Reconciliation Efforts and National Interest: A Conversation On Perceptions of Proper Motivation and Results

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Behind every action is a driving intention and goal for results. No action or event simply appears but is a conscious physical translation of our intentions and prioritizations. To many, the intent and drive behind an individual, organization, or governmental action can be considered equally as important as the actions themselves. However, others would argue that the effects of actions are more important than the sentiment behind them, as ineffective or detrimental actions are not saved by well-intended motivation. While this argument applies to many issues, this debate over the role of motivation has been central for many looking at how governments are implementing reconciliation efforts. This prompts the question: to what level does motivation need to be “perfect” throughout the government, and can a hyper-focus on motivation hinder the progression of effective and quick reconciliation efforts for survivors and victims?

Typically, when referencing a government’s reconciliation effort, many are referring to forms of reparations of fiscal, legal, and formal apologies to victims from a previous administration or governing bodies. Examples that the international community would be quick to recognize could be the truth commissions in Rwanda post-genocide, the Japanese economic reparation to South Korea post-occupation, or Germany’s education efforts post-WWII. Each effort attempts to repair a relationship after human rights violations by the country, and each effort comes with its own arguments concerning varying perceptions of success and controversies.

During the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea in 1965, Japan paid $800 million to Korea as a “reparation fee” for their illegal occupation. (Photo Via. The Asia-Pacific Journal)

With reconciliation being directly connected to survivors and victims of a country’s past wrongdoings, it is understandably a sensitive issue and one that can have highly impactful effects on people, society, and the nation. These reconciliation efforts are rightly placed under heavy scrutiny and evaluation to avoid further damage and produce the best forms of reconciliation. However, beyond merely analyzing the resulting actions, the efforts guiding ethics and intentions can be questioned. While this reaction is not inherently unfounded, with such mass attention and importance, the conversation can become saturated with different observations and criteria that quickly write off reconciliation efforts that do not match one’s personal classifications of proper motivation. Begging the question; how important are perceived properness of intentions and motivation behind reconciliation efforts if effective and progressive reconciliation by countries is being implemented?

Difficulties With The Concepts of “Pure, Proper, and Perfect” Motivation

While I would wish to subscribe to the collection of optimists regarding the intrinsic necessity of proper motivation that is perfect and pure in nature, it is difficult to argue the existence of past and current implementation efforts that can withstand the wide variety of collective perspectives and standards. Concepts of motivation, ethics, and morals are not only multifaceted but can be critically subjective in observations, making the task of observing, classifying, and measuring during or after implementation extremely challenging. Therefore, attempting to classify the morals and ethics of individual motivations that come together to make up a governmental body’s guiding motivation for implementing these efforts an elusive concept. Suppose one argues that a proper or perfect guiding motivation is the only motivation that can create effective reconciliation efforts? In that case, that is a continuing impossible criterion and initial hurdle that will hinder the possibility of progressive efforts for reconciliation.

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and fellow commissioners listen to testimony from witnesses during the start of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that opened in East London on April 15, 1996. (Philip Littleton/AFP/Getty Images Via The Washington Post)

Now, highlighting the difficulty or infeasibility of obtaining a proper and perfect motivation that everyone accepts does not equate to suggesting that all motivation is acceptable or beneficial to reconciliation efforts. Reconciliation must be that of a victim-centered approach that places victims’ needs and priorities at the forefront of the effort. In addition to this victim-centered approach, efforts need to bring about accountability and the eradication of denial through educational or legal implementations. Any motivation that would work against these areas of development would obviously not facilitate effective reconciliation. An obvious example of this could be if a member of the government who is part of the reconciliation efforts denies the existence of the government’s past wrongdoings. This conflict in motivation between creating effective educational efforts and their own personal stance of denial would obviously pollute effective motivation inside the effort. However, this concept is less clear when these areas of reconciliation are met, and the motivation is not simply wanting to right the wrongs of past actions but more of reconciliation as an aspect of a larger national interest agenda.

Role of National Interest

National interest tends to be given a negative connotation as the state’s goals and ambitions can be used as justification for actions that serve its interests regardless of their impacts. However, in the case of reconciliation, viewing national interest as a separate and competing motivation isn’t really practical or beneficial. In places where reconciliation efforts occur, so do government transitions and administrative changes that strive for aspects of national interests, including international reputation repair, economic stability, and societal trust-building. While these do not align with a more righteous motivation of simply righting their wrongs because they were wrong, they align with goals that effective reconciliation efforts can produce. An effective effort that uses a victim-centered approach with accountability and removal of denial would also increase progress toward international reputation repair and societal and economic re-stability. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel stands in front of a historic picture of the Auschwitz concentration camp as she gives a speech during the International Auschwitz Committee’s remembrance ceremony in Berlin to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp, on January 26, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Tobias Schwarz Via. The Times of Israel)

It is wrong to presume that a national interest focus means that all efforts are ill-intended and that effective progress cannot be obtained. Instead, we should be strengthening the position of reconciliation efforts inside of this already pre-existing motivation. Positioning reconciliation’s role inside a national interest justifies the need for effective reconciliation efforts quicker to a broader scope of people. Nations will always work to protect their national interests as the most paramount motivation. Therefore, if international and domestic audiences pressure and educate the government that the implementation of reconciliation, justice, recognition of guilt, and reform is not only an ethical and moral obligation but is, in fact, critical to the government’s national interest, then effective efforts will find further support for its necessary central focus.

It would be unfair to boil this perception down to an approach that ignores motivation and believes that the ends justify the means in reconciliation. Instead, this argument is for how the debate about motivation can hinder reconciliation progress. It is not about having the perfect motivation throughout the government, but instead getting effective and quick results to survivors and victims that they deem to meet their effectiveness standards. By using a more realistic interpretation of national and individual motivation of positioning reconciliation inside of national interest, governments can be more effectively swayed into establishing a sense of normalcy, justice, and peace for the survivors and victims.

About Matthew F. Fleming 7 Articles
[Former Senior Writer for NOVAisa] Fleming holds a Master’s Degree in Global Affairs and Policy from Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, where he specialized in dual research areas: International Security and Foreign Policy, and International Law and Organizations. During his studies at Yonsei University, Fleming was selected to receive funding to pursue a second master's degree at Keio University in Tokyo, Japan, serving as a dual-degree representative between Yonsei University and Keio University. The culmination of this academic endeavor was the successful defense of his thesis, titled “U.S.-Japan-ROK Trilateralism from Obama to Biden: Expanding on Theoretical Norms of Understanding Through Aspects of Building Trilateralism and U.S. Involvement in Japan-Korea Conflict Issues.” This achievement earned him a Master’s Degree in Media and Governance from Keio University, specializing in Global Governance and Regional Strategy. Fleming possesses a background in mechanical and substantive copyediting, academic research, and editorial writing. He has interned at distinguished institutions, including the East Asia Institute—a prominent think tank based in Seoul—as well as the academic journals managed by the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies: the North Korean Review (NKR) and the Journal of Territorial and Maritime Studies (JTMS). His research interests include the evolving U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral relationship, democracy and human rights movements across the Asia-Pacific region, and the growing prioritization of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific within U.S. Foreign Policy.