Adrian Hamilton: My choice for person of the year? Angela Merkel

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 untrammelled 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 Chancellor 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 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 Ms 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 moralising that President Bush and the former prime minister Tony 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 realise 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.