Skip to main content
Log in

The choice for multilateralism: Foreign aid and American foreign policy

  • Published:
The Review of International Organizations Aims and scope Submit manuscript


Why do governments choose multilateralism? We examine a principal-agent model in which states trade some control over the policy for greater burden sharing. The theory generates observable hypotheses regarding the reasons for and the patterns of support and opposition to multilateralism. To focus our study, we analyze support for bilateral and multilateral foreign aid giving in the US. Using new survey data, we provide evidence about the correlates of public and elite support for multilateral engagement. We find weak support for multilateralism and deep partisan divisions. Reflecting elite discourse, public opinion divides over two competing rationales—burden sharing and control—when faced with the choice between multilateral and bilateral aid channels. As domestic groups’ preferences over aid policy diverge from those of the multilateral institution, maintaining control over aid policy becomes more salient and support for multilateralism falls.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. The distinction between bilateral and unilateral relations in foreign policy terms is hard to maintain. Most policies are directed at particular countries, and hence even if chosen by the US alone they are part of a bilateral relationship.

  2. Note that some find no difference between multilateral and bilateral aid in their effects (e.g., Rajan and Subramanian (2008)).

  3. A 2004 sample of House and Senate members asked how important public opinion was for the formation of foreign policy. On a 0–10 scale, with 0 not at all influential and 10 extremely influential, average responses were 7 and 7.5 for the House and Senate, respectively (Chicago Council 2005).

  4. Recent economic models also use a principal-agent framework to model the choice for multilateralism, but they assume a unitary donor government (Hagen 2006; Svensson 2000). This assumption clearly differentiates their work from ours.

  5. Aid giving is complex. Some bilateral aid is allocated to a country but given to an NGO for delivery; and some multilateral aid, like debt relief, is not really channeled to the foreign recipient. On average, however, multilateral aid involves at least one extra link in the PA chain of delegation.

  6. Burden sharing within international institutions is a topic of significant interest. Early research pointed out that countries will share burdens differently depending on their size, with the largest countries providing the most (Olson and Zeckhauser 1966).

  7. Nearly 20 years later this theme continued. “The Kasich amendment would cut $56 million, but, in fact, it has the impact, because it is leveraged 118 times, which makes it undoubtedly the most single cost-effective element in our entire foreign aid budget…The capital contribution to the World Bank eliminated by this amendment leverages burden-sharing by other countries at a ratio greater than $4 for every $1 of US contribution” (Congressional Record 1977, pg. 13159–60).

  8. A general finding in the public opinion literature is that attitudes toward multilateralism break down along liberal-conservative lines, but little theoretical reason is given for this opposition to multilateralism per se (Broz 2008; Holsti 2004).

  9. Clist (2011) demonstrates that US bilateral economic aid has been highly influenced by geostrategic concerns.

  10. Please see for additional information.

  11. Identifying elites is difficult, and scholars do not agree on this. Surveys of elites often identify them by their formal positions; see, for example, Hooghe (2003) and Chicago Council on Foreign Relations surveys of elites.

  12. Alternatively, one might have asked this question by permitting a more continuous tradeoff or even no tradeoff at all between the two options. Asking the public what percent of aid should be multilateral seems to be a very hard question that we doubt many would have stable answers to. Asking just about multilateralism without any tradeoff seems likely to overestimate support for it since it now seems costless. We asked the question the way we did because it is a simple way to understand basic preferences for multilateralism versus bilateralism. Future surveys could ask the question in different ways.

  13. In our Polimetrix Surveys, we specify that we are asking about “economic” aid, and we provide several examples of non-UN international organizations through which some form of multilateral support is provided. These differences might explain the higher levels of support for multilateralism in the PIPA survey. An alternative explanation is that our questions made aid seem strictly as unconditional budgetary support. If citizens simply see multilaterals as adding an additional administrative cost beyond what a bilateral delivery will entail, which may or may not be the case, this will drive support down. The crucial point is that there are substantial divisions on this issue.

