Appeasement, apologies and reconciliation are pacific means used by nations to pursue their foreign policy objectives. It is an expedient way to mend, repair and improve relations. The manner of an apology is dependent on the nation’s strategic makeup. The aggrieved party may not always be happy with what it receives as official regrets. Sometimes countries demand apologies to assuage their national pride. When 24 Pakistani troops were killed in a bombing raid at a remote border outpost on the Pak-Afghan border, Pakistan retaliated by blocking the NATO Ground Lines of Communication (GLOC), pending an apology. It took Pakistan many months to articulate the demand it considered necessary to reset relationship with Americans. The demand for an apology remained the key point in their agenda. The Americans waited patiently and rerouted their supplies through the longer and more circuitous Northern Distribution Network (NDN). After having received the Pakistani list of demands, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said sorry on behalf of her government. The supplies were reopened without raising the transit fees. The entire episode was illustrative of an aggrieved junior partner in an asymmetric relationship trying to extract an apology from a stronger party and then settling for whatever came its way as a word of sympathy to close down an unfortunate chapter in their uneasy relationship. This paper examines a country’s propensity to express its regrets to other nations, in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives.


English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) said: “To err is human, to forgive divine.” Mercy and forgiveness are godly attributes but ordinary mortals readily seek revenge by demanding “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”1 This trait is reflected in international affairs as well. The tendency to seek revenge, show restraint or apologise depends on a nation’s short- and long-term foreign policy objectives. In case there is a history of animosity, an apology becomes the first pre-requisite to pave the way for establishing mutually beneficial and cordial relationships. The act of contrition needs an appropriate expression of regret and it must reflect genuine remorse. Psychologists conceptualise apology “as a process that consists of one or more of three components: affect, affirmation, and action.” Whether an apology is “good enough” is dependent “on the severity of the consequences of the wrong, the level of responsibility attributed to the wrongdoer, and the perceived wrongfulness of the behaviour.”2

Apologies in most cases are symbolic but countries want these nonetheless to assuage their national pride. There is a long list of demands for official apologies. Indians want the British to apologise for the Jillianwala Bagh massacre of 1919. The British acknowledge the incident but are quite unwilling to offer a formal apology.3 The Chinese have demanded apologies from the US over the bombing of their embassy in Belgrade,4 and the aerial collision between an American surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter accosting it, off the coast of Guam.5 In Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina Wajid has tried those accused of collaborating with the Pakistani forces in 1971 for war crimes and has served them harsh sentences.6 She also wants an apology from Pakistan before she could consider visiting it.7 Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants an apology from the US before he agrees to the terms of their pull out from his country.8

Pakistan was recently faced with need to demand an apology. On November 27, 2011, 24 of its soldiers were killed in a pre-dawn NATO air raid on the isolated border post of Salala in Mohmand Agency of the Federally Administered Area (FATA).9 Pakistan, a non-NATO military ally could either ignore it as an isolated and inadvertent accident or suitably react to it. The Pakistani Government studied its options and did what they considered was the least that they could ask for.

They demanded the immediate evacuation of the US drones from Shamsi air base in Balochistan and blocked the NATO GLOC pending an apology. Then, perhaps for the first time in their short parliamentary history, the Pakistani lawmakers put their heads together to redefine their relations with the US. It took them many months to articulate what they thought was necessary to reset the terms of their affiliation with the Americans. The demand for an apology remained the key point in their agenda. The Americans waited patiently for the Pakistanis to get their act together. Meanwhile they rerouted their supplies through the longer and more circuitous Northern Distribution Network (NDN) – A decision that cost the US government, a whopping 100 million dollars a month.10 After receiving the Pakistani list of demands, Secretary of State Clinton offered an anodyne sorry on the behalf of her government.11 The Pakistani government emotionally and physically spent after the long drawn standoff, reopened the supply line without raising the transit fees or haggling any further.

This paper attempts to construct a relationship between a nation’s tendency to apologise and its national character. The purpose is to find out if Pakistan had any chances in obtaining a meaningful apology by answering the following questions: What motivates a nation to tender an apology? Does the willingness to say sorry stem from its national ethos? And is there a place for an apology in a nation’s strategic culture?

