Beyond Intractability
Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionSend by emailSend by email

Summary of

Apologia Politica: States and their Apologies by Proxy

Summary written by Brett Reeder, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Negash, Girma, 2006, Apologia Politica: States and their Apologies by Proxy, Lexington Books, Lanham, MD


According to Girma Negash, a political apology is a collective apology extended by one group to another. Such apologies are, by definition, apologies by proxy, because "group-to-group apologies need to be delegated by leaders or appointed delegates"(p2). In his ground-breaking and insightful book,Apologia Politica, Negash examines these proxy political apologies by developing "an interdisciplinary theoretical framework and a standard of effective apology against which [he] measures the validity of historical political attempts to apologize"(ix)

In this vein, Negash developed a simple typology of state apology, with three primary dimensions. First, political apologies can be either voluntary or demanded. In general, voluntary apologies are preferable as "[a]n apology given under coercion, like confession, given in the same way, loses its affectivity and power of remorse." (p138) Second, apologies can be either categorical or non-categorical. Categorical apologies refer to direct action in wrong doing, with little ambiguity as to what the apology is about. Perhaps the most famous example (and a case study in this book) of a categorical apology is Germany's apologies to Israel following World War II. On the other hand, non-categorical apologies refer to inaction to prevent a crime, and though they tend to come easily, it is rarely clear exactly what the apology is about. Examples of non-categorical apologies (and another case study) are the apologies by the international community for not intervening in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Finally, apologies can seek to either mend relations, or heal societies. Negash identifies this divergence in the objective as the most fundamental distinction of a state apology, and as such, I will address it in more detail below.

Mending Apologies

Apologies which seek to mend interstate relationships strive to "return the two alienated parties to their original relationship"(p136) in an attempt to restore broken relationships important to the self-interest of the nation-states involved. For instance, when a US spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter off the coast of China in 2001 (another case study), American apologies sought to restore the Chinese-American relationship through mending apologies. Using ambiguous language, these apologies acknowledged the incident, while maintaining a relative freedom from guilt and liability for both parties. In other words, these apologies served a political purpose and were meant for the consumption of both domestic and international publics. As Negash put it, the American apologies in this case were "¦more self-justifying rather than regretful and apologetic." (p130)

Mending apologies are often used effectively during such brief crises "where governmental secrecy and cold rational calculations prevail." (p143) The success of these apologies "rests on whether the damaged relations are restored in short order with hardly any cost to the larger societies involved." (p143) According to Negash, there are two requisites for such success: acknowledgment and accountability. Acknowledgement is "a self-conscious process of assessing or estimating the damages one has committed," referring "not only to the reckoning of damage done, but to recognition of the consequences of one's actions to others."(p9) Accountability takes acknowledgement one step further, as perpetrators take responsibility for their actions. This is important, because it is often not exactly clear who is apologizing to whom, and for what. By acknowledging that a wrong has occurred and accepting accountability for it, perpetrators satisfy deep psychological needs of victims and pave the way for further reconciliation. In doing so, the pragmatic relationship between states can be mended (even if some underling animosity remains unhealed).

In addition to these two absolute requisites (acknowledgment and accountability), Negash identifies four policy implications which aid in realizing a successful mending apology. First the apology must be expedient, or timely. As Negash put it, "under the gaze of international media, delayed admission can prove to be diplomatically costly"(p152) since belated apologies are often rejected by victims. Second, the apology should be formal. Apologies that lack formality and the corresponding appropriate rituals and decor may be perceived as insincere. Third, the proximity between the apologizer and the recipient must be diminished. In order for an apology to be effective, it is essential that the victims, or those closest to them, are addressed and that they are aware of the apologetic gesture. Finally, the apology should have public support. An apology that lacks legitimacy through public support is less likely to be perceived as genuine, and is unlikely to be accompanied by the material reparations often essential to reconciliation.

So a successful mending apology can re-establish positive relations between perpetrators and victims by acknowledging wrongs and accepting accountability for them in an expedient, formal, proximate and legitimate process. However, sometimes even the most well-crafted mending apology is inadequate. This is often the case after severe violence, such as genocide. In these cases, reconciliation requires more than a simple mending of relations; it requires a healing of society. Unfortunately, the political elite somtimes refuse to engage in apologies that heal. Such decisions are usually the result of the "political calculus of apology".

The Political Calculus of Apology

Negash's case study of Japan and its contemporary apologies to many of its neighbors (including the Koreas, Vietnam and China) provides an excellent example of apologies aimed at mending that should have been attempting to heal. Japan is guilty of many past horrors in Asia both before and during World War II. Unfortunately, a combination of nationalism, conservative incrementalism, and status-quo-politics is holding Japan back from true reconciliation. Essentially, the political elite of Japan feel that the costs of a deeper apology aimed at healing outweigh the benefits. This cost-benefit analysis is the "political calculus of apology" and a process not limited to Japan.

