Should States Apologize?
Should States Apologize?

Should States Apologize?

Apr 19, 2001

If people sometimes find it difficult to say they're "sorry," nations find it even more difficult -- or at least, that appeared to be the lesson of the recent spy plane incident between the United States and China. According to Chinese President Jiang Zemin, the United States owed China an official apology (baoqian) for sending out a spy plane that collided with a Chinese fighter, resulting in the pilot's death. But President Bush would have none of it -- that is, until it became clear that without an apology of some sort, the twenty-four American crew members would continue to be detained on the island where the spy plane had landed after the collision. Even then, Bush stopped short of making the official apology China had originally requested. Instead he authorized a letter expressing sincere regret (shen biao qian yi) for the death of pilot Wang Wei and saying the United States was very sorry (zhen cheng yi han) for entering China's airspace and making an unauthorized landing. Both of these Chinese expressions are ambiguous, leaving it unclear the extent to which the United States was accepting blame for the incident.

For our April 2001 roundtable, Council staff, joined by China scholar Andrew Nathan, debate whether a nation should be expected to apologize to another nation for what is perceived by the latter as unacceptable behavior. Scholars of ethics and international affairs have often argued that group relations can never be as ethical as relations between individuals -- a reality that can be justified by concerns for national security. So in this instance, do security concerns justify the U.S. refusal to take the blame for the air collision, let alone for its unilateral decision to conduct surveillance flights along the Chinese coast?

At the same time, we should consider what lies behind China's insistence upon a formal apology. It may be that the Chinese see this incident as one of many in its long history of humiliation at the hands of the West. Recalling all the times when China's sovereignty was trampled on, they want to make sure it doesn't happen again. Against this complicated background, the United States could have taken a more conciliatory, less begrudging approach than was taken by President Bush -- which, too, could be in the United States' best interests insofar as it improves the tenor of U.S.-China relations (albeit hurting its affairs with Taiwan).

For Andrew Nathan, the standoff between the United States and China comes down to realpolitik: in demanding an apology, China merely wanted to protect its national sovereignty.

Tony Lang views the U.S.-China confrontation as a textbook case of how apology works on the collective, versus personal, level.

Lili Cole asserts that apology may have a different meaning for the Chinese -- not because of the so-called Oriental mystique, but because of their memory of domination by Western powers.

To respond to the opinions expressed in this roundtable, send an e-mail to [email protected].

The media fuss over the Oriental mystique of apology is misplaced. What is really at stake in any apology are norms -- in this case, norms about whether it's all right for the United States to conduct electronic spying activities close to China's coast.

An apology reinforces an existing norm -- or in this case, had Chinese maximum demands been met, would have established a new norm -- that says "no" to whatever action is apologized for. How sweeping that new norm is depends on the content of the apology. Norms are important because they constrain future behavior. And apologies are particularly powerful norm-setting devices (let's say, compared to international conventions that countries sign) because of the degree of psychological commitment they carry.

In this instance, both the United States and China had much at stake in the particular norm being struggled over: can the U.S. conduct air surveillance close to the Chinese coast? Negotiations over norms are protracted because a lot is at stake. (Think WTO.)

Andrew J. Nathan is one of America's most prominent China scholars and professor of politics at Columbia University. He was co-editor of the recently published Tiananmen Papers, a set of secret Politburo documents concerning the 1989 massacre.

The simple fact that international relations are not like interpersonal relations provides an important clue for understanding the recent imbroglio between China and the United States. As Andy Nathan implied, both China's demand for an apology and the American resistance to providing one are better explained by the nature of political communities than by appeals to cultural differences.

In Moral Man and Immoral Society -- which, though published in 1932, is still a classic work of ethics and international affairs -- Reinhold Niebuhr argued that "in every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the need of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals who compose the group reveal in their personal relationships." Niebuhr's theory that groups and people cannot be expected to behave in the same way explains why what would be a normal moral standard in interpersonal relations -- the demand for, and reception of, an apology -- can wreak such havoc in the context of international affairs.

When one person wrongs another, an apology is required to move the relationship forward. Even more importantly, after an apology has been given, the recipient of that apology would be expected to forgive the other person. In contrast, the Chinese government's demand for an apology was in no way intended to move its relationship with the United States forward; on the contrary, the intention was to satisfy the nation's wounded sense of pride. Moreover, after the United States offered something close to an apology, the Chinese never expressed any notion of forgiveness -- nor did anyone expect them to. Forgiving other states is not a requirement of good foreign policy.

Likewise, the U.S. refusal to apologize at first and then finally doing so doesn't correspond with the ethics governing relations between individuals. As anyone in a long-term relationship knows, you tend to offer an apology even when you do not believe yourself to be in the wrong, the hope being that in making a conciliatory gesture, you can open up a dialogue with the other person about what actually happened. By contrast, the U.S. government would not consider apologizing until they were forced to do so by China's threat to retain the American soldiers. Even though the United States believes that its relationship with China is important and worth sustaining, there was no suggestion that an apology would assist with this process.

