This year's presidential election so far offers a choice in foreign policy, between a neo-Wilsonian who has made the promotion of democracy and human rights a central tenet and an old-school realist who believes it more sensible to focus on managing concrete threats to U.S. security. Sounds familiar: Only the realist is not a hard-nosed Republican standing up to a fuzzy-headed Democrat, but John F. Kerry challenging George W. Bush.

Last week Bush made another in a series of speeches that rank him with Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter -- at least on a rhetorical scale -- in his zealous commitment to spreading freedom where it does not now exist. "Some who call themselves realists question whether the spread of democracy in the Middle East should be any concern of ours," he said at the Air Force Academy. "But the realists in this case have lost contact with a fundamental reality. . . . America is always more secure when freedom is on the march."

Bush might have been answering the grumblers in his own party -- but he also could have been talking back to Kerry, who in an interview with several of us from The Post 10 days ago was all but Nixonian in his realpolitik. Yes, democracy was an important goal for the Muslim world, he said. But it would not be his first priority for Egypt; nor for Saudi Arabia; nor for Pakistan. Nor, for that matter, would promoting human rights be at the top of his agenda for Russia or China.

I found Kerry impressive in his command of the substance of foreign affairs and thoughtful in his analysis of issues and leaders. He has smartly focused attention on Bush's greatest weakness, which is his disruption of U.S. alliances, and he is more than plausible in arguing that it will take a new president to repair the damage. But Kerry seems to lack an animating vision of America's role in the world. What he offered, at least on the evening we talked to him, was diligent crisis management and problem-solving, informed by what sounds a lot like the conventional thinking of a pre-Sept. 11 State Department.

Bush's foreign policy was similarly modest, though more unilateralist, three years ago; now, his neo-Wilsonian passion (fueled, like Wilson's, in part by religious conviction) prompts increasingly audible gasps from Republican conservatives. What's been less noticed so far is that Kerry's realism is provoking a parallel anguish in the Democratic foreign-policy apparat, where most of Wilson's heirs still reside. "A lot of Democrats have been appalled," one foreign-policy maker in the Clinton administration told me. "Kerry doesn't seem to realize that September 11th changed Democrats, too."

For the disgruntled in both parties, one urgent question is whether this emerging philosophical difference has any practical effect. Outside Iraq, Bush hasn't tried very hard to put his democratic ideas into practice. And Kerry, for now, isn't contesting Bush's plan for Iraqi elections, though he has said that "stability" rather than democracy should be the bottom-line U.S. goal there. Even Bush officials who fully embrace his Wilsonianism (and not all do) will cheerfully admit that there are no plans to change the old realist policies toward Egypt or Pakistan. "In the short term," Bush said last week, "we will work with every government in the Middle East dedicated to destroying the terrorist networks."

The Bush Wilsonians nonetheless argue that their boss's vision makes a difference. First, they say, rhetoric alone has an impact when it comes from a powerful U.S. president: Democracy campaigners and human rights advocates in places such as Egypt have had noticeably more room to operate since Bush embraced their cause. Second, by setting democracy as the goal, Bush creates a different climate for day-to-day decision-making in the bureaucracy. At a minimum, officials have to worry about how to dodge charges of hypocrisy when dictators are coddled.

One consequence is that strongmen of lesser importance -- such as, say, Tunisia's -- get a lecture from the president about reform when they visit Washington, rather than a routine pat on the back. Another is that even strongmen of larger importance, like Egypt's, are occasionally forced to release a prominent political prisoner or register a human rights group even if they get a pass on larger reforms. "In the longer term," Bush said, "we will expect a higher standard of reform and democracy from our friends in the region."

Democratic Wilsonians may console themselves that such gains are not worth the downside of Bush's version of democracy promotion -- above all, the stunning incompetence of its application in Iraq. Indeed, Bush has done much to discredit modern Wilsonianism, so much so that Kerry's cautious sobriety looks considerably more attractive than it otherwise might. That still leaves the question: If Bush is defeated in November, who will press the cause of democracy in the Middle East? By his own account, it probably won't be John Kerry.