George W. Bush and his administration came into office with a self-consciously realist orientation in foreign policy. The president and his advisers derided the Clinton administration's multilateralism as mere form without national security substance. They viewed Russia and China as the main potential threats or sources of danger, and regarded Bill Clinton as a naïve idealist for neglecting these great powers in favor of "foreign policy as social work"--humanitarian ventures in areas peripheral to U.S. national security concerns. Consistent with a realist suspicion of multilateralism and confidence in self-help, the administration's principal foreign policy project in its first months was the unilateral pursuit of ballistic missile defense.
The Bush team was particularly critical of U.S. participation in quixotic efforts at nation building for failed states. The message was clear: The Bush administration would not engage in state-building efforts. Ironically, the Bush administration has since undertaken state-building projects that are vastly larger and more difficult than anything the Clinton administration ever attempted. It can be argued that despite the apparent about-face, the Bush administration has actually kept true to its realist principles. We argue to the contrary that the Bush administration's brand of realism has collided with post-Cold War realities that shaped the Clinton administration's foreign policy as well.