Sorry is the hardest word
In some recent cases, the issue has been not much more than an irritating sideshow, as when Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded an apology from the United States late last year for causing unintended civilian deaths - at the price, bizarrely, of allowing the Americans to continue defending him and his country (the U.S. understandably refused).
But in other cases, the stakes have become very high indeed. Bilateral relations between Indonesia and Australia since last November have become more frigid than they have been in decades, owing to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s very real anger at Australia’s refusal to offer an apology for tapping his private telephone (and his wife’s).
And Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit in December to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead - including, since 1978, its most serious convicted war criminals - has reopened long-festering wounds among Japan’s neighbors, who perceive a lack of sincere contrition for waging aggressive war and committing wartime atrocities. It has certainly added tension to Japan’s already-fraught standoff with China over their competing claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.
In the case of Indonesia’s reaction to former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations of Australian spying on its first family, a personal apology from Prime Minister Tony Abbott would have made all the difference. He had merely to follow the playbook of President Barack Obama’s response to German Chancellor Angela Merkel when the United States was similarly caught out. Had he coupled this with a promise to “review our collection processes and priorities,” there might even have been no need to pledge, as the United States now has, to end all monitoring of “the leaders of our close friends and allies.”
I was in Jakarta at the time and formed that judgment after speaking to very senior officials, and I advised the Australian government accordingly. But the government took the view that when it comes to intelligence matters, apologies are for wimps. With elections looming in Indonesia, and nationalist sentiment there strong, Australia will be paying the diplomatic price for a long time unless it changes course.
The case of Japan is more complex. Under strong international pressure in the 1980s and 1990s a series of powerful apologies were in fact offered. Notable among them was then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono’s statement in 1993 on the issue of Korea’s “comfort women,” and Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s expression, on the 50th anniversary of the end of the World War II, of “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology.”
There has been no subsequent outright disavowal of these apologies; indeed, this month Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said that Abe’s cabinet members “have never denied” the Kono and Murayama statements. But, save for a gracious acceptance by South Korea’s then-President Kim Dae-jung in 1998, Japan’s apologies simply have not resonated much in the region, because they have regularly been accompanied by apparent side-stepping or backsliding.
Japan’s Diet, for example, failed to endorse Murayama’s statement in 1995, agreeing only to express “a deep feeling of remorse” (and even then 241 MPs abstained).
Above all, there have been Japanese leaders’ recurring pilgrimages to Yasukuni. The shrine not only records war criminals in its “Book of Souls”; it also contains the Yushukan museum, where Japan’s conquests in the 1930s and 1940s are glorified as “just wars fought for survival and self-defense” or for the “liberation of Asia.”
Certainly some of the outraged reaction by Japan’s neighbors is of questionable sincerity. South Koreans have often failed to acknowledge the number and intensity of statements about comfort women (who were forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers) and the amount of compensation on offer. China, for its part, periodically mobilizes nationalist sentiment to divert attention from internal problems, and partly encouraged Abe’s recent assertiveness by declaring an air defense identification zone beyond its acknowledged national airspace in the East China Sea - a move that, while not illegal, was certainly provocative.
But Japan could and should have done much more to give real substance to its apologies, as the Germans have done. At least since 1970, Germany has taken a comprehensive and credible approach to atoning for its Nazi past, fully acknowledging its horrors in school curriculums, graphically commemorating them in museums, monuments and ceremonies, and employing official discourse that has been unfailingly contrite.
Harvard’s Ezra Vogel, while not sparing China from his prescriptions, recently mapped some strategies by which Japan could defuse historical issues. Vogel recommends a full and objective official account of the suffering Japan’s military aggression caused, lengthening the time that students must devote to modern Japanese history and including regional reactions and criticism in that study.
Diplomats can learn from examples of transformative national apologies. The reconciliation of indigenous and white Australians was hugely advanced by Prime Minister Paul Keating’s Redfern speech in 1992, in which he declared: “We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practiced discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice .?.?.” Likewise, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered a strong apology in 2008 to the “stolen generations” of Aboriginal children taken from their families by welfare officers.
There are many situations in which apologies are not necessary, because both sides agree to move on. And “non-apology apologies” - for example, “I’m sorry if you feel I have offended you” - are often worse than nothing, although they are a familiar diplomatic stock-in-trade of which I, too, have been guilty of using.
It is also conceivable that genuine apologies may be counterproductive, because they trigger a backlash from local extremists, which may in turn fuel even more flames on the other side. I would, however, resist the conclusion that Japan’s apologies have been a net negative in this respect.
These arguments will continue. But it is difficult to believe that when a wrong has been done, a sincere apology will not have some restorative impact. In public, as in private life, honest apologies are a powerful tool, and should be used less nervously and more often.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
*The author, Australia’s foreign minister from 1988-96 and president of the International Crisis Group from 2000-9, co-chairs the New York-based Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect.
By Gareth Evans