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Apology as Foreign Policy

by David Keck
November 1, 2012

In the recent third presidential debate, there was a brief exchange about President Obama’s “apology tour” to foreign countries early in his administration.  It is hardly anything new.  President Clinton was more direct in his apologies when he went to Africa and apologized for slavery.  On the surface, it seems like a noble, humble, Christian thing to do.  It needs a closer look.

Let’s first take a look at what it is that is being apologized for.  In Clinton’s case, it was for slavery – something we abolished ourselves after a great, devastating civil war in our own country.  The existence of slavery in this country for as long as it was here was a great injustice of those enslaved.  What purpose is served of someone apologizing over 120 years later, someone who was never involved in the practice to people who were not victims of it.  And while apologies are being given out, how about descendants of various tribal leaders and other participants in Africa who took prisoners of war or otherwise kidnapped enemies in Africa and sold them to white slave traders?  How about apologies from all the Arab countries, especially those with access to East Africa, who engaged in the slave trade well into the 19th century?  Those same Arab countries to whose leaders our present president bows when he greets them.  Since serfdom was ended in the Soviet Union in 1866, how about Mr. Putin apologizing to his own people for the past excesses of that social and economic condition?  It is not so much that it makes any of these abuses right because so many did it in history as it is that there is a real reason none of those others apologize.  No one in the United States today every owned a slave, and few, if any citizens of the United States would claim today that slavery was a good thing or that they favor it.

If the purpose is to indicate very clearly that this is a practice that we, today, find abhorrent, the same thing can be accomplished by going to those places, like Clinton did, where the practice took place and noting the horrible conditions and what progress has been made in the world in general that, at least that form of slavery is gone.

What these kinds of public displays do is not what the performers of them say they do.  They do not make us more respected or appreciated in the world.  They do not fix anything.  They do not make it go away from history or in any way rectify the practice.  What they do is show the United States, or at least its leaders, appear to be weak.  Just a few examples of how weakness or the perception of it invites the very thing it is said to prevent will illustrate the point.

When Neville Chamberlain gave away Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938, after watching Hitler annex Austria in 1936, after watching Hitler violate the Treaty of Versailles by rearming and occupying the Rhineland militarily in 1935, did Hitler then declare himself satisfied because England and its allies capitulated?  In 1968, North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive and, in so doing, sacrificed for all intents and purposes their South Vietnamese allies the Viet Cong.  Soldiers who were there know who won that confrontation.  It was the United States.  But protestors at home, aided by the American press, portrayed it as a great failure.  The fact that it failed militarily was never reported.  The North Vietnamese were emboldened by the protestors, not by any military advantage they gained.  When Ronald Reagan went to Iceland to meet with Gorbachev at the height of the Cold War and Gorbachev clearly indicated he was not there to give in on anything, Reagan left.  It was all downhill after that for the Soviet Union.  Reagan was not willing to give up the idea of the “Star Wars” defense shield, even though we had not built it yet.  But Gorbachev was convinced that the United States could build it, and that Reagan would build it and eventually, that the Soviet Union’s economy could not match our military buildup and it wasn’t long before the Soviet Union collapsed.  Reagan called the Soviet Union what it was:  the “Evil Empire.”  When John F. Kennedy sent ships to intercept Russian freighters bringing more missiles to Cuba, we thought it was standing up to Russia. In fact, it was Kennedy’s naïve performance at a summit conference very early in his administration that led the more experienced Khrushchev to believe he could be that bold, as well as the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion due to lack of follow-through on promises to Cuban exiles for support.  The Berlin Wall was another result.

What is far more productive is to showcase and demonstrate what it is that makes this country exceptional.  In 1630, Puritan leader John Winthrop delivered a sermon that declared the faithful at Massachusetts Bay to be like “a city on a hill” for all to see; an example out there across the ocean, exposed for judgment of their example.  John Kennedy repeated this message of vulnerability in setting oneself up as a good example on January 9, 1961 as president-elect at the General Court of Massachusetts when he paraphrased Winthrop’s sermon pronouncement.  And, of course, Ronald Reagan made it famous again in his 1976 concession speech to Gerald Ford at the Republican National Convention – emphasizing our virtues, our aspirations, our example as a democratic republic – while suffering from personal defeat.  This phrase comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:14 – “You are the light of the world.  A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”

When the U.S. Constitution was adopted, there was but one republic in the world with an elected head of state, and we were it.  The powers of the world were England, France, Holland, and a declining Spain.  We were not much of a threat to anyone.  Yet we had a first president, George Washington, who took his role of being first very seriously, and was true to making this City on a Hill live up to its promise.  He took his role as precedent-setter very seriously.  As president, he forgave Citizen Genet the personal insults and meddling in our internal affairs that, in effect, saved Genet’s life, because had he been sent back to France for his indiscretions, he would have been guillotined.  But, during the Revolutionary War, Washington would not intervene in the hanging of the spy John Andre, because Andre’s acts betrayed the nation.  Washington knew his duty and did it.

Let us not forget that, despite faults and mistakes in our past, we have also been deliberate in correcting them.  It is  this country that, while they possessed the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, they set a timetable for their independence, and gave it earlier than the time set, which can be argued should have been put off, given their struggles toward democracy since.  It was this country that, after World War II, not only rebuilt our European allies with the Marshall Plan, but defended them through NATO and the Truman Doctrine against the new threat of communism, and aided former enemies Germany and Japan economically, which led to their becoming responsible members of the world community and economic powerhouses from the 1950’s on.  To the smug among those to the north of us (which is not all Canadians), let us not forget that it was the United States nuclear shield that allowed Canada to devote funds for their own defense to domestic purposes.

The United States developed the atomic bomb first, and used it twice to end a terrible war, not just for us, but for the world.  We have not used it since.  When other countries have natural disasters, it is the United States, through government, but also people-to-people private agencies and church organizations that is always among the first to assist.

We are not perfect.  But we serve our own interests and those of the world, if we believe that, as Lincoln said, that the United States is “the last best, hope of earth. . . ,”  by being that “Shining City on a Hill,” instead of apologizing for things that happened long ago that have been rectified.  Peace comes from strength of conviction and holding tight to the values that draw millions to our country.

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