  14. We did this for several reasons. First, the political opinion literature is divided on how best to deal with the fact that people might not have clear, salient positions (Mondak 2001). We cover both cases. The results reported below differ relatively little in terms of the influence of important subject-level covariates. Second, in the fall 2008 and 2009 surveys, we asked follow up questions on why the individual preferred one channel of aid versus the other. In order to maximize responses to this question, we did not include a “don’t know” response. The 2010 survey permitted “don’t know” responses but then asked a follow up. While various branching methods might also be used, we feel our approach casts a broad, agnostic survey net.

  15. Similar patterns hold for less educated individuals.

  16. The question read: “Please tell us whether you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree or strongly disagree with the following statement: The U.S. needs to play an active role in solving conflicts around the world” (Mansfield and Mutz 2009).

  17. We measure preferences towards aid in general with the following question asked prior to questions about multilateralism and separated by a series of non-foreign aid related questions. “The United States gives various types of foreign aid to other countries. Some of this aid is economic aid that is designed to promote economic development and welfare in poor countries. Other aid is military aid such as military hardware and training. Other aid is disaster relief. What should the U.S. do with its foreign economic aid program? Expand a lot, expand a little, keep the same, decrease a little, decrease a lot.”

  18. Available on the journal website.

  19. The effect of international orientation was ambiguous. Those wanting the US to take a more active role in world affairs were not more likely to support multilateralism.

  20. For instance, the development of the idea of a “Western security community” has been associated with the continuity of the norm of multilateralism among Western countries even after the end of the Cold War (Jepperson et al. 1996, pg. 64).

  21. Future work could use only open-ended responses or use deliberative polling procedures, although both have weaknesses. Other theories beyond the self-binding and normative accounts might give other reasons for bilateral aid that we do not list. Below we report the percentage of people choosing the “other” category, which is low. Following a suggestion from David Lake we changed the self-binding prompt for the 2010 survey, which as discussed below increased support for this rationale but not beyond that of burden sharing.

  22. In the 2008 and 2009 surveys the order of the questions was fixed and in 2010 the order was randomized. In 2010 the self-binding rationale also included the phrase “and reassures other countries about the US’ good intentions.”

  23. And in Table 4, as discussed below, we show that this reason was most salient among conservatives as our PA model anticipates.

  24. We think that the idea of widely shared motives among countries gets at a central idea in normative accounts—i.e., the idea of a shared norm of using multilaterals. But the question does not ask directly if the multilateralism is “appropriate” and “motives” may be too close to “interests.” Future work could use different phrasings.

  25. Less educated members of the public also shared these concerns. Education levels did not differentiate the public.

  26. A minority of our respondents gave “other” responses. Some of these reasons are not included in our list, such that multilaterals are more efficient.

  27. This data does not let us identify the direction of causality. Do people like multilateralism because they like the World Bank, or the other way around? Experimental studies might let us answer these questions.

  28. For example, if multilateral institutions limit the ability of a particular partisan orientation to shape foreign policy, then multilateral aid can form a desirable constraining device.

  29. We believe this manipulation holds constant expectations about who would actually win. However, if this manipulation were not perfect then some subjects could have answered the questions conditional on their own expectations of who would win. While this might moderate the effect of our treatment, we did not ask a manipulation check question for our treatment given its rather direct/explicit nature and space considerations.

  30. The specific text of the question was: If [McCain/Obama] wins in November would you like the US to change how it delivers aid by: 1) Increasing the percentage of aid given through international organizations and decrease the amount given by the US directly 2) Increasing the percentage of aid given directly by the US and decrease the amount given through international organizations 3) Keeping the relative amounts of these ways of giving aid the same.

