One of the most interesting things about living in abroad anywhere is discovering the various stereotypes, images, views and opinions that foreigners hold about you and your nation. Whilst living in Italy last year quickly I learnt that when my friends told me that I was wearing a 'combinazione inglese' it wasn't a compliment, and on arriving here I couldn't understand why people kept complementing me on my teeth, until I realised the reputation that British people had for bad ones.
One of the great things about D.C. is that you get to meet and talk to people from all over the world. Whilst walking down embassy row you seem to leave America and enter the world, as every building becomes the territory of another state.
The other night whilst attending an event that included a prominent French politician, I heard one view of the Britain that that should have filled any Brit with immense pride. He told the assembled audience that in France, Westminster is referred to as "la mere de la liberte". I found it incredible that a country such as France, with the huge importance that it places on its own fundamental values of liberte, fraternite and egalite can look to Britain, and still call her parliament the mother of freedom.
The context however, made this remark come as a dagger to the heart. The speaker was sharing this particular French idiom to try to get across just how disappointed and appalled he was with the British for passing a law in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that allowed indefinite detention without trial or review by a judge. How could an institution with the greatest and most illustrious tradition of upholding freedom, that was established when in the rest of Europe we were still barbarians, he said, allow this law to pass? what hope is there for others?
When looking around the world today, the freedoms that we enjoy in the Western world are actually quite rare. Europe and America make up only 10% of the worlds population and despite the many justified complaints that people make, on these two continents we are very free compared to the other regions of the world. Importantly we have managed to achieve these freedoms whilst at the same time not sacrificing our security.
Iraq under Saddam Hussein had security without freedom whilst now the people there have freedom without any security. As the debate on our civil liberties continues, we should not see security and freedom as a trade off, having either one without the other is not desirable. Developing the kind of societies that have both has been one of the greatest achievements of Europe and America. The institutions that have provided the foundations of these societies have in many cases taken hundreds of years to establish. The world looks to them as it does to us and we would do well not to let them down.