Saturday, September 20, 2014
4

Sorry is the Hardest Word

CANBERRA – Apologies, or the lack of them, have been back in the news, raising questions again about how useful they are in resolving international problems. The efficacy of timely and sincere apologies in defusing personal tensions cannot be doubted. Is the same true for diplomacy?

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 US 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 re-opened 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 US intelligence contractor Edward J. 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 US was similarly caught out. Had he coupled this with a simple promise to “review our collection processes and priorities,” there might even have been no need to pledge explicitly, as the US 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 1980’s and 1990’s – to which I hope I contributed as Australia’s foreign minister – 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 1930’s and 1940’s 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 curricula, 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.

Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (4)

Please login or register to post a comment

  1. CommentedCam Jennings

    Great piece Gareth and thank you for this work.
    My response in length can be found here - http://pegasus11.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/so-sincerely-sorry/

  2. Portrait of Michael Heller

    CommentedMichael Heller

    Ryohei Uchida (below),
    You may be interested to know that someone has quite recently written a book on this very topic -- Jennifer Lind ‘Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics’ (Cornell). When I read what you wrote I was reminded of something Lind said elsewhere in an essay.

    “Comparison of the Japanese and German cases thus raises a puzzle. Japan’s modest efforts to offer contrition repeatedly triggered sharp outcry among conservatives, who justified and even denied past atrocities. Because of backlash, Japanese contrition ended up alarming Japan’s neighbors. In Germany, by contrast, far more ambitious efforts at contrition did not provoke a similar backlash. Though some West German conservatives preferred to emphasize a more positive national history, they did not deny or glorify Nazi crimes. The French thus viewed West German debates about the past as healthy, cathartic experiences for the country’s democratic development—and as a reassuring signal about its intentions.”

    As I think Gareth Evans implied, one problem with Japan as compared with Germany would appear to be that no matter what its diplomats say (under pressure), the world outside sees and hears a sizeable influential unrepentant section of the population -- nationalists and militarists. That’s why it is particularly disturbing that Shinzo Abe visited the war shrine when tensions were at their highest. Personally I would suggest to you that Japan might sensibly be generous and ‘disown’ one or two of those pesky little islands. Give them to charity ? It would look so good to the world.

  3. Portrait of Michael Heller

    CommentedMichael Heller

    Gareth, agree with you that Abbott’s simplest course of action would have been immediate apology. Abbott came a gutser when he announced that Australia shouldn’t be expected to apologise. By saying this the silly bugger put the idea in everybody’s minds (Indonesia never asked for an apology). But give him a break, Abbott had only just been elected and was finding his feet. And there were the background ‘prideful’ issues muddying the waters -- the new Australian government's reasonable but ill-timed threat to return boat people to Indonesia, the precipitous drop in the value of Indonesian currency, the fact that Yudhoyono will not be much longer in office and is thinking about his legacy and successor. It was a classic new guy meets old guy situation. A few points that occurred to me at the time (I made notes because I was thinking of writing a blog post at Project Syndicate on the same topic!):

    1. I don’t necessarily agree about the need for “sincerity”. It’s political theatre mainly for the benefit of family members and simple-minded nationalists, both sides know this.
    2. Abbott is on record as saying the apology to Australia’s aboriginals should have come sooner, i.e. when his own party was previously in power. And it’s well known Abbott has more first hand knowledge of aboriginal communities than the vast majority of Australian politicians. In other words, in normal circumstances Abbott knows the value of an apology.
    3. Unlike one of his predecessors -- president Abdurrahman Wahid (aka Gus Dur) -- Indonesia’s current president Yudhoyono (aka SBY) has not apologised to the victims of the anti-communist purges in the 1960s. SBY said that he does not want to revisit the past. The Indonesian establishment rejected anything resembling South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Gus Dur greatly upset the military when he apologised for the 1960s atrocities and for the suppressions in East Timor (let’s not forget SBY is an army general). In other words, SBY himself ain’t as good as Abbott at apologies.
    4. Former head of Indonesia's Intelligence Agency, Abdullah Hendropriyono, happily admitted to bugging Australian military, politicians, and civilians during the East Timor crisis in 1999. After the Abbott-SBY spat Hendropriyono boasted to Australian media that Indonesia could easily tap Australian phones, and, not only that, had a responsibility to spy on "friend or foe”.

    Notwithstanding, with hindsight a simple ‘sorry’ would have been a good idea. If there are no big matters of principle at stake, and if it will not dangerously be interpreted as a sign of weakness, the well timed apology is the mark of the experienced and confident leader. At the very least, there were alternative wordings to take the sting out of the wounded pride. You will know this much better than me!

  4. CommentedWayne Davidson

    The grate of guilt holds fast to the coals of Contritions fire, while apologist's rake deceit from the cold ash. RW.

Featured