The Place of an Apology in International Relations

Nations demand an apology, when they feel offended by the acts of other nations, groups and people. These infringements range from minor breaches of diplomatic protocol and airspace violations to serious human rights abuses like massacres, genocides and pogroms. A nation’s umbrage is expressed in various forms. Sometimes a formal protest note or demarche is issued by summoning a country’s envoy to the foreign office. At other times, the issue is raised at the ministerial or head of state level. To express national anger on a subject, public and international opinion is built
through media debates, op-ed pieces and public statements. Sometimes nations defer to the wishes of the complainant and apologise, at other times they don’t. There are no internationally recognised strictures obliging countries to apologise. At times saying sorry can be easy but very often there can be severe resistance from within. An apology can be a means to healing old wounds and beginning a process of reconciliation, and in some cases, it is the only politically correct thing to do. The country making an admission of past wrong actually atones for the sins of the fathers.12 It takes courage to say sorry and to admit one’s mistakes and is clearly a difficult step to take. After the bold decision is taken to formally repent, it is diplomatically tendered as a well thought out plan. The manner of delivery and the timing of an apology are carefully choreographed to earn the earnest goodwill of the aggrieved party.

Official apologies have been made for historical slights. Some of these intra and interstate confessions have been recorded as case studies.13 Apologies have also been made for the sake of internal harmony. The Australian government has apologised to the aborigines.14 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) have been used to remove internal misgivings in countries like South Africa,15 and Sri Lanka.16 A case has also been made for “creating an international process of Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Reconciliation (TJRR) for confronting human rights violations with the participation of the United States as a responsible actor.”17 This suggestion has not gained any traction at any international forum so far.

The nations losing wars tend to apologise to regain their place within the comity of nations. Such acts of contrition do not save the losers from facing the wrath of the victors in terms of severe fiscal penalties, territorial seizures and criminal proceedings against the wartime leadership. In modern history, the terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles were particularly harsh. Germany was virtually asked to renounce its existence.18 It lost 13 per cent of its territory and 10 per cent of its population. It had to pay reparations, which were boosted to unnatural terms.19 Germany lost again in the Second World War. It surrendered unconditionally on May 7, 1945.20 After the German capitulation the victorious powers – the USA, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and France – divided Germany into four occupation zones.21 Under the terms of the Potsdam conference held on August 2, 1945, the heads of states and governments of the allied nations decreed harsh measures against Germany including: “total disarmament and demilitarisation, destruction of war potential, destruction of national Socialism, decentralisation of the economy and reconstruction of the political life on a democratic basis.” There was to be no central government till further notice.22 Territories to the east of the River Oder were given to Poland and all of North East Prussia was handed over to the USSR.23 Leaders of Nazi Germany were tried and sentenced for war crimes at Nuremberg trials.24 Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, who had tried to make private peace with Britain, early in the war, remained a prisoner in Spandau till he committed suicide in 1987 at the age of 94.25 The Nazis were collectively blamed for the Jewish Holocaust,26 and a huge Israeli dragnet was launched to track down Nazi fugitives from all over the world.27

To wash away this national stain the West German Government paid billions of Deutsche Marks to the state of Israel and individual Jewish survivors.28 Multiple official apologies were offered. A repentant Chancellor Willy Brandt literally fell on his knees in front of a Holocaust memorial in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970 in a symbolic gesture now known as the Warschauer Kniefall.29 Another person to go “down on his knees to beg forgiveness” was the Serb President Tomislav Nikolic. He, however, stopped short of admitting that the killing of 80000 Muslims in 1995 in Srebrenica was genocide.30

In Asia, the Second World War came to a cataclysmic end when the Americans dropped the nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fighting a losing battle, the Japanese Government set aside national pride and opposition from within the military to surrender.31 The widely accepted US narrative holds that the dropping of the nuclear
bombs prevented the killing of thousands of servicemen, who could have died in a physical invasion of Japan.32 An alternative plot suggests the bomb that the Japanese were in any case on the verge of surrender,33 and the bomb was dropped for two unrelated purposes i.e. speed up the process of Japanese defeat to keep the Russians from sharing the spoils of victory and to test the nuclear device.34 After the War, the Japanese did not demand an apology. They were in no position to do so. The Americans compensated them by sponsoring their rebuilding process and provided them a nuclear umbrella against external aggression. At the people to people level, there was sympathy and displays of solidarity with Japan e.g. on August 6, 2012 Clifton Truman Daniel, a grandson of Harry Truman, the US president who had ordered the nuclear strike against Japan, attended the 67th anniversary of the event, in Hiroshima peace park near the epicentre of the 1945 blast. Daniel declined to comment on his grandfather’s decision to drop the bomb but expressed the desire that nuclear weapons should never be used again.35

