Fact Checked

What are Bilateral Relations?

T. Carrier
T. Carrier

Bilateral relations — or bilateralism — refers to the relationship between two independent regions. Cultural, economic, and political factors influence this relationship. As such, these relations may be diplomatic or hostile. Positive bilateralism comprises the most common alliance type.

Independent regions have many reasons for seeking a positive relationship with another region. For one, the two regions may be physical neighbors, and thus a harmonious coexistence is both convenient and beneficial for each party. Cultural similarities can further solidify and strengthen a bilateral bond. A friendly region, wherever its location, can make a strong bilateral trade partner and thus enhance economy and commerce. Diplomatic countries can make enduring military allies as well, offering assistance, land use, and essential resources in times of military crisis.

Businesswoman talking on a mobile phone
Businesswoman talking on a mobile phone

Two regions will generally implement various steps to foster a positive, diplomatic relationship. Each region may install a diplomatic ambassador, or regional representative, in the other region. This representative will act as a conduit between the two regions, promoting political harmony and unity. The heads of the regions may also embark on numerous cross-regional visits to meet with government officials and also to foster public goodwill.

Formal treaties or agreements are another important component of diplomatic bilateral relations. Such agreements may entail a formal declaration of peace and military alliance. Economic and trade relations treaties between the regions can also bolster the relationship.

Bilateral relations differ from unilateralism and multilateral relations: the former typically describes a rogue region that makes important decisions independently of other regions while the latter involves relationships among multiple regions. The United Nations and the World Trade Organizations are two leading examples of multilateral organizations. Such entities may condemn two-party agreements on the basis of their exclusiveness, their use as a leverage tool by wealthier nations, and their probability for negative side effects like raising taxes. Proponents of bilateralism counter that streamlining an agreement to two parties reduces the probability of disputes and makes technical aspects of any agreements easier to implement. Therefore, compromise and mediation becomes much more efficient.

Although bilateral relations usually refer to diplomacy between two regions, in general the term can also reference a less positive relationship. One region may, for example, impose a trade embargo on another region, thereby reducing any commercial and financial assistance the regions may provide each other. A declaration of war is a more obvious example of a negative bilateral relationship. In some cases, one region may approach another region that has a diplomatic relationship with a third region in order to build its own positive relations with the third region. Social, political, and economic compromise are key to these or any other type of successful bilateral relations.

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Discussion Comments


Working as a reporter, I always made the attempt to go directly to the source. One-on-one bi-lateral communication is what I prefer. However, the source was not always willing to speak with me--not directly anyway. I found that having a go-between often times elicited information that the source would not tell be directly.


Is a nation involved in bilateral relations properly described as one that is rogue? George Washington warned against getting too wrapped up in the affairs of Europe, leading to a national policy that could be described as bilateral for years. The U.S. dealt with treaties, sure, but was largely bilateral or isolationist when it came to foreign policy. Prior to World War II, the U.S. largely looked after its own affairs and the events happening in North and South America rather than getting bogged down in wars in Europe, Asia or anywhere else.

That all changed with World War II, of course, and the U.S. has been a major international player ever since. The approach to foreign affairs has shifted from an approach that could be called bilateral to one that is more multinational.


I firmly believe in cutting out the middle man and going directly to the source when I conduct business. Bi-lateral relationships offer less opportunity for misunderstandings. When three or more parties are involved there is a greater chance of something getting lost in translation.

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