Sorry I'm Not Sorry

The Perils of Apology in International Relations

Afghan President Hamid Karzai Omar Sobhani / Courtesy Reuters

This week, reports emerged that during negotiations over a new security pact between Afghanistan and the United States, Kabul demanded that Washington apologize for the U.S. military’s bad behavior. Some administration officials declared that no such apology was ever “on the table”; others suggested that the United States might draft a letter stating that it would not repeat "past mistakes" that led to civilian casualties during military operations.

The prospect of such an apology caused immediate controversy. American conservatives, whose favorite foreign policy talking point during the 2012 election was that President Barack Obama had embarked on a nationally humiliating “apology tour,” expressed outrage that the administration would even consider this gesture of supposed supplication. Liberals wondered why issuing a simple apology was such a big deal, arguing that it would do much to improve U.S. relations with Afghanistan and the United States’ global image. 

Both sides overlook a more sensible middle ground. As I argued in a 2009 Foreign Affairs essay (see below), acknowledgment of past harm -- perhaps more than some conservatives might prefer -- is vital for reconciliation between former adversaries. But whereas acknowledgement is vital, apologies are not. In fact, apologies can do more harm than good, because they often prompt an unproductive nationalist backlash.

The politics of apology are hardly limited to the United States and Afghanistan. In particular, East Asia’s historical controversies have been out in full force recently, thanks to the behavior of leaders across the region. This past spring, senior Japanese politicians visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war dead, including war criminals from World War II; this infuriated China and South Korea, which bore the brunt of those crimes. The mayor of Osaka then made insensitive remarks that seemed to defend Japan’s human rights violations against women during World War II (namely, the keeping of sex slaves by Japan’s Imperial Army).

In South Korea, President Park Geun-hye has taken a strident tone, declaring that an upcoming summit with Tokyo

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