A Nation’s Strategic Culture

It would be instructive to find out what influences a nation’s tendency to apologise. In this regard we need to understand a nation’s strategic culture. This term was developed by American strategic scholars during the Cold War to describe Soviet behaviour in a nuclear environment. Later, its usage was extended to explain other nation’s actions. A host of indicators were studied to construct the architecture of a nation’s strategic culture. According to Colin S. Gray, the leading exponent of this theory, a nation’s strategic culture flows from its geography and resources, history and experience, and society and political structure.36 A nation’s historical narrative in many ways defines its international behaviour. Each international actor perceives a place for itself on the world stage and tries its best to live up to its self-image. This self-importance is reinforced by a country’s history and geography. A nation’s geo-strategic location not only adds to its significance but also its decision making process in a number of ways i.e. territorial claims can increase the propensity for interstate conflict and military operations in a given region.37

Gray defined strategic culture as “modes of thought and action” based on “perception of the national historical experience, from aspirations for responsible behaviour in national terms.”38 Iain Johnston, another scholar defined a nation’s strategic culture as “an ideational milieu which limits behaviour choices.” These choices emerge from a set of commonly held assumptions, prejudices and preferences. These influences shape the thought process of the policymakers within their social, organisational and political environment.39 The national aims and objectives, grand strategies and military doctrines are a product of a nation’s strategic culture. Strategic culture is a collection of symbols and expressions reflected in the strategic language used to enunciate a country’s military policies and foreign relation options. It explains why actions and ideas sometimes seem to be at odds with what would be considered as rational choice for a state. Iain Johnston believes that factor of rationality should not be rejected out of hand in perceiving a strategic choice because:

Strategic culture is compatible with notions of limited rationality (where strategic culture simplifies reality), with process rationality (where strategic culture defines ranked preferences or narrows options) and with adaptive rationality (where historical choices, analogies, metaphors, and precedents are invoked to guide choice).40

There is no universal model to assess the rationality or irrationality of a state. The history and experiences of each state point to political choices that they are likely to follow. Iain Johnston has dwelt at length the nexus between a state’s culture and its preferred strategy:

Different states have different predominant strategic preferences that are rooted in the early or formative experiences of the state, and are influenced to some degree, by the philosophical, political, cultural and cognitive characteristics of the state and its elites.41

Jack Snyder was of the view that theory of Soviet behavioural forecasts based strictly on rational actor paradigm and game theoretical modelling was wrong. He argued that each country had its own way to interpret, analyse and react to international events. He defined strategic culture as ‘the sum of ideas, conditioned emotional responses, and patterns of habitual behaviour that members of a national strategic community share with regard to nuclear strategy.’42 Ken Booth echoed Snyder’s sentiments by using historical examples to demonstrate that culture can have certain distorting effects in the study and practise of strategy, which consequently leads to mistakes when it comes to an analysis through the international relations prism.43 Snyder and Booth’s basic argument was that the strategic culture of a country or nation should not be based on archetypical images or clichés rather it should be reflective of its central ethos and value system.

US Strategic Culture

Like any other nation, the US strategic culture has its roots in its history, geography and its self-image. America’s ascendance in global affairs spans two centuries. It emerged as one of the two superpowers in a bipolar world at the end of the World War-II. It became the sole superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The American belief in its ‘manifest destiny’ became an inspiration for the expansion of the US across the North American continent in the nineteenth century.44 An early proponent of this concept was President John Quincy Adams.45 Adams believed that his country was destined to expand from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific Ocean. This concept was widely interpreted to include the eventual absorption of all North America: Canada, Mexico, Cuba and Central America, and was used to validate territorial acquisitions. This expansion was considered not only good, but also obvious (manifest) and certain (destiny).46 This thought was illustrated clearly in the Monroe Doctrine. On
December 2, 1823 President James Monroe declared that further efforts by European nations to colonize land or interfere with states in North or South America would be viewed as acts of aggression requiring US intervention.47 On balance the US government promised not to interfere in the existing European colonies nor meddle in the internal concerns of European countries but neither would they tolerate involvement in their affairs.48

After the end of the World War-II, the US automatically stepped into the vacuum created by the erosion of European colonial powers. After half a century of intense Cold War, it emerged as the sole superpower after the Soviet Union imploded due to an imperial overstretch and poor fiscal policies.49 The fall of the USSR was celebrated as the superiority of the western capitalist system. The 21st century was described as the American century during which the US was to emerge as the most powerful nation on earth.50

