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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.