Unilateralism in International Relations

Unilateralism is the policy characterized by the state’s disregard of other states’ interests. In other words, countries exercising this approach in international relations make decisions based on their needs exclusively (Maszka, 2008). In the contemporary world, unilateralism is opposed to multilateralism – a policy that implies a close cooperation between countries on the most pressing issues, such as terrorism, climate change, fossil fuel use, sanctions, and many others (Crossley, 2008). The best examples of states using unilateral policies are the United States and Russia – long-term rivals with the undisputable influence on the global politics. In this essay, I use these countries’ unilateral decisions to demonstrate the threats of this selfish approach in the contemporary globalized world.

To begin with, let me explain in detail the main characteristics of unilateralism and its difference from multilateralism. A country conducts a unilateral foreign policy when it does not subordinate its actions or decisions to the wishes or needs of other states but is guided by its own interests exclusively (Maszka, 2008). When a large and powerful state like, for example, the United States, decides to use the unilateral approach, it influences the way international relations are conducted, often leading to the massive international disapproval and criticism. After the World War II, it has been agreed to follow the more balanced multilateral approach, which is based on the respect to international norms and active cooperation in international institutions (e.g., WTO, UN, UNESCO, and many others) (MacIntyre, 2012).

It would be wrong to view the unilateral policies from the negative perspective only. In some situations, a country has no other options than to make hard decisions related to national security or economic interests. However, as the history shows, some countries fail to follow the multilateral agenda consistently, often because of their own ambitious or autocratic leaders pursuing their goals. Take, for example, Russia, which has been heavily criticized during the past several years for the string of ill-conceived, aggressive decisions and policies (Tsygankov, 2016). Its expansionist policy and the annexation of Crimea was viewed as no more than the pursuit of the state’s imperialistic ambitions and was condemned by the international community. The consequences of this decision have been grave for both Ukraine and Russia, despite the latter’s attempts to argue that sanctions have not undermined its position (Alcaro, 2015).

The history of the United States unilateralism is also long. Debates about the US unilateral policies were the most heated when the President George W. Bush ran the office, although many leaders before him argued for the necessity of protecting America’s interests and values despite international criticism (Liu, 2006). Bush violated the U.S. commitment to the number of international treaties and made aggressive geopolitical and military decisions despite the lack of international consensus. It seems that the current President Trump is likely to follow his example, at least in some decisions. Thus, for instance, he has voiced the intention to pull out of the Paris agreement on the climate change – agreement that took so many efforts and time to sign (Borger, 2017). For both the USA and Russia, the mentioned decisions, although being different in their scale and consequences, have led to the creation of the unfavorable image and increased international tension.

Thus, I may summarize that unilateralism may be an appealing yet totally ineffective international policy. It is tempting for political leaders to think they can make important decisions without other countries’ involvement and pressure. However, the consequences of such decisions that violate international laws and treaties are always extremely detrimental to the country’s image and influence on the global map. It is time to realize that in this globalized world, the multilateral approach is better suited for solving complex economic, political, and environmental issues.



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Alcaro, R. (2015). West-Russia relations in light of the Ukraine crisis. Rome: Edizioni Nuova Cultura.

Borger, J. (2017). Abandoning Paris climate deal marks Trump’s return to angry populism. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/02/donald-trump-paris-deal-analysis-populism

Crossley, N. (2008). Multilateralism versus unilateralism: The relevance of the United Nations in a unipolar world. New York: Peter Lang.

Liu, H. C. K. (2006). US unilateralism: Nonproliferation and unilateral proliferation. Global Research. Retrieved from https://www.globalresearch.ca/us-unilateralism/3089

MacIntyre, S. H. (2012). Legal effect of World War II on treaties of the United States. New York: Springer Science & Business Media.

Maszka, J. (2008). Terrorism and the Bush doctrine. Baltimore, MD: Publish America.

Tsygankov, A. P. (2016). Russia’s foreign policy: Change and continuity in national identity. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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