Realists feel as much relief as neo-Wilsonians feel disappointment over a perceived change in U.S. foreign policy—what Time magazine clumsily dubbed “The End of Cowboy Diplomacy.” It is true that there is now a regrettable new quietism about promoting democracy in the Middle East. And the United States also insists on multiparty talks with the ghoulish regimes in North Korea and Iran, in a fashion that purportedly seems much different from the go-it-alone caricature of 2001–2.
But think hard: Has George W. Bush, or the world itself, changed in the last five years?
One obvious difference from his first administration is the added nuclear component of the most recent pressing crises. Taking out the Taliban and Saddam Hussein did not involve an immediate threat of nuclear retaliation. Preemption against North Korea does run such a risk—and perhaps the same threats could emerge as well in Iran. That requires a different strategy.
The second change from the immediate past is oil. For most of his first administration, the price of petroleum was around $20–$30 a barrel. We are now well into the era of $60–$70, with the threat of constant shortages.