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A Kenyan "Mau Mau" freedom fighter Waruhiu Itote (C), also known as General China, stands in the dock in a British colonial court during the 1950's Mau Mau independence rebellion, in this undated file picture issued by the Kenya National Archives. A British historian David Anderson said Britain should apologize for atrocities it committed during the conflict but he added that a reparations campaign by the former fighters may deepen the rifts their revolt opened among Kenyans. REUTERS/Kenya National Archives - Ho (HO/REUTERS)
A Kenyan "Mau Mau" freedom fighter Waruhiu Itote (C), also known as General China, stands in the dock in a British colonial court during the 1950's Mau Mau independence rebellion, in this undated file picture issued by the Kenya National Archives. A British historian David Anderson said Britain should apologize for atrocities it committed during the conflict but he added that a reparations campaign by the former fighters may deepen the rifts their revolt opened among Kenyans. REUTERS/Kenya National Archives - Ho (HO/REUTERS)

Doug Saunders

The importance of national shame Add to ...

Do you believe that your country is the greatest in the world? Then shame on you.

And I mean that literally: I'm increasingly convinced that a crucial factor in the progress of any country is a strong and well-inculcated sense of national shame. To face up to the fallibility and deep wrongs of your country is to reconnect it to the wider world. It also allows you to see the state for what it should be: a sturdy if battered containment vessel for the dreams and ambitions of its citizens, not a golden trophy of preordained rightness.

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This week, Britain, a country with an overlong history of national pride, delivered itself a humiliating self-abasement. Faced with a lawsuit from Kenyans who had been systematically castrated and raped for political purposes by British officials in the 1950s, the Foreign Office unveiled an enormous and hitherto top-secret trove of thousands of crates of files documenting the crushing of the Mau Mau rebellion against colonial rule.

During the 1950s - a decade that too many still regard as the "enlightened" late period of empire - the British slaughtered, tortured, sexually brutalized, burned alive, starved and jailed some 150,000 Africans, including the grandfather of Barack Obama, for having the temerity to fight for national independence (which, in the end, was granted in 1963).

If British Prime Minister David Cameron were forced by his country's imperial past to issue an abject public apology for what was almost certainly a crime against humanity, would it harm Britain's standing? Quite the contrary. Acknowledging that the colonial project was a terrible wrong would have a powerfully resonant effect on international politics.

Mr. Cameron seems aware of this effect. This week, he began a bridge-building mission to Pakistan by acknowledging that the crippling Kashmir dispute between New Delhi and Islamabad was the fault of Britain's extremely ill-judged act of partition: "As with so many of the world's problems," he said, "we are responsible for the issue in the first place."

It was both noble and clever. By putting a period on the end of that sentence, he helped render obsolete the timeless Pakistani habit of blaming every national failing on Britain's perfidy. That's now been admitted. It's time to face the real problems.

Mr. Cameron has recognized that a crucial starting point in building foreign influence is a magnanimous public gesture of self-abasement. Mr. Obama also has learned this well, beginning his presidency with a series of foreign speeches that his myopically nationalistic critics derided as an "apology tour" - admitting that America's mistakes in the Arab world and its transgressions during the Cold War had been unforgivable actions of a flawed state. This earned his administration powerful credibility and allowed him to start reversing (perhaps too slowly) his country's backing of Arab dictatorships, and to play a military role in aiding Libya's rebels, without triggering the expected anti-American fury: It created a new world.

It's not just leaders who need to soil their pride. It's also citizens. Like a great many children of the Commonwealth, my home included a well-worn copy of Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses, with its crowning rhyme, Foreign Children, an encomium to British exceptionalism: "Little Indian, Sioux or Crow,/ Little frosty Eskimo,/ Little Turk or Japanee,/ O! don't you wish that you were me?" That was a common view for more than a century.

Today, it's more often those very "foreign children" who are caught in the trap of unchecked pride. Turkey's role in the world is kneecapped by its perpetual inability to acknowledge the Ottoman mass slaughter of Armenians. Japan's leaders steer their country dangerously close to conflict with China by still refusing to fully own up to the crimes of the Second World War, including the Nanking Massacre.

Atonement still has its enemies. Mr. Cameron's Kashmir apology was met with a hail of condemnation in the opinion pages of The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, darkly suggesting that such acknowledgments would damage Britain's standing.

Those angry nationalists ought to look toward Germany. There, by the time children turn 18, they've been given three half-terms of intensive education in the crimes and moral wrongs of their country and people in the 20th century, and are taught to see their government and people as perpetually guilty. What happens to a people raised for three generations on limitless shame and apology? They have, at the moment, the strongest economy in the world and the most influential role in their continent's politics.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

 

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