Jennifer Lind


On her book Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics

Cover Interview of September 21, 2009


The other day I saw a bumper sticker that said “No peace without justice!”  It sure sounds good, and before I writing the book I would have reacted to it with an “amen, sister.”

But Sorry States finds otherwise.  Clearly there can be peace without justice: we know this from Franco-German reconciliation, as well as other notable cases such as U.S. relations with Japan and West Germany after the war.  The United States has never expressed contrition about its incendiary bombing campaigns against Germany or Japan, despite the fact that those attacks killed more than a million civilians.  But the lack of U.S. contrition has not prevented reconciliation between Americans and Germans or Japanese. A Japanese soldier walks through the ruins of Hiroshima after the atomic bombing.  Photo courtesy of National Archives.

Furthermore, because the pursuit of justice (proposals to pay reparations, build monuments, and issue apologies) is so politically charged, it may actually end up undermining peacemaking.  Debates about the past frequently feature denials and justifications of past violence.  Other countries observe these sentiments, and become alarmed about what they suggest about the country’s future foreign policy intentions.

What are countries to do?  If denials harm bilateral relations, and apologies may do so indirectly by prompting backlash, how should countries remember the past in order to promote reconciliation?

One strategy, used successfully by West Germany and France, is to construct a shared and non-accusatory narrative.  Rather than frame the past as one actor’s brutalization of another, leaders can structure commemoration to cast events—as much as possible—as shared catastrophes.  Countries can remember past suffering as specific examples of tragic phenomena—war, militarism, or aggression—that afflict all.  For example, rather than lament German brutality, the settings and tone of Franco-German commemoration (Reims cathedral in 1962; Verdun cemetery in1984) highlighted the suffering that militarism and European anarchy had brought to both peoples, which underscored the need for European unity.

Another strategy is multilateral.  Multilateral textbook commissions—used extensively in Europe and also recently in East Asia—offer another promising approach.  Because multilateral settings do not wag a finger at one country in particular, and because multilateral institutions confer legitimacy, conservatives are less likely to mobilize against them.

These approaches do have significant drawbacks.  If justice is the policy goal, they are clearly wrong.  They downplay the heinous acts that occurred and divert attention from the people and governments who committed them.  But, as John Kenneth Galbraith famously commented, “Politics is the art of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.”  These strategies are unpalatable in many ways—yet they are the best course for international reconciliation.

© 2009 Jennifer Lind