Should states apologize?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered a predictably unhelpful response to President Barack Obama’s conciliatory message to the Muslim world last week. Ahmadinejad’s answer: first the United States has to “apologize” for its opposition to Iran’s nuclear program and for a host of other transgressions. I’ve got news for him: we’ve already done so — at ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flashes the V for "victory" sign as he waits to receive the political supremo of Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, upon his arrival for a meeting in Tehran on February 1, 2009. Meshaal ruled out any "permanent ceasefire" until Israel ends its crippling blockade of the Gaza Strip. AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI (Photo credit should read BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered a predictably unhelpful response to President Barack Obama's conciliatory message to the Muslim world last week. Ahmadinejad's answer: first the United States has to "apologize" for its opposition to Iran's nuclear program and for a host of other transgressions.

I've got news for him: we've already done so -- at least in part -- and he's not going to get another apology any time soon. Obama may be hoping for a fresh start with Tehran, but he is not going to start the process by apologizing for anything. And he's certainly not going to take any steps that might bolster Ahmadinejad's popularity between now and the Iranian presidential election in June.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered a predictably unhelpful response to President Barack Obama’s conciliatory message to the Muslim world last week. Ahmadinejad’s answer: first the United States has to “apologize” for its opposition to Iran’s nuclear program and for a host of other transgressions.

I’ve got news for him: we’ve already done so — at least in part — and he’s not going to get another apology any time soon. Obama may be hoping for a fresh start with Tehran, but he is not going to start the process by apologizing for anything. And he’s certainly not going to take any steps that might bolster Ahmadinejad’s popularity between now and the Iranian presidential election in June.

Yet Ahmadinejad’s statement does raise a broader question: should states apologize at all, even when they’ve done something they regret?

You might think that realists wouldn’t put much stock in apologies; aren’t they just meaningless “cheap talk?” Don’t realists worry more about balances of power and conflicts of interest, and don’t they emphasize that international politics is a rough business where states routinely do nasty things to weaker parties? Given that world-view, what’s the point of saying you’re sorry?

In fact, even realists think being willing to apologize sometimes matters. But as Dartmouth’s Jennifer Lind argues in her book Sorry States: Apologies in World Politics, the act of apology can be tricky too, and can easily backfire.

There are at least three good reasons for states to apologize when they have behaved badly towards others.

First, apologizing to those you have wronged is an acknowledgement of their equal status; it is a recognition that they are of sufficient stature to deserve an expression of regret. Refusing to apologize sends the message that you think the wronged party is too insignificant to warrant any contrition. To do so betrays contempt for the party we have wronged, and treating someone with contempt is bound to fuel a desire for revenge.

Second, far from being “cheap talk,” apologies can be a costly signal that conveys a genuine and sincere desire for a new relationship. Why? Because apologizing to a former adversary is politically risky, and only leaders who are genuinely sorry would be willing to run the risks and bear the costs.  When a state acknowledges responsibility and expresses regret, it also opens itself up to demands for compensation or various forms of sanction and it may even lend legitimacy to opponents who then try to take advantage of the admission. The fact that there can be genuine costs to an apology explains why mere words still carry genuine meaning to the wronged party.

Third, apologizing tells others that no matter what we may have done in the past, we understand where the boundaries of acceptable conduct lie. If a country commits a heinous act and then refuses to apologize for it, others have reason to question whether its leaders are even aware that they have crossed a moral boundary. When someone shows no understanding of where the lines are, there is every reason to think they would cross them again without a second thought. To take an obvious example, had Germany failed to acknowledge the Holocaust and to openly apologize for it, people everywhere would have reason to think that Germans might easily do something similar again. The same logic explains why Pope Benedict’s decision to reverse the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying priest is troubling; if the Vatican thinks Holocaust-denial is a minor matter that should take a back seat to the unity of the church, what does that tell us about the priority it places on crimes against humanity?

Even for realists, therefore, apologies can be a necessary tool of diplomacy. Apologizing for past mistakes is sometimes the best — maybe the only — way to wipe the slate clean and provide others with some basis for giving a country a second chance. Being a great power may mean that you never have to say you’re sorry, but sometimes it is still a good idea.

But not always. Lind’s book also shows that the question of apologies is more complicated than the simple picture I just sketched. She points out that states sometimes reconcile in the absence of an official apology — as France and Germany did after World War II — especially when former rivals realize that they have powerful strategic reasons to bury the hatchet and move on. Moreover, sometimes the act of extending an apology triggers a domestic backlash that undercuts the very leaders who are trying to promoting reconciliation, reinforcing existing suspicions and frustrating efforts to build a new relationship.  In order to balance these conflicting imperatives, states may be better off eschewing efforts to “name and shame” and relying on less accusatory forms of remembrance and regret, such as memorials to victims (on both sides), international commissions to advise on the writing of textbooks and other educational materials, and joint scholarly programs designed to address sensitive historical events.

With respect to the United States and Iran, this is good advice. To build a new relationship, both sides will have to come to terms with the various hostile acts that each has committed over the past fifty-plus years. But no Iranian leader is likely to apologize to the “Great Satan” and no U.S. president could go beyond past expressions of regret without risking a backlash here at home. A better path is to emphasize the interests that the United States and Iran do have in common — such as a shared desire for a stable and unified Iraq, and a growing concern about the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan — while addressing the obvious points of contention (e.g., Iran’s nuclear program). If we can make progress on the concrete diplomatic issues, we can also begin unofficial efforts to understand how and why U.S.-Iranian relations deteriorated in the past. American and Iranian scholars could usefully explore these issues through academic exchanges and then disseminate their findings more broadly, allowing each society to learn from past mistakes but without demanding humiliating expressions of regret that neither is likely to get.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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