The Power Of An Apology In Interstate Relations

“I am sorry.”

“I/we deeply regret what happened.”

“This shouldn’t have happened.”

These are a few ways to apologise for the wrong one has done to others and also to demonstrate that one is taking that wrong seriously. These words let the victim and offender to move on and reconcile. Since 1990s, various heads of states have offered apologies for the behavior of their states in the past. This brought the subject of apology in interstate relations in focus by academics and practitioners.

Scholars like Jennifer Lind, Shipong Tang, Tracy Adams and Zohar Kampf have conducted landmark studies assessing the importance of, reasons behind and the impact of apology and other forms of contrition on interstate relations. What role does an apology play in international politics is still under exploration by researchers however it is an interesting phenomenon.

Apology and different forms of contrition are capable of healing wounds of the past; however, this needs to be carefully considered among adversaries. States that have a history of conflicts or unresolved disputes tend to have rich remembrance of the past filled with mistrust, hatred and fear. Such historical memories influence states’ threat perception. Moreover, the way a state remembers its past defines its image in the adversary’s mind.

This remembrance not only creates and maintains the state’s image in the adversary’s mind but also garner domestic public and institutional support to maintain and project this image. This projection of image at times leads states to eschew an official apology. For instance, Obama, being the first sitting US president to make a historic visit to Hiroshima, delivered an emotional speech but didn’t apologise to signal that the visit did not amount to an apology.

He was dissuaded from apologising because it could offend WWII veterans. Likewise, Japanese prime minister Abe expressed his remorse at the brutal treatment of prisoners of war and mass rape of Chinese women at Nanking by Japanese soldiers but avoided to take responsibility as a diplomatic strategy meant to keep Japanese image vis-a-vis China.

Towards South Korea, Japan offered its remorse and financial compensation to the women of South Korea for war crimes committed during WWII, but in return demanded to remove the embarrassing statue outside embassy in Seoul.

The efficacy of apology (besides being an expression of remorse) in interstate relations is yet to be established but apologies do assuage historical grievances held by the public of one’s adversary. The above examples highlight that apology and contrition could become an instrument to reduce and containing growing tension level among states but contrition could trigger domestic backlash.

A contrite stance has its own costs and risks. States offering contrition could face a trade-off between improving interstate relations and earn a reputation at international level and face domestic backlash. Tony Blair received praise for his apology to Ireland in 1997 for Britain’s lack of action during the potato famine of 1840s, yet he was criticised by academics as well as the media. At one point, the Daily Telegraph wrote that Blair’s apology is as allowing Ireland to “place the blame for all the country’s ills at the door of the Brits, [and] ultimately justifying terrorism.”

Domestic backlash could come from groups or individuals who have strong dispositions in terms of conservatism, nationalism, social dominance or who think that the recipient country is not strategically an important state.

For example, repeated efforts of Japanese leaders to apologise for Japanese colonialism and aggression triggered domestic backlash from conservative elements of Japanese society.

To minimise the risks and impacts of domestic backlash, it is important for states to remember their past in a unifying manner because acknowledging past atrocities from different dimensions within a society could polarise the domestic public and undercut efforts of contrition.

Here, recording of historical unsavoury events is critical. To a great extent, an apology can reduce interstate suspicions whereas denial of past violence or human rights violations even under the guise of humanitarian intervention in historical records of a state (including textbooks) tend to elevate mistrust with adversary, which thus hinders reconciliation.
Tt is important for states to remember their past in a unifying manner because acknowledging past atrocities from different dimensions within a society could polarise the domestic public and undercut efforts of contrition

Whitewashing and denials of past wrongdoings are pernicious but acceptance of historical truths at any level such as Hillary Clinton’s testimony about the US role in Afghanistan, even without offering an official apology at state level, can help put historical records right, guiding the state’s future course of action. For interstate reconciliation, citizen apology could be another way. It is particularly relevant to those states where over time the whole nation, including the public and institutions, have become socialised to collective remembrance of atrocious of the past. Seeking an apology from citizens of those states could not only facilitate such apology to have lasting impact deep down the society that in turn could prevent domestic backlash but also pressurise incumbent regime to make efforts towards reconciliation.

This brings to mind - can an apology and acts of contrition ever offered by and to South Asian states to reconcile and improve interstate relations? An uphill task indeed.

The recurrent occurrence of disputes characterised with emotions and dreadful history of great powers’ interaction with Afghanistan adversely impacted the progression in South Asian regional politics. This tends to make contrition difficult because states that engage in historical revisionism and suppress accurate remembrances of war crimes are unlikely to issue apologies, whereas countries that embrace historical accuracy and ingrain responsibility and guilt into their collective memory are far more likely to issue apologies.

Yet, there are striking examples of states apologising for their past wrongdoings. For example, Bill Clinton apologised to Hawaii for overthrowing their king in 1893; Queen Elizabeth II apologised for colonial wrongdoings against the Maoris in New Zealand; Tony Blair expressed apology to Ireland for Britain’s behaviour during the potato famine; David Cameron apologised for Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972; Germany since the 1960s for atrocities committed by Nazi regime. Nevertheless, Germany reconciled with France without offering much of contrition. However, few apologies never came. For instance, Britain never apologised for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 when British forces opened machine gun fire at about 1,500 unarmed Baishakhi pilgrims killing about 500. Likewise, US never offered apology for atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the invasion of Iraq, war mistakes in Afghanistan, and Indian humanitarian intervention in 1971.

Nations build on collective memory of historic events based on which they self-stylise. Hence, to adopt any form of contrition requires a collective national effort and wisdom. One can question why would a contemporary generation of a nation or state have to apologise and shoulder the responsibility for the wrongdoings, crimes or sins their ancestors had committed decades or centuries ago. Michael Sandel, political philosopher, has an appropriate answer to this dilemma. He argues that collective pride and collective shame together form a collective identity of a nation. Hence, not owning historic atrocities and wrongdoings a nation committed in the past erodes the basis of this collective identity.

If a nation takes pride in historical achievements that its ancestors made, then it can shoulder the responsibility of its ancestors’ wrongdoings. Moreover, it is important for nations to forget collectively certain historic events, resurrection of which only breeds acrimony. History further informs us that divisive rhetoric breeds acrimony and to bury the acrimonious past, states chose to selectively omit unsavoury events of the past to move on.

Dr. Salma Shaheen teaches at the Defence Studies department at King's College London. She can be reached at