they are even very convenient. Let us not forget that it was precisely built by rival States torn apart by religious wars, with the aim of establishing peace between them but also within their populations. We also have to keep in mind that some principles intended to frame the excesses of sovereignty have emerged in international law over the past century and a half 4 . However, in the era of a rising globalization, sovereignty is creaking. States have less and less control, and fiction is incapable of providing a satisfactory answer to many problems. This impotence is dangerously eroding their legitimacy, another Westphalian fiction that is a corollary of the previous one. I experienced it professionally as Jacques Delors’ chief of staff in Brussels, as European Commissioner, then as General Director of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

To extend the metaphor, founding an international system on a squeaky fiction does not produce a harmonious concert. Our multilateral system is built on all kinds of formalisms. Jurists continue to claim that nation-States are all equal 5 . This is of course true from a formal point of view. However, in the real world, their relations are governed by asymmetry. The same applies to legitimacy. States are, by definition, all legitimate. The government is therefore legitimate to speak on behalf of the State. It should therefore be inferred that organizations made up of legitimate nation-States are themselves legitimate by transitivity, because of the monopoly of nation-States. This is coherent in this universe of legal concepts, but does not match with the reality of political, economic, social and cultural relations 6 .

Speculating the death of the nation-State is not the point here. On the scale of a country, the nation-State has the power to embody and aggregate tensions and conflicts between agents or groups of agents who, although animated by different and sometimes opposing preferences, share a common belonging that allows for a sense of the these collective preferences. Nevertheless, in the sphere of international relations and in the absence of this sense of community, the relationship between States alone proves insufficient to effectively aggregate all the human organizations that operate at the global level.

These organizations are very numerous. They are a growing number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are, in fact, if not in law, international agents. They are, of course, also multinational companies 7 . If we define international organizations also as groups of people, in the broadest sense possible, that are organized to act at a global level, it is doubtless that the WWF, Greenpeace or certain large corporations are multinational organizations whose influence is perhaps not so different from that of, for example, the United Nations 8 . Yet, those actors are not a homogeneous class, because they do not all share the same objectives and evolve in spheres that are sometimes common, but often distinct, which does not prevent them from dialoguing and clashing with each other. This observation goes well beyond the framework of these two categories of actors. The big cities, the scientific communities, some major academic institutions, to name but a few, seem to perfectly fall within such a definition 9 .

Powerlessness to produce efficient policies

The second half of the 20th century will undoubtedly remain in history books as the era of multilateralism. There is, however, an obvious paradox. Those who knew the system from the inside were able to see its inadequacies very early on. The youngest generation of civil servants, of which I was a member in the 1970s, were, because of their training and the discourse that prevailed at the time, the most likely to marvel at the perfect structure of the UN galaxy from a conceptual and aesthetic point of view. However, they have no other choice but to face the inefficiencies of the international system. I had the very great privilege of being a Sherpa, very young, in the Group of Seven (G7), which was already an attempt to overcome these pitfalls. We can now say without too much hesitation that it failed, just like the G20, which is also at an impasse today.

These attempts sought to go beyond the diplomatic system by establishing contacts at the highest level and thereby bypassing the classic intermediaries. Some heads of State and government were aware of these pitfalls and had a real desire to get rid of the discussion frameworks in which their administrations operated and which handcuffed them. However, this attempt to go beyond the usual diplomatic features was an existential threat to the Westphalian system, which eventually regained control of this direct channel of discussion “by the fireside” that was disrupting habits.

The sequence we are currently experiencing sheds a harsh light on the system’s impotence. Even if the extent of the current paralysis is particularly spectacular, it is not the first occurrence of the carelessness of multilateralism in health matters. An episode nearly three decades old has struck many of us, the fight against another great pandemic, AIDS.

The implementation of efficient prevention policies and the development of a treatment have stalled as long as the issue had remained in the classic arcane of intergovernmental institutions, including the World Health Organization (WHO), and treaties. Things began to move when an association, Act-Up, engaged in provocations, sometimes very unpleasant, against major laboratories and political leaders such as myself. They also changed dramatically because the pharmaceutical industry managed to put an end to an internal conflict of several years on the issue of tiered pricing 10 , and because philanthropists like Bill Gates and others thought it was time to give a decisive boost. The establishment of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS and better control of the virus probably owes more to these actors, true intruders who have not bothered much with the supposed primacy of State sovereignty, than to multilateralism. Let us compare, to be convinced of this, the composition of the board of directors of the Global Fund and that of the UN Security Council.

Counter-examples of truly effective intergovernmental organizations are rare. Unfortunately for the proponents of classic multilateralism, States are often stepping back. The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) is a good illustration of this paradigm 11 . OIE is based on the meat trade. If a cow catches foot-and-mouth disease in an Argentine province, the province is blacklisted in the meat trade, it is suddenly left with no market, and the Argentinean authorities draw the consequences. The explanation for such a success lies in the fact that organizations of international epizootics are subject to a monopoly, that of the trust that veterinarians place in each other across borders. A veterinarian respects another veterinarian, but not necessarily a minister of agriculture. OIE then becomes the international organization of veterinarians who act because they trust each other. The World Customs Organization, which does not have the status of an international organization, also belongs to this model. Obviously, this kind of solution is not available.

