One by one, the leaders of the West trooped out in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin this week to say what a great blow for freedom the fall of the Wall had been and how that momentum must be sustained throughout the world today.
"The fall of the Berlin Wall rings today as an appeal to fight oppression," declared President Nicolas Sarkozy. "A wall, a physical wall, may have come down but there are other walls that exist that we have to overcome and we will be working together to accomplish that," said Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State. Gordon Brown went further and enumerated these walls, declaring that "an Africa in poverty, Darfur in agony, Zimbabwe in tears, Burma in chains, individuals, even when in pain, need not suffer forever without hope".
One can forgive a bit of hyperbole on these occasions. This was, after all, a celebration of an historic occasion in 1989 when politicians – without grand visions, one should add – clutched, in the words of Chancellor Helmut Kohl quoting Bismarck, "the cloak of history as it passed by". One can even forgive the sheer vacuity of Brown's attempts at rhetoric (just what exactly does "you know that while force has temporary power to dominate, it can never ultimately decide" mean? It sounds portentous but the more you think about it, the less it makes sense).
What cannot be so easily forgiven, however, is the wilful denial of reality in all this high-flown claim of walls and liberty. And the worst of it is that the same people stepping up to the podium in Berlin are the very same people who are ensuring that it isn't so.
Take Brown's list of good causes. Darfur may be "in agony". It is in agony. But the whole Western pressure to free its people, punish the perpetrators and bring the chief culprit, President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, before the International Court of Justice has gone into reverse. What the West now wants is a settlement, not justice, and for that it feels the need to co-operate with the President, not hound him.
And so with Burma and even Zimbabwe. The former may be "in chains", the latter "in agony", as Brown would have it. But he, like the US President, has shifted tack from confrontation to co-operation with their murderous regimes. The ruling military junta in Burma is now being brought in from the cold by the US. President Robert Mugabe is being kept in power.
We are backing a regime in Afghanistan which we know to have stolen an election through fraud. We support a President in Pakistan whom we acknowledge as corrupt. We treat with a regime in Tehran which is now busily locking up its democratic opponents. We beg for admittance at the doors of North Korea in the full knowledge that here is a regime starving its own people for the sake of brandishing nuclear weapons at its neighbours. We give money to allay our concern for "Africa in poverty" but achieve, and try, little towards the overthrow of the rotten governments that keep their people in poverty.
We are back, in other words, to the old world of propping up discredited and oppressive regimes because stability has once again become more important than values. But before the old guard of the British Foreign Office and the US State Department get too carried away with welcoming back the traditional policy of a country pursuing its interests not principles, it is worth saying that it need not be so. We can still have values in our international relations without ruining their cause by our actions.
The whole concept of an ethical foreign policy, it is true, has been debased by the experience of former president George W Bush and his companion in arms, Tony Blair. But the problem of the doctrine of spreading democracy and humanitarian intervention was not that the aims were necessarily wrong, but they were used as cover for a Western assertion of power that was entirely contradictory to them.
You don't go around invading countries and waging war under the guise of "Christian values". Nor do you wage a "War on Terror" which forces international relations back into a Cold War format of enemies, who behave the worst through isolation, and friends, most of whom are the very authoritarian regimes you have been criticising on democratic grounds. You have only to travel almost anywhere abroad to understand just how much damage the charge of hypocrisy has done to "our cause" as we talk of "democracy" and "freedom" while all the while interfering to the opposite effect.
And yet democracy and freedom are what we do believe in. The answer has to be to forget the rhetoric, and the speeches of those in Berlin trying to keep alive a propaganda hollowed out by the actions of the past decade. It is also to accept that, in the post-Iraq and post-recession world, we have lost the moral high ground to go around telling other people what to do. They are no longer interested in listening and, in a globe where the US is becoming just one of a number of competing players and Britain is a middle-ranking country stuck uneasily on the fringes of Europe, there is no reason why they should listen.
We can huff and we can puff about Israeli settlements, Iranian double-dealing, Burmese government intransigence, China's suppression of its ethnic minorities, but there is nothing we will – and probably not much we can – do about it.
Yet we should not apologise for what we hold (or should hold) dear. We must keep developing and displaying the benefits of freedom and democracy at home – for all the expenses scandal (which has gained rather greater play abroad than people over here are aware of) and for all the effort of the Government to chip away at our liberties in the name of fighting "terror". We must make real efforts, as we do not, to prevent the corruption which our companies and agencies encourage by countenancing it abroad (what the French or Chinese may do is irrelevant).
Above all, we should stand here saying to those who want freedom abroad: "Yes, we are on your side, we won't keep quiet as to your plight and if you want a safe haven, our doors are open here." Instead, we sound the clarion call abroad while failing even to preserve it at home.Reuse content