Forgiveness in Statecraft

IS there a place for forgiveness in relations between nations?

The question may seem naive or even facetious, but does anyone doubt that the situation in the Balkans or Somalia, for instance, could benefit from the leavening effect of forgiveness?

Only rarely does there emerge a leader of the moral genius of Lincoln, whose response to his advisers' proposal for hanging Jefferson Davis, president of the rebellious Confederacy, was, Judge not, that ye be not judged.

History does, though, record examples of leaders who, however mixed their motives, have had the vision and courage to take their people beyond grievances to progressive relationships with former enemies.

Forgiveness was once an explicit part of statecraft, observes political scientist Richard Mansbach at Iowa State University. "Through the 17th and 18th and on into the 19th centuries, it was central to balance-of-power politics that at the end of a war, the aggressor be brought back into the family of nations."

This became harder later on, Professor Mansbach adds: Democratic governments seeking popular support for wars must demonize their enemies in a way that makes it hard to make amends afterward. The vindictiveness of the peace imposed on Germany after World War I was the soil in which the seeds of the next war sprouted. The Franco-German reconciliation after World War II, however, is one of the best examples of two long-term enemies finally making peace.

French President Francois Mitterrand escaped from a Nazi prison camp during the war and became a fighter in the Resistance; but when addressing the German Bundestag 10 years ago on the 20th anniversary of the Franco-German friendship treaty, he was able to refer to the Germans as a "great, noble, and courageous people whom we have come to know and love."

A cynic might observe that the treaty being thus commemorated had been nearly a generation in the making, and that it represented Charles de Gaulle's calculation that a Franco-German alliance was less distasteful than an Anglo-French one.

But Dr. Ed Haley at Claremont-McKenna College in California sees the postwar Franco-German situation as a good example of three important factors contributing to forgiveness in statecraft: the leaders involved, the "lessons" the people have learned, and external circumstances.

In postwar Europe, the national leaders were nonnationalistic moderates, the people had been through two wars that had reduced Germany to rubble and left both sides exhausted, and the United States was standing by urging reconciliation and offering the help of the Marshall Plan.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's peacemaking trip to Jerusalem is an important example of a leader's vision of transcending grievance, Dr. Haley notes; but lacking wider popular support, the Egyptian-Israeli peace has borne but limited fruit.

In the former Yugoslavia, on the other hand, we see leaders ranging from, in Dr. Haley's words, "incompetent to evil"; the people have not yet learned the futility of war as the French and Germans had by 1945; and the outside world is not offering particular help, much less a specific construct like the Marshall Plan or the European Common Market to help focus energy.

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