Scratch below the surface of today’s territorial conflicts – such as Russia’s land grab in Ukraine, China’s island claims in East Asia, or Turkey’s troops in Iraq and Syria – and you find leaders who evoke memories of their countries as past victims of aggression by others. Often these countries were once empires. They still lament over lost lands and faded imperial glory.
To justify China’s taking of islands far from its shores, for example, Chinese envoy Liu Xiaoming said in July: “Why do we care about these islands? China had been the victim of foreign aggression for over 100 years before the founding of [the People’s Republic of China in 1949].”
Or a leader might stoke the embers of ancient victimhood to divert attention, to stay in power, or to justify violence. The head of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, seeks to restore a medieval-period Islamic caliphate by savage means in order to end what he claims is a history of “humiliation, disgrace, degradation, subordination, loss, emptiness ...” for Muslims.
It is a rare leader who outright rejects this temptation to cite ancient wrongs to justify aggressive moves. Yet in a recent speech, South Korean President Park Geun-hye did just that. She called on South Koreans to end her country’s tendency to see its future as still determined by big powers.
“We must do away with this victim mentality and pessimistic thinking,” she said.
As South Korea has become a mature political and economic power – one that is now courted rather than threatened by its larger neighbors – it has achieved a certain domestic tranquility. It can use its history as a victim in past centuries to serve as lessons for healing and reconciliation. But it need not exaggerate the past to the point of recrimination.
Other countries that cling to old grievances, often to their detriment in initiating a war or in trying to instill national unity, need to follow Ms. Park’s advice. It is not always easy. In a 2014 book, Eliott Behar, a former prosecutor for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, explains why nations that were subject to outsider violence in the past too often repeat the acts of their aggressors:
“This feeling of entitlement to justice – this impulse – is a powerful prerequisite to collective violence. It provokes anger and invokes an enabling sense of self-pity to go along with it. It stokes fear of an enemy and can activate a corresponding and collectively shared sense of pride and duty. These are dangerous combinations, ones that can readily breed the notion that violence is acceptable and necessary. The stories we tell ourselves – our collective narratives – can be all too easily contorted under the right circumstances to serve these goals. They transform how we see ourselves, how we see others and what we choose not to see at all,” he writes in “Tell It to the World: International Justice and the Secret Campaign to Hide Mass Murder in Kosovo.”
A victim mentality still drives too many conflicts or causes countries to make unwise choices. The past should not be forgotten. Its lingering wrongs must often be righted. But it also should not be abused to satisfy current ambitions or concerns. A nation at peace with its past can be a peacemaker for the future.