The Duck of Minerva

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What’s in an apology?

March 30, 2010

Serbia’s parliament is debating a resolution expressing sympathy for Srebrenica’s victims and apologizing for not doing enough to prevent the massacre. Bosnian Muslims are not likely to be happy because the resolution does not apologize explicitly for the crime of genocide — it only reads that it condemns the massacre as “the crime as it is described” in the European Parliament’s resolution passed last year.

As expected, much of the human rights community is pressing for stronger language with an explicit acknowledgment of the crime of genocide. While I am generally sympathetic with these calls, I’m also persuaded by Jennifer Lind’s work on apologies in international relations and the delicate balance that is required within apologizing states. Her work on Japan reveals both the perils of simple apologies and the perils of avoidance. Leaders that issue apologies must walk the delicate balance between atonement for past crimes while avoiding actions that provoke virulent nationalist backlashes. She cites the strategy by German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer as a model. Adenauer issued formal apologies, but domestically he allowed outlets for German nationalism by stressing Germany’s postwar achievements and allowing myths to persist that only the ss and not ordinary German citizens were involved in the Holocaust.

Serbian leaders face a similar balancing act — they need to apologize for the crimes at Srebrenica and elsewhere, but given the continuing saliency and intensity of Serb nationalism, they’ll have to find a way to do so without re-igniting the virulent and violent nationalism of the 1990s.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.