From multilateralism to polylateralism

Facing this impasse of what I have wickedly reminded of, the syndrome of “diplocracy,” the concept of polylateralism, because it increases the inter of “international” and the multi of “multilateral”, sums up well the method for learning from these experiences and reinvigorating international cooperation by filling in the Westphalian gaps.

Polylateralism consists of putting around the table those international agents who have almost no place in the formalist multilateralism of nation-States and yet have not waited to exert their influence. The response to the main priorities of our world, from Covid-19 to ecological transition or even the management of the global economy, are not today within the reach of a classic inter-governmental approach. Everyone must accept this. Polylateralism opens up another perspective and is based on other modalities.

It is now within the framework of polylateralism that we should organize the mobilization of these new actors who have their own energy and dynamic, but who are struggling to find a relevant framework to cooperate. From this point of view, this approach deeply differs from the realistic theory of international relations according to which global institutions would no longer serve any purpose 12 . I do not endorse the notion of realism. What fits better with reality is not necessarily what is good. We can want something else, we can make the world a better place. This is why it is necessary to accept that there is a virtue in the diversity of approaches.

The first major consequence of the acceptance of this polylateral model should be to open up the game of this new format much more to the heterogeneity of legitimacy. There are non-State entities whose international influence far exceeds that of many nation-States. There are cities, regions in the world that are quasi-international entities. However, they are not endowed with the attributes of nation-State sovereignty, and are in search of a balance that often leads to sub-optimal situations, because seeking to adorn themselves with these attributes may immediately put them in difficulty vis-a-vis States that are eager to maintain their monopoly on the international stage.

The cities of New York and Paris are obviously today international geopolitical and geo-economic players 13 . It is at the level of this type of structure, particularly at the urban level, that the relationship between legitimacy and power is strongest. Mayors are more legitimate than other representatives, because they are closer to grass-roots level. Legitimacy is a function that is inversely proportional to distance. At the same time, large cities are powerful because they have the competence to control the networks that, in the modern world, are the infrastructures of governance. Beyond fictions, the secret of power and legitimacy increasingly lies in the proper organization of networks for transportation, energy, information, education, and the supply of increasingly scarce raw materials.

This mastery of networks perfectly explains why large cities have spontaneously come together around the challenges of global warming and, more broadly, environmental transformations. The C40 14 (i.e. the climate coalition known as the “40 big cities of the world”) which played an important role in the success of the COP21, which was largely born out of the failure of the Copenhagen conference and its diplomatic approach, is a shining example of this. It is also on this principle that China designed its “Belt and Road Initiative”.

There is, for the moment, only one polylateral organization, the International Labour Organization (ILO). The ILO was born out of the Treaty of Versailles thanks to Léon Bourgeois, and other members of the French solidarist movement, who understood that peace depended on conflict prevention and that putting States, bosses and workers around the same table was the most appropriate response to the causes of the First World War and to loosening the inherent contradictions of the capitalist model. However, this “trilateralism” hardly prospered for reasons that would take too long to explain here. Let us simply keep in mind that the formats of polylateralism will not follow this standard and will develop in a sui generis way. Their existence and structure will undoubtedly be spurred by their success and failure. We will have to accept the idea that there are energies available to obtain results in sometimes improbable configurations. In essence, polylateralism corresponds to coalitions whose engine is the search for results, and whose existence does not need to be assured once the result is achieved. They are more networked, more horizontal, probably more ephemeral organizations, and probably less legitimate from a theoretical point of view.

The Paris Peace Forum, an initiative not “for” peace but “about” peace that brings together a multiplicity of actors with global initiatives, reflects well in its processes, actions, projects, coalitions and different approaches what this polylateral method can be. Its first results, after three editions, are encouraging 15 .

Reshaping legitimacy through the concept of effectiveness

When departing from the fiction of the equality of nation-States and the paradigm of sovereignty, the question of legitimacy immediately arises for all good minds trained in political theory. What is the legitimacy of a coalition formed between Bill Gates, Anne Hidalgo and the head of Greenpeace? If there is legitimacy, where does it come from? These questions, apparently very relevant, nevertheless are part of an exhausted theoretical framework.

I support the establishment of a theory of legitimacy inscribed in reality. If the goal of any organization is to improve the living conditions of individuals and the environment, lato sensu, in which they evolve, legitimacy must draw its source in the results rather than in the form 16 . Adherence to this vision should be facilitated by the unanimous observation that a given form fails to achieve this.

Thinking of the question of legitimacy through the democratic ideal in the existing model would be a mistake. This ideal is no more capable of reproducing what Hedley Bull has called the “domestic analogy” 17 than the polylateral model will be able to do. In either case, there will always be a lack of institutions that connect the public, through elections, to international organizations.