Apologizing is risky, as it acknowledges legal liability and full accountability for past misdeeds. As a result, there is often the temptation to deny past wrongs, or to only partially acknowledge them. In a world governed by national self-interest, apology can be exceedingly difficult. Indeed, many state apologies are simply strategic political maneuvers aimed at mending important relationships, and the result of a "political calculus" weighing the costs and benefits of apology. But after extensive horrors, such as genocide, this kind of apology is inadequate to heal societies. To truly reconcile alienated parties, apologies must transcend the rational self-interest inherent in the "political calculus of apology," and aim to do more than mend relationships back to a status qu,o which includes a less than full account of past atrocities.

Healing Apologies

Apologies attempting to heal societies after the horrors of mass violence must first meet the two requisites of a mending apology (acknowledgment and accountability, and then two more: truth-telling and public remorse. Truth-telling consists of "being transparent about the facts of the injurious event" (p 9). This often requires active attempts to identify the truth of past horrors, as was done during the Nuremburg trials, or more recently in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa.

Demonstrating public remorse is a bit more difficult, as it consists of collective expression of "regret for one's grievous actions, the wish that they did not happen, and the accompanying feeling of sorrow."(p10) Indeed, direct collective expression is considered to be unattainable. However, remorse (like apology more generally) can be expressed indirectly by proxy using representatives of the state. For this to happen, the representative must display remorse reinforced by democratic approval in the form of legislated support for statements of remorse.

The non-categorical apologies in response to the 1994 Rwandan genocide demonstrate the necessity of each of Negash's four requisites for a successful healing apology. Though acknowledgment of, and collective remorse for, this tragedy has been expressed by representatives of individual countries and the UN, accountability is lacking, as no group has thus far been willing to accept individual responsibility for the non-categorical failure to intervene. Rather, nation-states have been content to "democratize blame," blaming the world collectively, while refusing to accept individual accountability. Until groups accept individual accountability for this failure, apologies will continue to ring hallow. But hope is not lost, as the four requisites can be completed in any order and thus it is not too late to accept individual accountability. The German-Israeli case study demonstrates this, as Germany accepted accountability well before fully acknowledging what had happened durring the Holocaust.

In addition to the four requisites (acknowledgement, accountability, truth-telling and public remorse), healing apologies suggest four policy implications. First, they should be accompanied by social reconstruction with institutions that aid in reconciliation. Second, the apology should be legitimized by a democratic process. In addition to remorse specifically, the apology more generally should be legitimated though legislation. Third, there should be attempts at restoring a collective moral identity which condemns specific past acts and future similar acts. Finally, the apology should include extraordinary acts by the political elite with leaders making dramatic moves to break through stagnation. This is particularly important because restoration of the status quo is unacceptable in these cases of extreme horror, and thus "extra-ordinary" acts may be necessary.


It is important to note that "the apology process, in itself, cannot carry the load of conflict resolution or reconciliation. It is by no means a panacea" (p154). Rather, political apologies should be used in conjunction with other techniques as part of a larger peacebuilding process. Unfortunately, direct collective apology is impossible, and thus states are necessarily relegated to apology-by-proxy through representative individuals. This book has sought to understand these proxy apologies of nation states and what makes them successful (or not).

To do so, Negash developed a theoretical framework based on four requisites for successful state apology by proxy: acknowledgement, accountability, truth-telling and public remorse. The first two of these are sufficient to mend relationships. Though such apologies "have certain moral limitations," they can help to maintain "good, open channels of communications, normalizing relations that are severed or weakened by unsettled deep historical injuries, in order to avert potential violence;¦" (p151). As such, mending apologies can be useful strategic tools in international relations.

But after cases of extreme horror, mending apologies resulting from the "political calculus of apology", are inadequate because they tend to emphasize "political expedience over moral justice and material compensation over the other immeasurably important question of dignity" (p156). Indeed, the key to apologies aimed at healing deep social wounds lies in the restoration of human dignity through all four requisites of successful apology (acknowledgement, accountability, truth-telling and public remorse).

Post a comment or suggestion about this page or topic...
(If you have a comment or suggestion about the system in general, please post it on our Comments and Suggestions page instead.)


Beyond Intractability
Copyright © 2003-2016 The Beyond Intractability Project, The Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado;
All rights reserved. Content may not be reproduced without prior written permission.
Inquire about affordable reprint/republication rights.

Homepage Photo Credits

Beyond Intractability is a Registered Trademark of the University of Colorado
Contact Beyond Intractability
Privacy Policy

The Beyond Intractability Knowledge Base Project
Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess, Co-Directors and Editors

c/o Conflict Information Consortium (Formerly Conflict Research Consortium), University of Colorado
580 UCB, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309, USA -- Phone: (303) 492-1635 -- Contact
University of Colorado Boulder