An aura of invincibility is reflected in American pop culture, most notably the superhuman qualities of the Hollywood good guys,51 and the comic book superheroes.52 The Americans as a nation are imbued with a high sense of self-righteousness and morality. Their leaders use religious overtones to justify their zeal to protect the American way of life and the western civilisation.53 This sense of moral superiority has grown over the years. It is in this spirit that they have felt compelled to destroy demonic figures like Hitler, Sadam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. During the Cold War, the US claimed the leadership of the Free World,54 against the Soviet Evil Empire.55 In their campaign against the dark forces of Terror, they demanded from the world at large that “you’re either with us, or against us.” The implied consequence of not joining them was to lose favour and be deemed an enemy.56 This attitude qualified as a prime example of Manichaeism struggle between good and evil, light and darkness.57 The Americans as a nation can be moved to believe that they represent the forces of good and that their war against the evil forces is justified. Axiomatically they can do no wrong and therefore are not morally bound to offer any apologies. This streak was particularly evident in the aftermath of 9/11.

This is not to say that US foreign policy makers are not open to sensible advice and that they will always exercise the military option instead of diplomacy as a tool to resolve conflicts. The realization has dawned in Washington that it cannot always have its way and that there are limits to its national power. ‘It decision to conform to international norms and pressures was most evident recently in the case of Syria’. In the first week of September 2013, the US forces were all set to attack Damascus for the use of chemical weapons against its own people but then it took the Russian bait of resorting to diplomacy by going to the UN to force the Syrian government to accede to the Chemical Weapon Convention (CWC).58

Pakistan’s Case

The Pakistani case merits careful examination. It needs to be determined why this puny and pliant state opted, to go on a pliable collision course with mighty USA. The relations between Pakistan and the US had been deteriorating over the past decade. Prima facie they were frontline allies but a trust deficit had crept into their relationship. Pakistani felt aggrieved because its air and ground space was being routinely violated by the NATO and ISAF forces in Afghanistan. The unilateral incursion to kill Osama bin Laden on Pakistani territory on May 2, 2011 was considered a clear violation of national sovereignty and therefore illegal.59 More painful than this one time landing of US boots on ground had been the collateral killing of innocent civilians in the CIA operated Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) attacks in FATA.60 Drone strikes have become increasingly unpopular in Pakistan. These sentiments have received a fillip because the UN does not endorse the drone strikes and the Amnesty International has published a report against it.61 There has been domestic condemnation of the illegality of the drone attacks within the US as well.62

Over the past years Pakistan has been regularly losing military and paramilitary personnel manning forward posts along the border in cross border air raids, artillery and mortar shelling and ground attacks. Eleven FC soldiers and ten civilians were killed in an air raid in Mohmand Agency in June 2008. An Army Major was among the dead. On September 30, 2010, NATO gunships attacked a security post in Kurram Agency, killing three soldiers and injuring three others. It was for the first time after this incident that Pakistani authorities blocked the Torkham border supply route for US and allied troops in Afghanistan.63 The route was reopened after the US regretted the incident.64 In February 2011, a soldier was killed and seven others sustained injuries when NATO and Afghan forces fired mortar shells at the Bangidar security check-post in North Waziristan Agency. In the last week of April 2011, three Pakistani soldiers were killed and over a dozen people, including security personnel and local tribesmen, sustained injuries in cross-border shelling between Afghan and Pakistani security forces near South Waziristan. In May 2011, two NATO helicopters entered North Waziristan Agency in hot pursuit of alleged terrorists. In the last week of August 2011, around 300 men crossed into Pakistan from Afghan territory and stormed seven security checkpoints along the Durand Line killing dozens of Pakistani security personnel.65 The death of two dozen soldiers in Salala late in 2011 was the final straw that broke the back of Pak-US relationship.66 Pakistan asked the Americans to close down their UAV operations and leave Shamsi airbase in Balochistan, and blocked NATO supply lines through Chaman and Torkhum, pending an apology.67 The Government of Pakistan also decided to stay away from the Bonn conference on Afghanistan.68

Pakistan refused to become part of the joint inquiry and rejected the US contention that the attack was in self defence. Instead, it blamed the US/ISAF forces for not coordinating their operations with their Pakistani counterparts.69 The military public relations department’s press release issued with the approval of the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) noted that the inquiry conducted by Brigadier General Stephen Clark did not affix specific responsibility and highlighted the fact that a parallel inquiry conducted by Brigadier General Jorgensen considered Pakistan military in an adversarial role and not part of the friendly forces.70