  31. These tests use differences in proportions with survey weights included.


  • Aldrich, J. H., Sullivan, J. L., & Borgida, E. (1989). Foreign affairs and issue voting: Do presidential candidates “waltz before a blind audience?”. American Political Science Review, 83, 123–141.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Aldrich, J., Gelpi, C., Feaver, P., Reifler, J., & Sharp, K. (2006). Foreign policy and the electoral connection. Annual Review of Political Science, 9, 477–502.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Baldwin, D. (1986). Economic statecraft. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Balogh, T. (1967). Multilateral versus bilateral aid. Oxford Economic Papers, 19, 332–344.

    Google Scholar 

  • Berinsky, A. (2007). Assuming the costs of war: Events, elites, and American public support for military conflict. Journal of Politics, 69, 975–997.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Boas, M., & McNeil, D. (2003). Multilateral institutions: A critical introduction. London: Pluto Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Broz, L. (2008). Congressional voting on funding the international financial institutions. The Review of International Organizations, 3, 351–374.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bueno de Mesquita, B., & Smith, A. (2007). Foreign aid and policy concessions. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 51, 251–284.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Busby, J. W., & Monten, J. (2008). Without heirs? Assessing the decline of establishment internationalism in U.S. foreign policy. Perspectives on Politics, 6, 451–472.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Campbell, C., Rae, N., & Stack, J. (2003). Congress and the politics of US foreign policy. Upper Saddle Ridge: Prentice Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  • Canes-Wrone, B. (2006). Who leads whom? Presidents, policy, and the public. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chicago Council. (2005). Global views 2004: American public opinion and foreign policy. Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.

  • Chittick, W., Billingsley, K., & Travis, R. (1995). A three-dimensional model of American foreign policy beliefs. International Studies Quarterly, 39, 313–331.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Clist, P. (2011). 25 years of aid allocation practice: Whither selectivity? World Development, 39, 1724–1734.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Congressional Record. (1977). Congressional record. June 23.

  • Congressional Record. (1993). Congressional record. June 17.

  • Cowhey, P. F. (1993). Elect locally—Order globally: Domestic politics and multilateral cooperation. In Multilateralism matters. In J. G. Ruggie (Ed.), The theory and practice of an institutional form, (pp. 157–200). New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Deudney, D. (2007). Bounding power: Republican security theory from the polis to the global village. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dreher, A., & Jensen, N. M. (2007). Independent actor or agent? An empirical analysis of the impact of US interests on IMF conditions. Journal of Law and Economics, 50, 105–124.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Easterly, W., & Pfutze, T. (2008). Best practice for foreign aid: Who knows where the money goes? Journal of Economic Perspectives, Spring.

  • Epstein, D., & O'Halloran, S. (1999). Delegating powers: A transaction cost politics approach to policy making under separate powers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Erikson, R. S., MacKuen, M. B., & Stimson, J. A. (2002). The macro polity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Finnemore, M. (1996a). Constructing norms of humanitarian intervention. In K. Katzenstein (Ed.), The culture of national security: Norms and identity in world politics (pp 153–185).

  • Finnemore, M. (1996b). National interest in international society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fleck, R., & Kilby, C. (2006a). World Bank independence: A model and statistical analysis of US influence. Review of Development Economics, 10, 224–240.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fleck, R. K., & Kilby, C. (2006b). How do political changes influence US bilateral aid allocations? Evidence from panel data. Review of Development Economics, 10, 210–223.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gruber, L. (2000). Ruling the world: Power politics and the rise of supranational institutions. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gutner, T. (2005). Explaining the gaps between mandate and performance: Agency theory and World Bank environmental reform. Global Environmental Politics, 5, 10–36.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gutner, T., & Thompson, A. (2010). The politics of international organization performance: A framework. Review of International Organization, 5, 227–248.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gwin, C. (1994). U.S. relations with the World Bank, 1945–1992. Washington: Brookings Institution.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hagen, R. J. (2006). Samaritan agents? On the strategic delegation of aid policy. Journal of Development Economics, 79, 249–263.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hawkins, D. G., Lake, D. A., Nielson, D. L., & Tierney, M. (2006). Delegation and agency in international organizations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Holsti, O. R. (2004). Public opinion and American foreign policy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Holsti, O., & Rosenau, J. (1984). American leadership in world affairs: Vietnam and the breakdown of consensus. Boston: Allen and Unwin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Holsti, O., & Rosenau, J. (1986). Consensus lost. Consensus regained?: Foreign policy beliefs of American leaders, 1976–1980. International Studies Quarterly, 30, 375–409.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hooghe, L. (2003). Europe divided?: Elites vs. public opinion on European integration. European Union Politics, 4, 281–304.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • House. (1972). House committee on appropriations, foreign assistance and related programs appropriation bill, 1972, report 92-711.

