Apologies for a country’s past wrongdoing can provoke dangerous backlashes and threaten international reconciliation, government professor Jennifer Lind said in a lecture based on her book, “Sorry States: Apologies and International Politics,” held in the Rockefeller Center on Thursday. The book focuses on post-World War II West Germany and Japan as comparative examples of the different ways countries remember past atrocities and the subsequent political outcomes.
Apologies can be domestically polarizing and may lead to a conservative backlash, according to Lind. After World War II, Japan was proud of its wartime acts and focused on fostering patriotism without offering apologies, Lind said. Since then, the Japanese have been more conciliatory, offering apologies for acts including forced labor, sexual slavery and the colonization of Korea, China and other Pacific countries. These apologies, though, have been accompanied by renewed outbursts of denial and glorification of wartime acts by prominent Japanese politicians, Lind said.
“People don’t like to be told that their dads are war criminals,” she said.
Neighboring countries observe this conservative political discourse and conclude that Japan is still a threat to regional safety, Lind said, adding that such mistrust can thwart regional diplomacy and hinder attempts to solve greater political problems.
Japan currently faces strong international pressure to “emulate the German model of “coming to terms” with its past,” Lind said. This model includes offering apologies, paying reparations and building monuments to the country’s victims. But Germany did not originally use the “come to terms” strategy, Lind said. The “come to terms” model began only after the success of the “Adenauer” model in the early post-war years. This model, instituted by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, acknowledged German atrocities but also focused on German suffering during the war. From 1958 to 1962, Germany restored amicable relations with France through a series of summits, and, by 1965, the French saw Germany as their “best friend,” Lind said.
To avoid a conservative reaction, Japan should embrace the Adenauer model of restoring amicable relations without the showiness of official apologies, Lind said. This approach includes severing ties with any politician who denies or glorifies wartime atrocities and avoiding “apology spectacles” in Japan’s legislative body, the Diet. While such an approach may alienate past victims who want an official apology, it ultimately furthers reconciliation, Lind said.
The international community should also strive for a less accusatory strategy, Lind added.
“Think about how galling it is for foreign ‘Namers and Shamers’ to ask for an apology,” she said. “You can argue that it’s good for raising awareness, but it comes at a cost of stability of relations.”
As a graduate student in the mid-1990’s, Lind said she saw a “big gap” regarding the role of apologies in international relations. At the time, disputes over Japan’s textbook materials and official visits by politicians to war shrines were stoking regional tensions, she said in an interview with The Dartmouth.
As she conducted her research for “Sorry States,” Lind said she was surprised to find that the antagonistic political statements in Japan regarding World War II were often a response to official attempts to apologize.
“The backlash story became the key part of the book,” she said.
Her hypothesis compliments the current “constructivist paradigm,” which emphasizes the role of ideas in international relations, according to Lind. It also comes at a time of greater interest in justice and human rights, she said.
Humanitarian organizations may “not like what I have to say,” Lind said, adding that her recommendations are more focused on promoting regional stability than advancing justice or human rights.
The lecture was part of the Dartmouth Centers Forum 2009 lecture series, “Conflict and Reconciliation.”