‘Let’s stop accusing the US of being a big bully. They are the ones who foot the bill and provide the military hardware’

Tell me what the world was like when you were 18 and I will tell you how you see things. Values and attitudes are shaped by personal experience and background.

I was born in a divided Germany in the ’50s. My mother was a refugee from the East and I came to England in 1974 – at a time when the country was in economic decline and political turmoil.

Two events that stick in my mind are the Cuban missile crisis and the Berlin Airlift. British and American pilots, who only a few years earlier had been dropping bombs to defeat Adolf Hitler, staged an almost year-long operation to bring food and humanitarian support to the city. It is still regarded as one of the most extraordinary logistic efforts of modern times – and to me it also proves the enduring power of ideals.

I have been shaped by the Cold War, but also by tales of what it is like to sit in a cellar hoping that the Americans get to you before the Russians. I grew up convinced that my country of birth would probably forever be divided and that large parts of Europe would never become democracies. I always wondered whether the Russian tanks that had invaded Czechoslovakia would stop at the Bavarian border.

I had accepted that some things just can’t be changed and the best you can do is to manage the situation.

But things turned out differently. Dictatorships in Greece, Spain and Portugal were toppled and with the robust help of their neighbouring states these countries became fully-functioning parliamentary democracies. The Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed, Germany was reunited and by 2004 eight former communist countries had joined the European Union.

Elsewhere there was change, too. South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia became democracies. Pol Pot was removed from power in Cambodia by the Vietnamese. Idi Amin was toppled in Uganda with the help of the Tanzanians and a new country called Bangladesh was created out of the old East Pakistan after India intervened. Nelson Mandela was released from prison and later elected President of South Africa. British troops were sent to Sierra Leone to restore democratic government. And the international community came together to fight Saddam Hussain, who had invaded Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War.

These things did not happen accidentally. They happened because individuals and governments were prepared to stand up and fight for what they believed in.

There have been some bad things, too. When white European Muslims were butchered by white European Christians in Bosnia, we stood by and watched. Only after 250,000 had died did we intervene – and without a UN mandate.

And when Saddam Hussein continued to kill his own people, ignoring the armistice agreement and a string of UN resolutions, rather than making the case for intervention we talked about alleged weapons of mass destruction. With hindsight, we should probably not have stopped the march to Baghdad to depose Saddam in the first Gulf War, even though that was the UN mandate. Squabbling about the mandate is more often an excuse for doing nothing than a genuine attempt to find common ground.

Most politicians say that what drives them is a feeling that things don’t have to be the way they are and that there is something we can do to make it better. Be it access to healthcare, quality of education, social mobility or levels of unemployment, we are prepared to intervene.

When it comes to “abroad”, we are more cautious, which is right. But in this modern interdependent world we cannot continue with the idea of absolute sovereignty. If we believe in freedom – that is, the rule of law, democracy and human rights – then a system which means we can only pick up the pieces after things have gone badly wrong just isn’t good enough. Intervention to prevent can be legitimate and justified.

To whom do we turn when freedom needs to be defended? The UN has unwieldy decision-making structures. Kofi Annan’s call for a new consensus around a “responsibility to protect” did not make much headway. The same is true of Tony Blair’s 1999 Chicago speech, in which he outlined the circumstances that warranted international intervention in the affairs of other states. Speaking then at the height of the Balkan conflict, Mr Blair called for a new form of justified international intervention in foreign conflicts, based on the premise that military action on sovereign soil is justified when the risk of genocide is so great it cannot morally be ignored.

The EU, with its focus on soft power, is not much help, either. Countries are willing to join peace-keeping forces, but few are prepared to step up to the plate and provide the combat troops to win the war.

Let’s stop accusing the US of being a big bully. They are the ones who foot the bill for international institutions and provide the military hardware and soldiers. We must work with them, rather than against them.

Democracy, the rule of law and the defence of human rights are values worth fighting for. We don’t need to apologise. However, we should be more upfront in explaining what it is we stand for.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"