Multilateral vs bilateral conflict resolution: Exploring the paths to peace - Hindustan Times

Multilateral vs bilateral conflict resolution: Exploring the paths to peace

ByHindustan Times
Jun 23, 2023 10:58 AM IST

This article is authored by Soumya Awasthi, consultant, Tony Blair Institute.

The world has undergone significant transformations in the past few decades following the end of the Cold War. While the changes are evident, the emergence of a new system remains to be determined. This period is characterised by increasing major power competition and the need to navigate new globalisation and conflict resolution approaches. Unaddressed conflicts can escalate into more significant humanitarian and political crises, drawing major powers into the fray to varying degrees.


The list of potentially groundbreaking changes is by now familiar: The demise of bipolarity, a surge in democratisation efforts, the globalisation of information and economic power, attempts at international security policy coordination, the rise of violent expressions of cultural identity claims, and a redefinition of sovereignty that places new responsibilities on states towards their citizens and the global community. These transformations reshape various aspects of the world, including the nature of organised violence and the strategies governments and other actors employ to contain it.

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A potentially revolutionary change in world politics is the de facto redefinition of "international conflict." While traditional wars between nation-States still fall within this category, conflicts that do not involve direct State-to-State fighting are now considered threats to international peace and security. Especially when internal conflicts violate universal norms such as self-determination, human rights, or democratic governance, the international community undertakes concerted actions, including the threat or use of force, to prevent, conclude, or resolve them.

In this sense, conflicts within national borders are treated as international issues.

Several recent prominent examples highlight this shift. They include the coup in Myanmar, ongoing wars in Ethiopia and Yemen, the looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, the deepening political crisis in Myanmar, and global standoffs over Ukraine, Taiwan, and Iran's nuclear programme. Flashpoints worldwide appear increasingly perilous, with hostile powers at odds and a heightened risk of miscalculations that could lead to disaster.

The significance of these recent developments raises essential questions. How do they impact the way international actors should approach conflicts? Do the tools developed for managing conflicts under the old world system still apply, and should they be employed in new ways or by new entities? Are new tools more suitable for the current conditions, and how do they relate to existing approaches?

Let's delve into the nuances of multilateral and bilateral conflict resolution approaches, evaluating their merits and limitations to determine which holds more significant potential for effectively resolving conflicts. We will examine successful and failed negotiations under each system, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses.

Multilateral conflict resolution involves multiple parties, typically facilitated through international organisations or forums. This approach promotes inclusivity, ensuring that diverse perspectives and interests are considered. Multilateral negotiations possess several advantages.

Firstly, multilateral approaches are perceived as more legitimate and credible due to the involvement of numerous stakeholders. This legitimacy fosters greater acceptance and implementation of conflict resolutions. Moreover, the shared responsibility inherent in multilateral negotiations distributes the burden among participating parties. The likelihood of successful implementation is heightened by cultivating a sense of collective ownership.

Furthermore, multilateral forums provide a platform for various perspectives, allowing for a comprehensive understanding of a conflict's underlying causes and complexities. This increased understanding facilitates the formulation of nuanced and sustainable solutions.

Despite these advantages, multilateral conflict resolution faces particular challenges. The complexity of negotiations involving multiple stakeholders can lead to prolonged processes. Achieving consensus among all parties may require extensive deliberations and compromises. Additionally, power imbalances within multilateral settings can hinder effective decision-making. Dominant nations or influential actors may exert undue influence, limiting the equitable resolution of conflicts.

A notable example of successful multilateral conflict resolution is the Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015. The agreement aimed to address the global challenge of the climate crisis and involved negotiations and commitments from nearly 200 countries. It sought to limit global temperature rise and mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis. The agreement's multilateral nature allowed for various perspectives and contributions, fostering collective action to tackle a shared problem.

