Join our Mailing List

"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

My choice for person of the year? Angela Merkel

December 22, 2007

The Independent
20 December 2007

Time magazine may just have chosen Vladimir Putin as its Man of the
Year, but if I'd had a vote it would have been for a Woman of the Year
-- Angela Merkel, the doughty chancellor of Germany.

I know she's not the pin-up girl of the international commentators at
the moment, being held to have retreated before the opposition in her
proposals for economic reform. When every government leader, from the
developed or less-developed world, is judged by their commitment to the
Thirty-Nine Articles of Western liberal market orthodoxy, any sign of
backsliding is a signal for a whole host of articles and speeches
decrying their pusillanimity.

It may be that as tightening credit, environmental legislation and
slowing growth take hold of the Western economies, a full espousal of
the virtues of untrammeled competition and state contraction may prove
rather less obviously attractive to the ordinary citizen than it is now.
It may even be that governments start to embrace again the virtues of
state protection of the weak, minimum standards in the workplace and a
basic provision of services from the state. It may even be that
Germany's ever-so-cumbersome and consensual approach to reform may come
to be viewed as democratically pragmatic rather than economically ignorant.

But that is for the future. What I admire about Merkel at the moment is
her brave, insistent and unyielding stance on human rights. On the
fraught issue of Tibet -- over which the Chinese have forced virtually
every Western government into mute accord -- she proceeded to greet the
visiting Dalai Lama not in some out-of-the-way corner as a private
occasion but in her office as a public act. And when the Chinese
complained in the most acid terms, and German business whined at the
potential loss of business, she stood her ground and refused to disown
her act. And when it came to the Euro-African summit she marched in to
tell President Mugabe to his face what she, and almost every European,
felt about what he is doing to the people of his own country.

It's not statesmanlike. It's not wise and it may well be not very effective.

But at a time when the idea of an ethical foreign policy has been blown
out of the water by Tony Blair's march into Iraq and the foreign policy
of most countries has quailed before the interest of energy supply and
exports to China, how refreshing it is to have a leader who is prepared
to speak up for principles, whatever the consequences.

Compare that with British PM Gordon Brown, who stayed away from the
EU-Africa summit to avoid meeting Mugabe but still sent a peer to attend
in a pathetic attempt to have it both ways. Or compare Merkel with
Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, who went straight from the
Euro-African summit to host five days of festivities for the Libyan
leader, Colonel Gadaffi, whose record on human rights can stand
comparison with the worst African dictators.

We're not talking here of empty rhetoric -- the kind of high moralizing
that President Bush and Blair indulge in. The world is tired of Western
hypocrisy where human rights and democracy are concerned. They don't
want any more lectures. Nor is it related to "humanitarian intervention"
as such. The cry of "We must do something" in answer to the demands of
the activist agencies and the media faced with some appalling breach of
human rights or massacre has resulted in little but self-defeating
gestures, in Darfur as in Burma.

Both are the product of a mentality that would have we -- the West --
act as though we could order the world according to our ideas of what is
"good for the natives." Those days are gone, and the sooner we realize
it the better.

What we can do -- and what we should do if we are not to allow the idea
of an ethical foreign policy to slip through our fingers and sink in the
sand -- is to hold to our own principles in our dealings abroad.

In the first place that means encouraging the flow of ideas and free
discussion abroad as at home. It's what we believe in and what we should
keep supporting. Cutting off other countries with sanctions simply cuts
off our nose to spite our face. We should be encouraging interaction,
not stilling it.

In the second place it means upholding our own standards. If we don't
want to shake Mugabe's hand, let's not do it, rather than sending in a
substitute in our stead. If we think the Dalai Lama deserves a hearing,
give it to him. If we feel that there are victims of oppression, and
writers and journalists silenced by regimes abroad, offer them sanctuary
here, openly and freely.

In a world where we can affect so little, let's at least, like Angela
Merkel, be true to ourselves.

Adrian Hamilton is a columnist for The Independent in Britain.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank