Unilateralism (20TH CENTURY)

Theory of (nuclear) disarmament.

The competition between nuclear states can be broken by one side reducing or disposing of its nuclear weapons, thus removing the threat which had induced the other side to arm in the first place.

Also see: multilateralism

David Robertson, The Penguin Dictionary of Politics (London, 1986)

Unilateralism is any doctrine or agenda that supports one-sided action. Such action may be in disregard for other parties, or as an expression of a commitment toward a direction which other parties may find disagreeable. As a word, unilateralism is attested from 1926, specifically relating to unilateral disarmament. The current, broader meaning emerges in 1964.[1] It stands in contrast with multilateralism, the pursuit of foreign policy goals alongside allies.

Unilateralism and multilateralism represent different policy approaches to international problems. When agreement by multiple parties is absolutely required—for example, in the context of international trade policies—bilateral agreements (involving two participants at a time) are usually preferred by proponents of unilateralism.

Unilateralism may be preferred in those instances when it is assumed to be the most efficient, i.e., in issues that can be solved without cooperation. However, a government may also have a principal preference for unilateralism or multilateralism, and, for instance, strive to avoid policies that cannot be realized unilaterally or alternatively to champion multilateral solutions to problems that could well have been solved unilaterally.

Typically, governments may argue that their ultimate or middle-term goals are served by a strengthening of multilateral schemes and institutions, as was many times the case during the period of the Concert of Europe.


  1. ^ “Unilateralism (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary.

Further reading

  • Walter A. McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State (1997)
  • John Lewis Gaddis, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience (2004)
  • Bradley F. Podliska, Acting Alone (2010)

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