  • House. (1977). House committee on appropriations, foreign assistance and related programs appropriation bill, 1978, report 95-417.

  • Huber, J. D., & Shipan, C. R. (2002). Deliberate discretion: The institutional foundations of bureaucratic autonomy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Ikenberry, G. J. (2001). After victory: Institutions, strategic restraint, and the rebuilding of order after major wars. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ikenberry, G. J. (2003). Is American multilateralism in decline? Perspectives on Politics, 1, 533–550.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jepperson, R. L., Wendt, A., & Katzenstein, P. (1996). Norms, identity, and culture in national security. In P. J. Katzenstein (Ed.), The culture of national security: Norms and identity in world politics. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kirk, M. (2007). End World Bank disbursements to Iran.

  • Knack, S., & Rahman, A. (2008). Donor fragmentation. In W. Easterly (Ed.), Reinventing foreign aid. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Krasner, S. (1978). Defending the national interest: Raw materials investments and US foreign policy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kupchan, C., & Trubowitz, P. (2007). Dead center: The demise of liberal internationalism in the United States. International Security, 32, 7–44.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kuziemko, I., & Werker, E. (2006). How much is a seat on the security council worth? Foreign aid and bribery at the United Nations. Journal of Political Economy, 114, 905–930.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lake, D. A. (1999). Entangling relations: American foreign policy in its century. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lake, D. A. (2009). Hierarchy in international relations. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lumsdaine, D. H. (1993). Moral vision in international politics: The foreign aid regime 1949–1989. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lupia, A. (1994). Shortcuts versus encyclopedias: Information and voting behavior in California insurance reform elections. American Political Science Review, 88, 63–76.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Maizels, A., & Nissanke, M. K. (1984). Motivations for aid to developing countries. World Development, 12, 879–900.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Maliniak, D., Peterson, S., Tierney, M. (2012). TRIP around the world: Teaching, research, and policy views of international relations faculty in 20 countries, teaching, research, and international policy (TRIP) project (William and Mary).

  • Mansfield, E., & Mutz, D. (2009). Support for free trade: Self-interest, sociotropic politics, and out-group anxiety. International Organization, 63, 425–457.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Martens, B., Mummert, U., Murrell, P., & Seabright, P. (2002). The institutional economics of foreign aid. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Martin, L. (2006). Distribution, information, and delegation to international organizations: The case of IMF conditionality. In D. Hawkins, D. A. Lake, D. Nielson, M. J. Tierney (Eds.), Delegation and agency in international organizations (pp 140–164).

  • Mason, E. S., & Asher, R. E. (1973). The World Bank since Bretton Woods. Washington: The Brookings Institution.

    Google Scholar 

  • McCarty, N., Poole, K., & Rosenthal, H. (2006). Polarized America: The dance of ideology and unequal riches. Cambridge: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • McKeown, T. J. (2009). How U.S. decision-makers assessed their control of multilateral organizations, 1957–1982. Review of International Organization, 4, 269–291.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Milner, H. (2006). Why multilateralism? Foreign aid and domestic principal-agent problems. In D. G. Hawkins et al. (Eds.), Delegation and agency in international organizations (pp. 107–139). New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Milner, H., & Tingley, D. (2010). The domestic politics of foreign aid: American legislators and the politics of donor countries. Economics and Politics, 22, 200–232.

