Yet it would not be at all straightforward for Cameron to bow his head, say “sorry,” and join this growing trend. In fact, while official apologies within countries have grown more and more commonplace, official apologies between countries remain rare and highly fraught. In Britain’s case, an apology might trigger a cascade of similar demands from a host of other, former colonial possessions. Even more importantly, apologies to foreign victims have potentially high domestic audience costs. Present citizens of the United Kingdom may not feel that they need to apologize for acts, however loathsome, that took place decades and centuries ago, and do not want their elected representatives, to make such gestures. Though such views are debatable, there is no question that they are prevalent and would exact a political price for any leader offering an apology.
Moreover, while it is possible that apologies could have the desired palliative effects – as in Germany’s reconciliation with Western Europe – in most cases, the fractious domestic debates that apologies create are as likely to inflame as soothe old wounds. For example, legions of Japanese prime ministers have offered apologies to Chinese, South Korean, and other former victims, only to prompt domestic outcry that aggravates victims still further.
Thus, while headlines across the world fretted about what Cameron’s visit was missing, they should instead have focused on what it had to offer – namely, a promising model of international reconciliation. Through his visit, Cameron used the power of his office to focus the global media spotlight on a tragic atrocity in British and Indian history—acknowledging an event that is deeply meaningful to a country with which Britain values good relations.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
“I think the right thing is to acknowledge what happened,” Cameron said, “to recall what happened, to show respect and understanding for what happened.”
As Cameron acknowledged a “deeply shameful” moment in British history, his approach still gave his countrymen something to feel good about. “I think there is an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British empire did and was responsible for,” the prime minister said. “But of course there were bad events as well as good events. The bad events we should learn from and the good events we should celebrate.”
In the attempt to change the conversation away from a polarizing, and generally unhelpful, apology approach, in his efforts to honestly face history and to demonstrate respect for victims, Cameron’s approach offers promise for reconciliation across the world.
Sumit Ganguly is a professor of political science and holds the Tagore Chair in Indiana University, Bloomington. He is completing a book, Deadly Impasse: Indo-Pakistan Relations at the Dawn of a New Century for Cambridge University Press.
Jennifer Lind is Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College. She is the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics (Cornell University Press, 2008). You can follow her on Twitter: @profLind.