The first half of the 20th century saw a great struggle between fascism and liberal democracy. While Mussolini and Hitler viewed the world as a Darwinian zero-sum game between states and peoples locked in a conflict of mutual hostility, liberals believed in the possibility of the common good and an international harmony of interests.
Fascists idealised hierarchy; liberals co-existence: in economics, the invisible hand of the free market would make everyone better off; political freedom would allow for individual expression and self-development. The pursuit of democracy and liberty was the best guarantee of peace - for were not ordinary people peace-loving? - while war was the result of the self-interested manoeuvrings of repressive elites.
When this view of the world was blended with the missionary fervour of evangelical Protestantism, it yielded a recipe for Great Powers who wished to govern the world in everyone's best interest. President George Bush has brought this vision into the 21st century, with the idea of a "forward strategy for freedom". His speech last week to the National Endowment for Democracy identified the bringing of democracy to the Middle East as a long-range goal of American policy.
The theme may be new for the Bush presidency but it goes back almost a century in US foreign policy. During the First World War, Woodrow Wilson declared that America's role was to make the world "safe for democracy". Offering himself as an honest broker, his idealism shaped the peace settlement of Europe accordingly.
The old autocratic Habsburg, Ottoman and Hohenzollern emperors were replaced by shiny new constitutional democracies. Yet when American liberal idealism hit the realities of interwar politics, the dream soon began to come apart and the world was not safe for long. In the years that followed the liberal strategy failed on almost every count. Free markets collapsed during the great depression. More importantly, in the ethnically divided societies of central and eastern Europe, democracy quickly turned into a new tyranny - that of the majority over the minority - or led to constitutional stalemates whose solution was found in new and nastier forms of authoritarianism.
Today, Washington's advocates of democratisation never mention this failure. Yet the experience of interwar Europe raises some key issues that the new strategy will need to address. Scholars argue over what kinds of social mix and tradition produce stable democracies; but all agree that adjustment is hard where societies have little or no prior experience of multiparty politics, where the middle classes are weak and where the army has dominated the state.
Then there is the minorities issue. Interwar Poland was only two-thirds ethnically Polish, and there were huge minorities everywhere else in eastern Europe. How does President Bush see Middle Eastern democracy coping with similar problems - the Shia in Saudi Arabia, the Copts in Egypt, the Palestinian majority in Jordan, the Kurds almost everywhere? Guarantees of minority and human rights will be needed; but these may be seen as one further Western intervention in a long history of its meddling in the internal affairs of these countries.
The historical experience of democratisation that Washington prefers to remember is the collapse of Communism in 1989. Skating over the shameful decades of containment, Mr Bush's speech homed in on the heroic moment of rollback, which showed just what determined American leadership could do.
Condoleezza Rice, in her past life as an academic, co-authored a study of how the US brought down the Soviet Union, and many others in the administration see the Soviet policy of the Reagan (and George Bush senior) years in this way. For them, it was the combination of American pressure and popular desire for freedom that toppled the Communists. Now, with Bush junior in Reaganite mode, the same combination can work its magic in the Middle East: with a little pushing from the US, those under-performing economies with their huge armies of youthful unemployed will give way to free markets and modern ways.
But before we get too excited, some reasons for doubt. During the Cold War, east Europeans identified the US with the cause of freedom. Donald Rumsfeld's "new Europe" had always known the choice was between Communist repression and American liberties, and only wondered if the latter would ever arrive. But where the US is seen as having supported dictatorship, historical memory works very differently.
Southern Europe in the 1970s was stuck under authoritarian rule, and there the US itself had done little, to put it mildly, by way of rollback: it supported these dictators until they got old and died, or made a mess of things, as the Colonels did over Cyprus. Greece is a case of a country today that combines a healthy democracy with high levels of suspicion towards American policy, precisely because the public associates the US with support for the dictatorship.
This administration appears to believe that bringing liberty to the Arab world will expand intellectual horizons and drain the swamp of religious extremism, thereby creating a popular mood much more favourable to the US. In fact, the outcome is likely to resemble Greece rather than Lithuania.
What makes Arab opinion anti-American is not some sweeping rejection of modernity, or the American way of life, but simply opposition to American foreign policy. People in the Middle East see the US, not as some disinterested Wilsonian force descending from on high to improve their lives, but rather as the Great Power which more than any other over the past half century has intervened to defend its own strategic interests by supporting the very dictatorships it now claims it wants to see vanish.
In such circumstances, how credible can Washington be as a force for democratic reform? Will Mr Bush put pressure on the Egyptian government to open up its political system? Or will he worry that this might pave the way for the rise of political parties far less supportive of his regional goals than President Hosni Mubarak?
Democracy may seem the prerequisite for long-term success in the "war on terror"; in the short term, however, dictatorial regimes and their intelligence services have a convenient handle to assure themselves of backing in Washington. Anti-Communism served the interests of nasty police states around the world for many decades, despite the US's public commitments to defending the "Free World". What is to stop the fight against al-Qa'ida working the same way in years to come, allowing Washington to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses or to clampdowns on popular but anti-American parties?
The truth is that, as long as US foreign policy is unwilling to push Israeli governments towards a proper peace deal, future Arab democracies are likely to be at least as anti-American as the existing despotisms. Is Washington too naive to realise this, or too ideologically driven by neo-conservative theories of how it won the Cold War?
Preaching democracy is no substitute for a sustained effort to bring about a just settlement over Palestine. Until there is some sign of that, Mr Bush's grand vision is unlikely to last any longer than Wilson's: who would wager on its supporters winning the day once they come up against the hard realities of US interests, at least as they are currently defined? Visions of international harmony sound a little premature right now.
Mark Mazower is professor of history at Birkbeck College LondonReuse content