However, there have also been instances where multilateral negotiations failed to achieve desired outcomes. One example is the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions on the Syrian civil war. Despite multiple answers and efforts to find a political solution, the conflict has escalated, causing immense human suffering and regional instability. Power struggles among prominent international actors, differing strategic interests, and the inability to reach a consensus on the way forward have hampered the effective multilateral resolution of the Syrian conflict.

In the case of bilateral conflict resolution, in contrast to multilateral approaches, bilateral conflict resolution focuses on negotiations between two parties directly involved in the dispute. This method has a historical precedent and offers distinct advantages.

Firstly, bilateral negotiations provide a direct channel for parties in conflict to communicate and address their concerns. This direct engagement builds trust and facilitates a more personal understanding of each party's interests and motivations.

Second, bilateral negotiations often boast a streamlined decision-making process, allowing quicker responses and more flexible agreements. This agility is instrumental in situations requiring urgency.

Third, confidentiality is easier to maintain in bilateral negotiations. Parties can explore sensitive issues and make compromises without fear of public scrutiny, creating a conducive environment for resolution.

One of the most talked-about bilateral negotiations to resolve a conflict in the 21st century is the Abraham Accords, signed in 2020. These bilateral agreements between Israel and several Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, marked a significant breakthrough in diplomatic relations. The parties involved established formal diplomatic ties, trade relations, and cooperation in various fields. The bilateral negotiations allowed for direct engagement between the parties, leading to groundbreaking peace agreements in West Asia.

Similarly, the ongoing bilateral talks between North Korea and the United States on the Korean Peninsula exemplify bilateral conflict resolution efforts. These talks address the complex issues surrounding North Korea's nuclear weapons programme and regional security concerns. Through direct engagement, the parties can explore areas of common interest, build trust, and work towards denuclearisation and a peaceful resolution on the Korean Peninsula.

However, bilateral conflict resolution also has limitations. Focusing solely on two parties may overlook a conflict's broader impact and complexities. The limited perspective can hinder the creation of comprehensive and sustainable solutions. Furthermore, excluding relevant stakeholders from the negotiation process may result in grievances and potential backlash, limiting other affected parties' acceptance and implementation of the resolution. For example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a long-standing and complex issue with numerous attempts at bilateral negotiations. Despite various peace initiatives, such as the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, a lasting resolution has yet to be achieved. The conflict involves deep-rooted historical, territorial, and ideological grievances, making it challenging to reach mutually acceptable terms through bilateral negotiations alone. The exclusion of other relevant stakeholders, such as neighbouring Arab states, has limited the effectiveness of bilateral approaches in addressing the broader regional dynamics and achieving a comprehensive and sustainable resolution.

Therefore, it is often realised that practical conflict resolution approaches are crucial in the contemporary world, where conflicts transcend borders and involve diverse stakeholders. While multilateral and bilateral negotiations have merits and limitations, no one-size-fits-all solution exists. Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses, and its effectiveness depends on the specific context and dynamics of the conflict.

Multilateral negotiations promote inclusivity, legitimacy, and a comprehensive understanding of conflicts, but they can be complex and susceptible to power imbalances. Bilateral negotiations offer direct engagement, agility, and confidentiality but may overlook broader impacts and exclude relevant stakeholders.

Successful conflict resolution requires a nuanced and adaptive approach, often combining elements of multilateral and bilateral strategies. Hybrid systems incorporating regional and international cooperation and direct engagement between conflicting parties can enhance the prospects of sustainable resolutions. Additionally, addressing the root causes of conflicts, promoting dialogue, and fostering trust-building measures are essential to any effective conflict resolution strategy.

Ultimately, the path to peace lies in recognising the unique circumstances of each conflict and employing the most appropriate combination of bilateral and multilateral approaches to facilitate dialogue, understanding, and compromise. Only through sustained and inclusive efforts can the international community hope to mitigate conflicts, prevent humanitarian crises, and build a more peaceful and prosperous world.

This article is authored by Soumya Awasthi, consultant, Tony Blair Institute.

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