Download this Paper Open PDF in Browser

Multilateralism and War: A Taxonomy of Institutional Functions

79 Pages Posted: 23 Feb 2006  

Margaret E. McGuinness

St. John's University - School of Law


The dichotomy that emerged from the debate over the United States' invasion of Iraq, pitting multilateralism against unilateralism, has generally obscured more than it has enlightened about the law, rationales, and effectiveness of multilateralism in war. This article examines security multilateralism and concludes that, while the authority to address peace and security is, as a matter of international law, aggregated at the Security Council, the functions through which the United Nations works in support of that aggregated legal mandate are dispersed throughout the organization and affiliated bodies. Inquiries that seek to measure the effectiveness of U.N. security multilateralism against other multilateral or unilateral actors in armed conflict need to take this dispersal of functions into account.

This article proposes a taxonomy of security multilateralism formed by these disaggregated functions: (1) assessment; (2) intermediation; (3) humanitarian assistance; (4) sanctions; (5) military intervention; and (6) post-conflict administration. In this article, the taxonomy is applied to three cases that represent the spectrum of legality of outside interventions in war: U.N. multilateral (East Timor); ad hoc, non-U.N. multilateral (Kosovo); and unilateral (Iraq). This comparative empirical examination reveals the ways in which U.N. multilateralism may be over-valued (e.g., the U.N.'s legitimating effect on outside military interventions), under-valued (e.g., the U.N.'s ability to assess threats and impose sanctions), or misconstrued (e.g., U.N. military operations may be no more or less multinational than non-U.N. operations). The article concludes with implications for reform of U.N. security functions and recommendations for how the taxonomy might be applied to future research.

Keywords: United Nations, Armed Conflict, War, Iraq, Multilateralism, East Timor, Kosovo

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

McGuinness, Margaret E., Multilateralism and War: A Taxonomy of Institutional Functions. Villanova Law Review, Vol. 51, No. 1, p. 101, 2005; U of Missouri-Columbia School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2006-07. Available at SSRN:

Margaret McGuinness (Contact Author)

St. John's University - School of Law ( email )

8000 Utopia Parkway
Jamaica, NY 11439
United States

Paper statistics

Abstract Views