    Google Scholar 

  • Milner, H., & Tingley, D. (2011). Who supports global economic engagement? The sources of preferences in American foreign economic policy. International Organization, 65, 37–68.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mondak, J. (2001). Developing valid knowledge scales. American Journal of Political Science, 45, 224–238.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nielson, D., & Tierney, M. (2003). Delegation to international organizations: Agency theory and World Bank environmental reform. International Organization, 57, 241–276.

    Google Scholar 

  • OECD/DAC. (2006). The United States: DAC peer review.

  • Olson, M. J., & Zeckhauser, R. (1966). An economic theory of alliances. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 48, 266–279.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Page, B., & Shapiro, R. Y. (1992). The rational public: 50 years of trends in Americans’ policy preferences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • PIPA. (2001). Americans on foreign aid and world hunger: A study of US public attitudes.

  • Pollack, M. A. (2003). The engines of European integration: Delegation, agency and agenda setting in the EU. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rajan, R. G., & Subramanian, A. (2008). Aid and growth: What does the cross-country evidence really show? The Review of Economics and Statistics, 90, 643–665.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Risse-Kappen, T. (1996). Collective identity in a democratic community: The case of NATO. In: P. Katzenstein (Ed.), The culture of national security (pp 357–399).

  • Rodrik, D. (1996). Why is there multilateral lending? In M. Bruno & B. Pleskovic (Eds.), Annual World Bank conference on development economics, 1995 (pp. 167–193). Washington: IMF.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rubin, R. E. (1999). Subcommittee on foreign operations, export financing, and related programs. Senate Appropritions Subcommittee Hearings, 3/17/1999.

  • Ruggie, J. G. (1993). Multilateralism matters: The theory and praxis of an institutional form. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sniderman, P. M., Brody, R. A., & Tetlock, P. E. (1991). Reasoning and choice: Explorations in political psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Stone, R. (2002). Lending credibility: The international monetary fund and the post-communist transition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Stone, R. (2011). Controlling institutions: International organizations and the global economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Svensson, J. (2000). When is foreign aid policy credible? Aid dependence and conditionality. Journal of Development Economics, 61, 61–84.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tallberg, J. (2002). Paths to compliance: Enforcement, management, and the European Union. International Organization, 56, 609–643.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tierney, M. (2006). Delegation under anarchy: States, international organizations and principal agent theory. In: D. G. Hawkins, D. A. Lake, D. L. Nielson, M. Tierney (Eds.), Delegation and agency in international organizations. Cambridge University Press.

  • Tingley, D. (2010). Donors and domestic politics: Political influences on foreign aid commitments. The Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance, 50, 40–49.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Trubowitz, P. (1992). Sectionalism and American foreign policy: The political geography of consensus and conflict. International Studies Quarterly, 36, 173–190.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Voeten, E. (2001). Outside options and the logic of security council action. American Political Science Review, 95, 845–858.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Weiss, M. A., & Sanford, J. E. (2008). The World Bank and Iran. Congressional Research Service

  • Wroughton, L. (2008). U.S. lawmakers and World Bank seek to bridge gaps. Reuters

  • Zaller, J. (1992). The nature and origins of mass opinion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Helen V. Milner.

Additional information

We would like to thank Torben Behmer for research assistance, the TRIPS team for access to their survey, seminar audiences at APSA, IPES, Washington University at St. Louis, reviewers, the editor, and Leo Baccini, Ahmed Faisal, Erin Graham, Robert Keohane, Randy Stone, Sarah Bermeo, Tana Johnson, Shana Marshall, Ken Schultz, David Lake, Stephen Kaplan, and Kevin Young for excellent feedback.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.


(PDF 48 kb)


(ZIP 140 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Milner, H.V., Tingley, D. The choice for multilateralism: Foreign aid and American foreign policy. Rev Int Organ 8, 313–341 (2013).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: