Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

“We stand for universal values, including the rights of the … people to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and the freedom to access information.”

–President Barack Obama, during the Egyptian mass uprising against a detested dictator.

“The United States is … to construct an architecture of  values that spans the globe and includes every man, woman and child. An architecture that can not only counter repression and resist pressure on human rights, but also extend those fundamental freedoms to places where they have been too long denied.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a foreign policy speech in September.

That is the theory — U.S. foreign policy in defense of universal values. In practice, the United States has often been unable or unwilling to live up to the values it preaches. Like other big powers, it has placed its self-interest first, which meant dividing the world into acceptable and unacceptable authoritarians. Soaring rhetoric since the beginning of the pro-democracy uprisings in the Arab world notwithstanding, the gap between theory and practice is in full view again.