Lost in Love-Hate Relations: Reconciling Irreconcilable Nation-States

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  • 2011•03•20

    Seunghoon Emilia Heo

    Lost in love-hate relations: Reconciling irreconcilable nation-states

    Comémoration de la réconciliation franco-allemande. Photo: Ghislain Sillaume

    Despite my rather dim view of the world of politics, I have always wondered whether mutual love, that brings about so many miracles in our daily life, can also reconcile nation-states. This naïve but profound conviction pushed me to focus on the cooperative aspect of interstate relationships, especially between adjacent enemies. Nation-states constantly create, disrupt, or renew bilateral relations. Just because two states once managed to develop friendly relations, this does not mean that they will last forever.

    Likewise, dramatic shifts from foes to allies can be frequently observed between neighbors. Nonetheless, there are instances where deep-rooted national enmities, which stymie efforts to rebuild broken relations, persist for decades, even centuries. It is surprising to observe that generations that grow up after the most intense periods of inter-state conflict – generations that did not even experience traumatic events – still harbor hostile feelings not only at the intergovernmental level but also at the intersocietal level.

    It is here that the concept of reconciliation finds its place. What is reconciliation? We easily say things like “attempts by India and Pakistan to reconcile have failed” or “there was a reconciliatory gesture between China and Japan.” But what do we mean by “successful” reconciliation? Is it when national leaders shake hands? Or when economic interaction becomes intensive? What if after five years, or let’s say even ten years of peaceful coexistence, relations deteriorate drastically under a new extreme-nationalist government?

    Resolving conflicts through non-military means

    In my research building an analytical framework for reconciliation, one key element I attempt to shed light on is the irreversibility of peace. Halting a war, accepting coexistence, or forming an alliance is a type of peace. But this “cold” state of peace does not guarantee stable peace relations, since there is a risk of return to animosity. The main difference between cold peace and stable peace through reconciliation lies in the cognitive reality of a shared community, as the former does not require any effort in creating a sense of “we-ness.” Simply put, in coexistence under cold peace, mutual acceptance or any further integration are absent (Bloomfield, 2006).

    At the same time, in situations where nation-states are “reconciled”, this does not mean that they will never fight each other again. Former enemies may continue to be in dispute over serious political issues, but they may be in basic agreement that such disputes must be dealt with through non-military means; this is the main point of stable peace. Nation-states can always decide to go back to war to resolve their problems. However, I am convinced that it has become almost unthinkable in the present time that France and England, Germany and France, and even Poland and Russia, all once historical enemies, would use military force to resolve any conflicts that they may have today.

    Implementing reconciliatory policies

    Human nature dictates that it is easier to hate someone that we have loved than to love someone we have hated. Shamir (2002) in explaining the Israeli-Palestine reconciliation warns us that “the transformative processes of reconciliation are psychologically taxing.” It is therefore extremely difficult to commit to such a transformation without “believing in its success.” Because reconciliation does not occur naturally, there is a need for a determined political willingness to implement reconciliatory policies.

    The Franco-German reconciliation process is considered the best reconciliation model as it revealed strong joint leadership in pursuing reconciliation, not just in the beginning, but over several decades. If Robert Schuman, then French foreign minister, and Konrad Adenauer, then German chancellor, played a primary role in unfreezing antagonist relations by signing the Schuman Plan right after the Second World War, it was the joint political effort of Charles de Gaulle and Adenauer that contributed to its maintenance. The latter led to the realization of the Franco-German friendship treaty, Traité de l’Elysée, signed in 1963.

    The discontinuity of the Turkish-Greek reconciliatory policies courageously launched in the 1920s, and those of South Korea-Japan in the 1970s demonstrates the importance of a certain consistency in domestic politics. The deep commitments to reconciliation by Eleutherios Venizelos, former Greek Prime Minister, and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, successfully brought about a reconciliatory mood in the late 1920s, “despite continuing popular xenophobia in the Greek and Turkish societies” (Bahcheli, 1990). However, as their respective amicable policies lost domestic support, relations between the two countries soon entered the doldrums.

    Two to tango: political elites and media professionals

    For governmental initiatives to be sustainable, it is therefore vital to transform public perception, which often tends to be slower to change. The praise by the international community, in particular the European Union and the United Nations, for the agreement between the governments of Turkey and Armenia to normalize their diplomatic ties in October 2009, was unable to stop violent protests from political parties and civil society within the two countries. Unless this agreement gets ratified by both parliaments and satisfies a larger public, it is unlikely to further progress the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation processes.

    Political elites and media professionals are at the core of efforts to reduce the asymmetry between government-to-government and people-to-people reconciliation processes. As long as politicians continue to exploit false patriotism to fulfil their own political ambitions and as long as media professionals continue to manipulate public opinion by cultivating xenophobia in their own self-interest, there is unlikely to be a genuine reconciliation. The Slovak-Hungarian diplomatic incident in August 2006 shows us the extent to which politicians playing the “nationalistic card” to incite popular hatred can obstruct societal reconciliation. Since the hardline Slovak National Party joined the ruling coalition government in the same year, inflammatory attacks on Hungarians, often fuelled with a racial tone, are frequently observed. A positive interplay among political parties and constructive use of the media are thus indispensable to implementing a culture of reconciliation.

    One could ask: what if no political leader ever makes the first move to implement reconciliation? What if the people refuse to forgive traumatic events that happened decades ago? It is true that there is no immediate risk in not pursuing reconciliation if these dyads enjoy, at the very least, a period of cold peace in the present moment? Nonetheless, in the era of globalization, many issues cannot be resolved by one single state, even the most powerful, as the United States’ military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate. The growing tendency towards interdependence demonstrates that we need to face future threats together. If “love thy enemy” seems too idealistic in international politics, it is at least wise to remember that “the consequence of not reconciling can be enormous” (Hauss, 2003).

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    This article is based on the author’s PhD thesis entitled The Politics of Reconciliation between Historical Enemy States: An Analytical Framework in International History and Politics, soon to be published by Palgrave Macmillan (2011).