The world awaits President Obama's speech in Cairo on Thursday with some anticipation. In that connection, you can listen to a short interview with him, conducted by Justin Webb for the BBC (it's the second, not the first, clip). One of the things he says to Webb is that democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech and religion, are not Western, they are universal, principles; and they are not to be imposed on other countries, though they can be encouraged, including by the US seeking to act as a 'role model'. Some of the comment ahead of Obama's speech, however, treats his initiative towards undemocratic governments - for example, in order to achieve a peace settlement in the Middle East - as incompatible with the commitment to liberal and democratic values and to supporting them where they do not already prevail, or sufficiently prevail. It's a note struck in both of these two columns. The latter of them comes close to suggesting that between using force to achieve democratic change and a 'political realism' that would let the peoples of non-democracies stew in their own juice, there is no other alternative.
On the contrary, it is a settled, and indeed wise, principle of international affairs that up to a certain point - though only up to a point (genocide, crimes against humanity, etc) - states respect the national sovereignty of other states, and that governments and political leaders do business with their counterparts elsewhere even while they may not approve of the political systems which exist, and the principles of governance which are practised, in the countries concerned, and even while giving moral and other support to political dissidents in those countries. The devil will be in the detail, of course, and we still have to see how the relevant details here will unfold. Between cooperating with non-democratic governments, on the one hand, and encouraging liberal and democratic principles and those who fight for their realization, on the other, how will Obama's foreign policy pan out? Thursday's speech may or may not tell us something about that.