Living With the Undead Past and National Sins, in the New Foreign Affairs

“How do nations handle the sins of the fathers and mothers? Take genocide, or slavery, or political mass murder. After such knowledge, what forgiveness—and what way forward?” asks Editor Gideon Rose in his introduction to the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs.

In the wake of last summer’s white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and renewed debates over memorializing the Confederacy, the issue’s lead package, “The Undead Past,” examines how a range of countries have grappled with their own troubled histories—and how those histories continue to shape both domestic and international politics today.

“Worst practices are easy to identify: denying what actually happened,” writes Rose. “Best practices are more scattered, but one coun­try leads the field. Germany’s crimes rank with the worst in history. But at least, over time, the right lessons were indeed learned, and responsible engagement with the past has become a new national tradi­tion.”

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Highlights from the cover package include:

“The most significant fact about American slavery, one it did not share with other prominent ancient slave systems, was its basis in race. . . .  As a result, American slavery was tied inexorably to white dominance,” writes Harvard University Professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed. “Grappling with the legacy of slavery, therefore, requires grappling with the white supremacy that preceded the founding of the United States and persisted after the end of legalized slavery.”

“Germany has accomplished an undeniably impressive feat: a collective acceptance of moral responsibility for the terrible crimes of its recent past,” writes Richard J. Evans, Gresham College provost and author of The Third Reich in History and Memory. “When it comes to accepting the sins of the past, there is, in the end, no alterna­tive for Germany.”

“The monsters of Stalin’s era are coming back from the dead. And some of Russia’s leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, are exploiting the ideology of Stalin’s era to serve their own ends,” observes Nikita Petrov, deputy director of the Board of Memorial, a historical, educational, charitable, and human rights organization based in Moscow. “The Kremlin has instilled the cult of strong government in the public consciousness. . . . All of this serves to justify Russia’s expansionism abroad and repres­sion at home. As long as Russia refuses to officially acknowledge the darkness in its past, it will be haunted by ideas that should have died long ago.”

Asia Society’s Orville Schell notes that “Despite all the anguish and death the

CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has caused, it has never issued any official admission of guilt, much less allowed any memorialization of its victims. And because any mea culpa would risk undermining the party’s legitimacy and its right to rule unilaterally, nothing of the sort is likely to occur.”

Sisonke Msimang, activist and author of Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home, writes that “South Africa has been heralded as a beacon of national unity, but the emphasis on individual crimes has distracted from the broader sins of apartheid. Twenty-three years after the transition to democracy, the wider systemic racial and economic inequalities that have kept most black South Africans poor while preserving the wealth and privilege most white South Africans enjoyed under apartheid remain firmly in place.”

SOAS University of London Reader in Comparative and International Politics Phil Clark notes that “Rwanda’s impressive recovery from the genocide has stemmed from not just a highly coordinated government response but also the resilience and creativity of the local population. For the latter to flour­ish now, the government will need to give its citizens much more latitude to define their own futures.”

Additional highlights from the issue include:

“The Russian government is brazenly assaulting the foundations of Western democracy around the world,” write former U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., and Penn Biden Center Senior Director Michael Carpenter. “If the Trump administration cannot or will not stand up to Russia, other democratic institutions, including Congress and civil society organizations, must mobilize.” 

“Policymakers have assumed that if North Korea collapsed or became embroiled in a war with the United States, China would try to support its cherished client from afar. . . . But this thinking is dangerously out of date,” cautions Georgetown University Assistant Professor Oriana Skylar Mastro. “Today, China is no longer wedded to North Korea’s survival.”

Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Rachel Vogelstein argues that “women’s advocates have long championed gender parity as a moral issue. But in the modern global economy, eliminating obstacles to women’s economic participation is also a strategic imperative. A growing body of evidence confirms the positive relationship between women’s participation in the labor force and overall growth.”

Foreign Affairs’ Deputy Managing Editor Stuart A. Reid reports from Congo, a place that “recalls Voltaire’s quip about the Holy Roman Empire: in this case, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is neither democratic, nor a republic, nor in control of the Congo.” To make matters worse, the government there now faces “a transition crisis that threatens to throw the country into chaos.”

Princeton University Assistant Professor Keren Yarhi-Milo warns that “As the president undermines the nation’s credibility at home and abroad, allies will hesitate to trust American promises. . . . Other sources of credibility, such as American military prowess and a general faith in U.S. institutions, may mitigate some of the damage wreaked by Trump. But there is no substitute for a president whose words still matter.”

“It is tempting to blame Trump’s legislative failures on his lack of government experience, his indifference to the details of policy, and his tempestuous personality,” argues Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Sarah Binder. “Focusing only on personal characteristics misses the political and institutional dynamics” that have contributed to the lack of Republican wins on Capitol Hill. “A more disciplined and popular president might have managed to bring Republicans together,” Binder writes. “But huge obstacles would still have remained.”

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