In sum, both China and the United States acted as states normally do -- more concerned with their status and reputation as states than with the need for an honest relationship. This does not mean that leaders in China or the United States are immoral or don't understand what apologies are for. Rather, it reflects the fact that the moral categories and concepts we use in interpersonal relationships do not easily translate in an international context.

Tony Lang is the program officer in charge of the Carnegie Council's Education initiatives.

I agree with Andy Nathan that references to an "Oriental mystique of apology" are misplaced and not at all helpful. But understanding a people's history -- especially the political uses of history and historical memory -- are very much relevant, even crucial, to the debate about what China had in mind when demanding an apology from the United States. The issues at stake were greater than the need to establish new norms regarding PRC-Taiwan relations.

Gerrit Gong of the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently published an article entitled "The Beginning of History: Remembering and Forgetting as Strategic Issues." It's the first assertion I've seen that history and memory, particularly aggrieved memory, should be looked at as strategic issues. Gong further asserts that "the juxtaposition of memory, history, and strategic alignments in Asia and elsewhere means that key relationships, such as among China, Japan, North and South Korea, and the United States, are destined to be expressed in historical terms. Issues of history will thus become the international vocabulary to describe shifting strategic alignments during coming periods of watershed change."

The U.S.-China standoff illustrates Gong's point. The People's Republic of China is heir to a great civilization that subsequently underwent centuries of decline, semi-colonialism, and occupation before its relatively recent astonishing burst of economic activity. And to recognize this is not to fall into the trap of the "Oriental mystique" as Andy says, but to deepen our understanding of why the concept of "national humiliation" -- guo chi -- remains potent for so many Chinese, and how easily it can be manipulated by a post-communist era government that is facing a crisis of confidence in its leadership as well as cynicism over its corruption. In 2001, China's demand for an apology from the world's sole superpower -- which in 1999 had bombed its embassy in Belgrade during a military action that had been opposed by China -- has domestic motivations that are at least as important as those relating to China's relations with Taiwan and the United States.

The Chinese government's demands for an apology from the United States -- and the subsequent jockeying over language that expressed "regret" as opposed to an admission of guilt -- were intended for domestic as well as international consumption. In China as elsewhere, nationalism has been filling the void left by the demise of Marxism-Leninism -- a process that has been underway for some time, particularly among educated urban youth. Recent chat room exchanges among China's Internet-savvy younger generation reveal that many of China's future technical, business, and intellectual leaders resent America's world power and what they perceive as its arrogance, even as they admire its popular culture. American arrogance is frequently connected to specific historical grievances dating back to the nineteenth century, when China was humiliated at the hands of many Western powers, including the United States. The demand for an apology resonated among these young people, many of whom claimed they were prepared to express open dissatisfaction if the apology did not seem thorough or sincere enough.

Responding to Tony Lang's point that we must distinguish between interpersonal relations and interstate relations when talking about apology, I disagree that apology is a largely interpersonal form of communication that can't easily be applied to nation-states. Tony points out that in an interpersonal relationship one often apologizes to generate a conversation about the hurt inflicted. This dynamic can also be seen in many international, interstate debates involving apology -- for example, Gong in his article refers to South Korean president Kim Dae Jung's recent efforts to respond to Japanese apologies for their World War II atrocities with calls for reconciliation.

Why is Tony -- along with so many of us -- skeptical about this recent apology qua apology, seeing it merely as a practical tactic to get back American military personnel and avoid the deterioration of an important relationship? I believe it's because this affair involves an apology for a single, very recent incident. Discussions of international apology and national forgiveness of an historical enemy are usually associated with a series of acts in which mass suffering was involved (invasion, occupation, massacres, expulsions) and take place over a longer time than the few weeks over which the China-U.S. spy-plane drama unfolded. The longer time frame would seem to indicate that, in addition to admission of wrongdoing, some national self-reflection, change in national identity, and political progress have taken place, rendering it unlikely that the atrocities being apologized for will be committed again. In this situation, the dynamics of apology are far richer and more complex than the wordplay and legal concerns that have dominated this most recent discussion of international apology.

Lili Cole is a senior program officer running the Carnegie Council's project on memory and the politics of reconciliation.

Related Links"Sorry the hardest word," by BBC News Online's Kate Goldberg (11 April 2001). BBC Online also features a Special Report on the U.S.-China tension.

"Sorry is nice, but not what China wants," (10 April 2001). also has an in-depth special entitled "U.S.-China Collision: A diplomatic solution."

War of Words," by Daryl Lindsey, Alicia Montgomery and Jake Tapper, (12 April 2001).

For background information on the U.S.-China-Taiwan relationship, read Matthew DeBord's "China and Taiwan" in (6 March 2000). Calling Taiwan the "Cuba of Asia," DeBord predicted that Taiwan would "graduate from minor irritant to the first full-blown crisis of the next American president's reign." This is because the United States "isn't setting the terms of this debate, but is instead reacting to China, a potential foe, and Taiwan, an arrogant ally."

Also good for background reading is the 9 April 2001 special report on U.S.-China relations published by, the resource site for the Asia Society.

The opinions expressed in this roundtable do not necessarily reflect those of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs. In addition, we are not responsible for the content of external Internet sites.

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