Sticking to the example of the OIE, the system works because competent veterinarians make decisions among themselves, trusting each other. Of course, the farmer who has to kill all his chickens or ducks in his farm in the southwest of France experiences a tragedy. At the same time, this is part of the rules of the game, because we are in an infrastructure of market capitalism, which is the meat trade. There is no ideological reason. In a society where we eat a lot of meat, probably too much, the meat producer has a problem if we no longer buy what he produces. There is a reminder in the infrastructure of the globalized economy, which should perhaps from time to time also be applied to humans and not just to markets.

Of course, the notions of democracy and polylateralism are not alien to each other. Polylateralism is only possible if non-governmental organizations, in particular, find spaces of freedom to develop and to criticize, which lack in many States.

The case of China is one of the most acute challenges in the emergence of the polylateral model. While it is playing a growing role throughout the world, China is today reluctant to polylateralism as well as to “poly” in general. Businesses are largely State-run and NGOs are very strictly controlled.

The rivalry, which structures international relations, between the United States and China is therefore probably not the field in which polylateralism is likely to produce spectacular results. Unless the Chinese system relaxes, it is hard to see Chinese NGOs taking American NGOs by the hand, or American companies approaching Chinese companies and finding solutions together without governmental involvement, merely because it would work better.

However, while polylateralism seems less suited to non-liberal systems, the polylateral method is operative where political systems are weak, such as in some regions of Africa.Finally, it is not forbidden to think that polylateralism could also indirectly contribute to guiding the choices of regimes that are in principle hermetic. To take the example of the European Green Deal, the involvement of many NGOs, the C40, or even coalitions in business like the B4IG 18 has been very important in the genesis of this new strategic axis of the European Union. Hence, when the Chinese president announces to the world its carbon neutrality in 2060, the fact that Europe has committed itself to it for 2050 undoubtedly has something to do with it. Polylateralism and multilateralism could thus be a good match in the future.


  1. For an initial study of polylateralism, see the conversation between Pascal Lamy and Gilles Gressani for Le Grand continent, “Polylateralism or chaos”, Le Grand continent, November 11 2020.
  2. Theorists like Jean Bodin have forged the concept of sovereignty in the XVIth century. However, Hegel is probably the first author to link both concepts of sovereignty and nation-State.
  3. See, B. Anderson’s work, particularly in his famous 1983 book Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, is the first to describe the process of emergence of the concept of “nation“.
  4. See, Alain Pellet’s work, especially “Histoire du droit international : Irréductible souveraineté“, in  G. Guillaume , (dir.), La vie internationale, Hermann, Paris, 2017, pp. 7-24.
  5. United Nations Charter, article 2.1: “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members”.
  6. Numerous authors sought to demonstrate that States were deliberately using the international relations system to stand back (e.g., L. Pauly, “Capital Mobility, State Autonomy, and political Legitimacy”, Journal of international affairs, New York, Columbia University, 1995).
  7. For a complete review of studies dedicated to the influence of transnational firms see L. Badel, “Milieux économiques et relations internationales : bilan et perspectives de la recherche au début du XXIème siècle”, Relations Internationales, 2014/1 n° 157, pp 3 to 23.
  8. For a description of how NGOs can help governments, multinational corporations and others to respect the values and standards they uphold, s. e.g., M.E. Keck, and K. Sikkink, Activists beyond borders: Advocacy networks in international politics, Cornell University Press, 1998.
  9. It is striking that this phenomenon is further amplified by the current pandemic crisis. Co-publications between Chinese and Americans in medical journals have doubled in 2020. Laboratories have connected to each other and intentions to share intellectual property for vaccines have emerged.
  10. There now seems to be evidence that differential pricing is one of the key factors in the fight against global epidemics (see Z. Ud-Bin Babar, “Differential pricing of pharmaceuticals: A bibliometric review of the literature”, Journal of Pharmaceutical Health Services Research, July 2014).
  11. Founded in 1924 under the name Office International des Epizooties, it has 182 member States and territories.
  12. J. Mearsheimer, “The False Promise of International Institutions”, International Security, 19-3, Winter 1994/95.
  13. On the influence of cities in the global governance game, s. S. Curtis (ed.), The Power of Cities in International Relations, Routledge, May 2016.
  16. The issue of legitimacy is in fact twofold. Obviously, efficiency plays a predominant role, however, authors have noted that legitimacy was a two-level concept, efficiency and accountability. The latter is rooted in a certain procedural transparency, s. R. O. Keohane and J. S. Nye, Between Centralization and Fragmentation: The Club Model of Multilateral Cooperation and Problems of Democratic Legitimacy, KSG Faculty Research Working Paper Series, February 2001.
  17. H. Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics, New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.
  18. Business for Inclusive Growth (B4IG) is a partnership between the OECD and a coalition of multinational firms which aim at fighting against income and opportunities inequalities (
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Pascal Lamy, Answering the crisis of multilateralism with polylateralism, Aug 2021, 26-29.

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