In an interview last spring, Sen. John F. Kerry made clear that promoting democracy abroad would not be a priority of his presidency. Of course he believed in freedom and human rights, but in every country there seemed to be a goal that would rank higher for him in importance: securing nuclear materials in Russia, fighting terrorism alongside Saudi Arabia, pursuing Middle East peace with Egypt, controlling Pakistan's nuclear program, integrating China into the world economy.

Kerry's ostensibly pragmatic approach alarmed some idealists in his own party and allowed George W. Bush to claim the high moral ground of foreign policy. "I believe in the transformational power of liberty," Bush declared as he accepted his party's nomination for the second time. "The wisest use of American strength is to advance freedom."

But here's the irony: Kerry's recital of priorities around the world was a pretty fair description of Bush's first-term record. An interesting second-term question will be whether the president reshapes his policy to match his rhetoric: whether he really believes that democracy abroad is in the U.S. national interest. There are, after all, plenty of smart foreign policy experts who doubt that proposition.

In 2000 Bush did not campaign on a liberty platform, and even after his oratory began to soar, his policies didn't change much. In Afghanistan and Iraq, democracy evolved gradually into a central goal of post-invasion U.S. policy. But in the rest of the world there seemed -- just as for Kerry -- to be higher priorities.

The administration counted its management of relations with China and Russia as a major first-term success, for example, marked by stability and cooperation in fighting terrorism. The fact that China was chewing away on Hong Kong's freedoms, and continuing to lock up its own dissidents, journalists and priests, didn't get in the way. The stunning rollback of freedoms in Russia didn't seem to bother Bush either.

Smaller countries offered a similar picture. Bush welcomed Thailand's autocratic leader as a comrade in the war on terrorism even as democracy there eroded. Under congressional pressure, the administration rapped the knuckles of Uzbekistan's torturers, but not so hard as to interfere with a budding military relationship. Azerbaijan's longtime communist strongman bequeathed power to his ill-prepared son, but that was okay; Azerbaijan is rich in oil and gas. Pakistan's strongman broke repeated promises to return his country to civilian rule, but he was too valuable an ally against al Qaeda for the administration to object. And so on, around the world.

The choices Bush made weren't evil, and they didn't mean that, all things being equal, he wouldn't prefer to encourage democracy. The United States was attacked, and it needed basing rights in Uzbekistan to retaliate. Its economy needs Azeri oil, and Venezuelan oil, and all kinds of other undemocratic oil. The alternative to the general running Pakistan might be a lot worse -- a fundamentalist Islamic regime with nuclear weapons, for instance.

So there were strong arguments for maintaining good relations with all of these autocrats. But that's the point; there will always be countervailing arguments. If you think democracy is just a secondary, wouldn't-it-be-nice objective -- if you don't think raw national interest is served by spreading freedom abroad -- liberty will always rank below some other, legitimate priority.

You might understand if Bush felt that way. After all, it was democratically elected leaders in France and Germany who caused him the most first-term heartburn. Many experienced diplomats, including senior officials of the Bush administration, believe it's more important to appeal to the national interest of a Russia or an Egypt than to worry about how those nations are governed.

But Bush says he is convinced of the opposite view: that America will actually be safer if more countries become democratic. "As freedom advances, heart by heart, and nation by nation, America will be more secure and the world more peaceful," he argued in that same convention address.

Such a belief translated into policy would not mean that liberty would automatically and always take precedence over basing rights, counterterrorism cooperation or smooth trade relations. But in Bush's first term, democracy promotion seemed to be the policy mostly when it was convenient: in Palestine, where it allowed him to avoid confrontation with Israel's leader; in Cuba, where it allowed him to win votes in Florida. If you see him in the next four years risking other U.S. interests to champion liberty where it is not so convenient, then you will know he meant what he said on the campaign trail.

fredhiatt@washpost.com