John Roos, center, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, prays in silence at a memorial service for victims of the atomic bombing at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan.
Jiji Press / AFP/Getty Images

[The following is a guest post from Dartmouth College political scientist Jennifer Lind, the author of  Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics (Cornell 2008). She is on Twitter @profLind.]


Negotiations of a security pact between Afghanistan and the United States this week touched off a flurry of criticism over the notion that the pact would include a U.S. apology for “past mistakes” in U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

Some declare this idea outrageous, arguing that the United States has devoted billions of dollars and thousands of lives to making Afghanistan a more stable and prosperous country. On the other side, commentators wonder, what’s so hard about a simple gesture like an apology, and what’s so broken about the United States that it can’t offer one? Is it hegemonic hubris, a president leery of downward-spiraling approval ratings, or the influence of political parties that thwarts such a simple gesture?

The notion of political apologies as simple gestures is one of the many misconceptions about them. A first misconception, frequently heard in East Asian discussions about Japan’s remembrance of its World War II past, is that apologies are necessary for interstate reconciliation. Japan can never reconcile with its neighbors, many argue, until Tokyo apologizes for its World War II violence. According to this view, a U.S. apology to Afghanistan would be essential before the two countries could cooperate productively and truly trust one another.

But actually reconciliation doesn’t work this way. Countries are drawn together because of common interests (often, shared security threats), which give them an incentive to cooperate. In the course of doing so, as Charles Kupchan has argued, they create new narratives and identities –symbols, traditions, and memories—that support reconciliation.

They rarely apologize. France and West German reconciliation, motivated by the dire Soviet threat after World War II, was conducted without apologies, and indeed before Bonn embarked on its extensive policies of contrition. (That began later, under the liberal governments of the 1960s.)

Similarly, after World War II Japan and the United States successfully transformed their relations from hated enemies to the closest of allies—absent apologies on either side.

Importantly, all of these countries did acknowledge past violence. Acknowledgement (unlike apologies) does appear to be an essential ingredient in international reconciliation. Although under the conservative governments of the 1950s, Bonn was not very apologetic, the government of Konrad Adenauer did take responsibility for German atrocities and aggression. The absence of this would surely have stymied Franco-German cooperation in the 1950s.

The palliative role of acknowledgement, and the pernicious effects of denial, is also seen in the case of Japan. In the early years after the war, Japanese governments denied past violence; today, occasional statements of denial by Japan’s officials do tremendous damage to its foreign relations. The lesson of this for the United States and Afghanistan as that each must be aware of and acknowledge harm that the other has endured.

Although acknowledgement of past violence is vital, going beyond this is a risky enterprise. Apologies between countries are tremendously controversial. President Obama has been pilloried for statements that conservatives declared to be “apologizing for America.” Even the whiff of an apology to Afghanistan has already prompted outcry.

Previously in the United States, two presidents (Clinton and Bush père) flatly rejected the notion of apologizing to Japan for the atomic bombings. In 1995, Congress killed an introspective Smithsonian exhibition about Hiroshima.  Since the nation’s founding, liberals and conservatives have waged “culture wars” about how to tell history: whether to focus on learning from past mistakes or to emphasize the positive so to generate national pride.

Liberals at home and abroad may wonder in frustration what’s wrong with the United States that it can’t even offer a simple apology—to Japan for World War II, to Afghanistan, and so forth—but other countries behave similarly. Calls for Japanese apologies, by domestic liberals and by foreign countries, consistently spark conservative outcry in Japan. This backlash does nothing to improve matters—as Japan’s attempts to apologize in the 1990s showed, it only worsened relations with its neighbors.

Japan’s critics wonder in frustration why Japan can’t apologize like Germany, which has atoned extensively for its World War II atrocities and aggression. But no country apologizes like Germany. Austria and Italy indulge in narratives of resistance and victimhood. Britain lauds its heroes. Indeed, far from being the norm, German apologies are the overwhelming exception. Elsewhere, contrition (or even just calls for self-reflection) provoke domestic backlash. Such outcry was limited in Germany probably because West German conservatives had overriding goals that demanded conciliation with its former enemies –NATO protection of West Germany from a severe Soviet threat, and the acquiescence of its neighbors to German unification.

Apologies are rare, politically fraught, and generally counterproductive. For this reason countries that need to cooperate don’t demand them of each other. Successful reconciliation requires that countries acknowledge violence that they endured. But reconciliation does not require apologies. Because the United States and Afghanistan view each other as important security partners, their avoidance of this divisive issue was smart diplomacy.