The political leadership carried out an extended parliamentary debate. As a result of which the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS) came up with 14 suggestions to redefine the relationship with the US.71 On April 12, 2012 the parliament approved the PCNS proposals.72 It called for an immediate cessation of American drone strikes and an apology for the killing of Pakistani soldiers was central to these demands.73 Pakistan also demanded an increase in the transit fees, which the Americans termed as price gouging.74 Meanwhile, the movement of supplies through the much longer and more expensive NDN began to have its effects. On July 2, 2012, nearly seven months after the incident US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the US was sorry for the losses suffered by Pakistani military in the Salala check post attack and announced that the Pakistan would henceforth be reopening the vital NATO supply routes to Afghanistan.75 It is important to note that the apology was offered by the Secretary of State. In an election year it was considered unwise for the President to dole out apologies. The limited quota of apologies had been spent in saying sorry to the Afghans for the desecration the holy Quran,76 and for defiling their corpses.77 In case of Pakistan more ignominy was heaped upon President Zardari, when President Obama ignored him at the May 2012 NATO Chicago summit on Afghanistan.78 The Americans refused to revise or indeed enhance the transit fees. The Pakistanis did not press the issue and an MOU was signed between the representatives of the two governments on July 30, 2012 to regularise the arrangements for NATO supplies, which till then had been done on a verbal understanding. The document drafted in the light of the UN charter prohibited the supply of ammunition but permitted the transit of weapons for the Afghan National Army.79


What conclusions can be drawn from this extended storm in the diplomatic tea cup? One thing that emerges quite clearly from this episode is that no nation irrespective of its size, power potential, stated foreign policy posture or strategic culture is under any compulsion to offer another nation a word of sympathy or sorrow; unless it stands to gain something by doing so. A natural corollary of this argument is that no nation, no matter how strongly it may feel about a certain perceived injustice, should be under any illusion that it can receive a genuine apology. Another thing that becomes quite evident from this incident is that the nature of apology is dependent upon the intensity of hurt and anger displayed by the other side and its capacity to react. If the aggrieved party can be satisfied with a perfunctory word of regret, then that is exactly how far the other state party would go.

Analysed in this backdrop, let’s see what were the expectations from each side. And how each party dealt its diplomatic cards to achieve its desired ends? Pakistan felt that it had been wronged by a strategic military partner. It wanted to redeem the honour of the men it had lost in an incident, which it felt was clearly the result of some heartless and apathetic behaviour. It also wanted to leverage this incident to seek better terms and conditions to reopen the NATO and better if not equal partnership with the US. The Americans were in no hurry. They gave the Pakistanis the rope. They knew that their stamina to hold their ground was limited and that they were heavily dependent on the aid that they were doling out to this weak and impoverished nation. Pakistan could go the distance by holding out for seven months was something they had not imagined. A face saving exit for both parties was a lukewarm regret followed by the reopening of the blocked roads.

It is important to understand that although USA is still the most powerful nation on earth, it can say sorry, when it feels that it serves their purpose. It has offered apologies to the Afghans a number of times i.e. in the case of the burning of the Quran and drone strikes against civilians. These apologies have not always come directly from the White House but have been handed down by high level emissaries.80 Like any other great nation there are limits to its military, diplomatic and economic power. Two long running wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost it dearly in terms of blood and treasure. It may have killed Osama bin Laden and weakened the forces of terrorism but Al Qaeda and its affiliates are still out there. Russia is showing significant diplomatic muscle and China is projecting military and economic power regionally and globally. Clearly, the US would like to extend its dominant position in the world and would use the full spectrum of its power potential, including its repertoire of coercive and persuasive diplomacy towards this end. On the flip side, it has enough political resilience to offer regrets if that would help achieve its limited or long term foreign policy objectives.

Pakistan is a minor player on the international chessboard. Realistically speaking, US is under no obligation to say sorry to it. Its geostrategic position does provide Pakistan a regional context. As long as the US has to move its supplies to Afghanistan through its communication network, it will deploy all its diplomatic skills to keep it under its wings. There are, however, other characteristics that can keep Pakistan relevant i.e. it is one of the most populous Islamic countries in the world and it possesses nuclear weapons. All this combined will continue to provide it space in American foreign policy. However, to assume that the US will beg forgiveness for infringements on its sovereignty is pure naivety. To be taken seriously in the international arena, Pakistan has to adopt long-term policies to improve its economy, the state of law and order and the quality of its population. As long as it remains mired in poverty, economic chaos and internal disorder external powers will play upon its weaknesses and get away with it without saying sorry.