The Demise of Multilateralism and the Rise of Sovereignty?

6 Pages Posted: 9 Jan 2019

Date Written: January 8, 2019


International agreements are negotiated by sovereign states and by signing these agreements they agree to be bound by them. States know this when they conclude agreements but sometimes the end-effect and implications of these limitations on their capacity to act internally, is only realised much later.

In international trade, comparative advantage is the economic theory underlying liberal trade whereas, in comparison in international law the organising principle is the sovereignty of states. These two concepts are mutually exclusive. In terms of the sovereignty principle, states are meant to follow and protect the national interest, this is not allowed in the international trading system where equal treatment is required between nationals and foreigners and national products and foreign products. Thus, the two are at variance with one another. Pursuing national interest can be seen to amount to protectionism and within the international trade law regime, that is not allowed.

The way in which the WTO is functioning, has put elements of international law and economics in tension and if looked at from the political level, has also removed the voting power of the populace.

There seems to be a new realisation of the importance of one’s sovereignty and that the power to be able to make decisions should lie with the sovereign state and not with a perceived far-removed organisation.

It is argued that the idea of a unified global order and super globalisation cannot co-exist with the existence of sovereign states and as a result other means of co-existence are in the process of being formed and this seems to be in the form of regional and mega-regional agreements, thus creating “micro-constitutions”.

Keywords: WTO, multilateralism, ISDS, plurilateralism, regionalism, sovereignty

JEL Classification: K33, K39

Suggested Citation

Schlemmer, Engela C, The Demise of Multilateralism and the Rise of Sovereignty? (January 8, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

Engela C Schlemmer (Contact Author)

University of the Witwatersrand

South Africa

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