Should America Ever Apologize?
From its opening days, the Trump administration has expressed contempt for the idea that public confessions of American missteps can do anything but weaken the US. Hence, in his May 2018 commencement address at the US Naval Academy, President Donald Trump announced that, “We are not going to apologize for America. We are going to stand up for America. … Because we know that a nation must have pride in its history to have confidence in its future.”
In fact, Trump’s rejection of historical introspection and atonement is at odds with a longstanding American tradition of deriving strength from conciliatory leadership on the world stage. Since America’s founding, its best foreign-policy moments have come when its leaders act pragmatically, demonstrating a capacity for self-reflection.
For example, after the Revolutionary War, America’s first president, George Washington, pushed for reconciliation and a favorable peace settlement (a “new beginning”) with Great Britain. Rather than dwell on colonial grievances and past British transgressions, his primary concern was to ensure political stability and sound economic relations for both countries well into the future.
Similarly, as the American Civil War was nearing its end, President Abraham Lincoln focused not on punishing the Confederacy, but on formulating an inclusive policy to reunite the country in a “new birth of freedom.” More recently, President George H.W. Bush apologized and issued reparations, on behalf of the country, to Japanese-Americans who had been interned during World War II on the basis of their ethnicity. And that gesture was eventually followed by Obama’s much-heralded speech in Hiroshima, where he reflected on America’s use of atomic bombs against Japanese civilians (though he did not issue a formal apology).
Finally, since the 1990s, the US has been reckoning with the legacy of the Cold War. While President Bill Clinton apologized for the US’s “dirty war” policies in Central America during the second half of the twentieth century, Obama acknowledged similar US actions in Cuba, Peru, and Argentina. These statements had uncertain political payoffs, but they demonstrated real political leadership, and presented America as an honest broker, despite its many imperfections.
As the recent faculty revolt at the American University in Cairo showed, the Trump administration risks finding itself on the wrong side of history. By repudiating past acts of American atonement, Pompeo was no doubt hoping to signal a break from Obama-era US foreign policy. But he was also abandoning a tradition of American global leadership that has long served as a source of national strength. As is typical with the Trump administration, its partisan chest-thumping backfired. Though Pompeo stood unchallenged in Cairo, the position he represents has become an increasingly lonely one on the world stage.