The Debate

‘Strategic Forgiveness’: Lessons for East Asia

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The Debate

‘Strategic Forgiveness’: Lessons for East Asia

“Being contrite contains real diplomatic, defense, and economic benefits.”

‘Strategic Forgiveness’: Lessons for East Asia
Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

World War II’s legacy has not been kind to East Asia; the rubble of innumerable state-to-state relationships and potential partnerships lays scattered across the theater in various stages of neglect. While some divide the blame for these foul circumstances between Cold War policy imperatives and the influence of the so-called San Francisco System, there is almost universal approval and praise when one of these old wrongs are righted via national-level apologies. Besides possessing a human touch, the strategic value of forgiveness often goes unnoticed in East Asia; being contrite contains real diplomatic, defense, and economic benefits that, upon closer inspection, reveal why states continually utilize apologies as a form of strategic communication to best suit their interests in the long run. While these benefits are known to many statesmen and scholars, they are worth re-examining in the context of an East Asian perspective.

More Than Just “Sorry”

National apologies are often considered major events in diplomatic relations. Not only are apologies considered a concession by one side to another, and thereby are often recklessly flaunted as “diplomatic victories,” but contrite statements also provide anxious students of diplomacy solid incidents to include in their strategic musings, for better or worse. Apologies, however, while a universal human expression, mean different things in different cultural contexts. In many parts of the Near East and Asia, apologies are complicated by their perception as a clear personal or national failure without an accompanying face-saving concession from the other side. This in turn often confounds international cooperative efforts without the proper cultural context.

But if we examine apologies from another perspective, they are simply another form of strategic communication, with or without face-saving; a method that often gives the apologizer a greater advantage than the receiver. To this end, apologies can be seen in the greater whole of “strategic forgiveness,” which offers contrite states four major advantages over those who cling to angry rhetoric as a national strategy.

Four Strategic Benefits

This first of these advantages is a boost in international opinion. Regardless of a nation’s regional background, an apology is at once a human act in light of public opinion. Similarly, asking forgiveness is generally looked upon as a positive action, whether the apologizer means it or not. It is this fact—how the actual feelings behind the apology may not matter—that make apologies so unusual; regardless of the solemnness of the contrition, it forces the receiver to act, which throws previous calculations off-balance and opens the door to new opportunities. More often than not, the receiver will choose to forgive (or be forced to do so), making the apology a dependable diplomatic weapon. A good example of this concept is the British decision to apologize to the United States for its actions supporting the Confederate war effort during the U.S. Civil War. This apology (and subsequent acceptance) ushered in an unprecedented age of amity, defense cooperation, and closeness that exists to this day. Whether or not the British actually meant it is unimportant; what matters is how they shrewdly snatched a public opinion victory from the jaws of a diplomatically surprised United States.

Which brings us to the second major advantage: an apology allows the apologizer to seize the current relations tempo. During any sporting event, military operation, or any competitive activity, whoever controls the tempo—the pacing, speed, and relative sequence of events—generally has an advantage over their opponents. Military professionals have understood this for thousands of years—get to the battlefield first, and get there on your terms. Similarly, in international diplomacy control of international public opinion is extremely important; just ask Boris Yeltsin, who in a span of less than a year decided to apologize for both the downing of Korean Airlines flight 269 and the internment of over 600,000 Japanese prisoners of war in Siberia. While his efforts to grab the horns of public opinion were not enough to earn him credibility in East Asia, it is hard to imagine Russian post-Cold War diplomatic initiatives making any headway without them. For a brief time Korea and Japan dialed down their rhetoric and waited to see what the Soviets had to say.

The third advantage is apologizing safeguards the state from becoming captive to a popular or extreme political ideology. This kind of apology is intimately linked to domestic issues that bleed into international discourse. For instance, the U.S. decision to formally apologize for its war hysteria-driven interning of thousands of Japanese-Americans and permanent residents during World War II clearly shows how domestic concerns that once seemed important can crumble under good sense. In this case, the passing of the Civil Liberties Act acknowledged the government’s actions and issued a formal apology and restitution to Japanese Americans. When this act was promulgated in 1988, the United States was facing a resurgence of anti-Japanese sentiment not seen since World War II—this time due to increased economic competition with its ally. As such, the legislation was superbly timed to both assure Japanese allies of Washington’s intent to control its reaction to any domestic economic complaints and forestall any poorly considered, economically-couched racist rhetoric, all while sincerely apologizing for unacceptable behavior.  This triple success helped ensure U.S.-Japan cooperation through the rough period of the 1990s. A return of the ugly specter of homegrown anti-Japanese prejudice has been thwarted and thoroughly de-fanged by a simple presidential apology.

A fourth advantage is apologies cut through state-sponsored rhetoric. States may not find themselves able to move on from ancient wrongs, but international opinion does—and with it reputation, trade opportunities, and overall willingness to cooperate on a wide array of diplomatic and defense efforts. One example is U.S.-Cuban relations; an embargo that has largely failed to achieve its policy goals has continued far too long for most pragmatists, mostly for emotional reasons. Moreover, it has caused unnecessary setbacks in U.S.-South American relations. For many in the United States, clinging to Cold War-era obsessions, while understandable, is no longer useful. Regardless of the current political winds, the fact is long-standing state sponsored bombast may find itself suddenly in the dust in the face of changing regional dynamics. This is also true in East Asia; and failing to pragmatically adjust policy to defense realities will only serve to prevent burying distracting foreign policies leftover from the Cold War. Without a few carefully-placed apologies, it is difficult to imagine East Asian states making progress on badly needed regional cooperative defense issues.

In summary, forgiveness is not just some liberal political imperative undertaken simply to feel better or just because it’s the “right” thing to do. While those things are nice, more often than not apologizing in fact fulfills state interests, and has the added advantage of placing rivals in awkward or potentially profitable positions in addition to creating a positive atmosphere for diplomatic progress. This is especially applicable to Asia and its unresolved post-World War II minefield of offenses, where it’s becoming increasingly more important to learn from previous examples and bury hatchets rather than continue to dredge up old wrongs and strain defense relations. Apologies, therefore, can be best summarized as short-term sacrifices with many potential long-term gains, and a genuinely important strategic communication option.

John Wright is a U.S. Air Force officer and pilot. He is currently assigned to Tokyo as a fellow for the Mansfield Foundation, which is dedicated to U.S.-Japan cooperation via intense U.S. federal employee exchange and placement in the Japanese government. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and not those of the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Government, Mansfield Foundation, or the Government of Japan.