On 12 November, I was a guest of the French President. Not the excitable Nicolas Sarkozy, but the imperturbable Julien Domercq, the President of the Cambridge Union, who invited me to speak in a debate before a packed chamber of several hundred undergraduates. The motion was: "This House believes the West wasted the opportunity presented by the fall of the Berlin Wall." I was on the Opposition side, along with the Earl of Onslow and the Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, up against a formidable Proposition team: Sir Emyr Jones Parry, a former ambassador to the UN and to Nato, Michael Moore, a former Prime Minister of New Zealand and former Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, John Kampfner, a former editor of the New Statesman, and Bruce Kent, a former leader of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The debate turned on what attitude one took to the West: was it to blame for all the troubles of the world, or not?
My distinguished colleagues argued that we defenders of the West were the pragmatists and realists, while the Proposers were the idealists, absurdly overestimating what could reasonably have been expected after 1989. My own pitch was slightly different: I did not want to concede the notion that the critics of the West had a monopoly of idealism. We, the victors of the Cold War, the liberators of the evil empire, could never have accomplished our bloodless triumph without a good measure of idealism. Over the past two decades, the West has brought freedom, democracy and prosperity to large areas of the world that had never known them before, often in the teeth of tyranny and fanaticism. I spoke of the future, imploring my youthful audience to seize their chance to make history, as our generation had done. It seemed to me that in the battle between hope and despair, the young would vote for the heroes of hope.
We lost. I thought we had the better of it, naturally, but nevertheless the House voted against us. It may not have been as momentous a debate as the motion carried by the Oxford Union in 1933, "That this House will in no circumstances fight for King and Country", but it was significant.
The Cambridge undergraduates who condemned the conduct of the West since 1989 were sending a message not unlike that of their Oxford predecessors, the disillusioned generation for whom Auden spoke in his poem "1 September 1939", when he looked back at Europe from the safety of Manhattan: "Uncertain and afraid/As the clever hopes expire/Of a low dishonest decade".