This essay was written in the twilight of the George W. Bush administration and reflects back on how the events of 9/11 caused the United States to think in more unilateral ways. The authors are looking forward to a new administration and are seeking to persuade policymakers to take a more multilateral approach, especially toward countries they have identified as "pivotal powers": Russia, China, India, and Japan. Their thesis states that
the United States needs a specific, nuanced bilateral strategy toward each pivotal power, but an overarching framework of strategic collaboration is also necessary to manage better and take advantage of today’s geopolitical convergence. Strategic collaboration has four elements: compounding American strengths, constructing close relationships with pivotal powers, collaborating with these powers to solve global problems, and covering our bets.
They argue that the United States, while still very powerful, is no longer able to tackle world problems unilaterally due to the economic and military rise of "pivotal powers." They point out that past alignments based on ideological compatibility (such as the West against communism) no longer seem optimal because global problems (like terrorism and advances in technology) are transcending borders.
Instead, the authors suggest another supranational organization such as the G8 be convened so that the newly powerful countries can meet and work together on common issues. They note with some alarm that some of these countries are forming organizations and alliances on their own and state that the United States should want these "pivotal powers" on their team instead of on someone else's.
We are able to look back now at these recommendations in the light of two succeeding administrations. The advice to work multilaterally to affect global problems such as climate change was put into practice with the Paris Climate Accords, yet we see that agreement would have penalized the United States while allowing China and India leeway to continue carbon emissions. The authors point to the United Nations's framework as well, without factoring in the single vote the United States has in deliberations with others, despite its greater power, resources, and disproportionate funding of that body.
The problem with multilateral agreements involving the United States is precisely the fact that the United States has a larger economy and military, and yet will be limited to one vote in a multilateral agreement. This disadvantages the United States in relation to smaller, weaker, poorer signatories. Also, transnational organizations such as the World Trade Organization and the United Nations limit or eliminate the franchise, since citizens of nation-states have virtually no say-so nor recourse with measures that nonetheless can affect them personally. This distance from an unaccountable bureaucracy is the main reason why Britain has voted to leave the European Union.
With 20/20 hindsight it is possible to read this essay and observe red flags such as the economic costs of globalization and the threats to sovereignty that the authors noted in passing. They were unable to perceive the problems with the creation of one more bureaucracy to offer a forum for multilateral discussions, and unable to see that bilateral trade agreements would efficiently address their concerns while best preserving United States interests. Multilateral agreements, while appealing philosophically, realistically make larger, more stable countries vulnerable to any instability in the weaker signatories and tend to disenfranchise the citizenry.