One meme in American foreign policy circles since the start of the Obama administration has been to label efforts by the president to reach out to members of the international community in a way that acknowledges what can sometimes only be called discomfiting history as an "Apology Tour." According to this group, it is inappropriate for the United States to apologize and such history should largely be ignored in attempts to craft a relevant foreign policy.
Parents teach their kids that when they do something wrong, especially when it results in harm to another person or their property, lying to cover it up, pretending you know nothing about it, or blaming someone else is generally unacceptable. It is a mark of maturity to learn to accept responsibility for our own actions.
Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius offered the first official apology for the United States government's intentional infection of hundreds of Guatemalans with STDs without their knowledge and consent from 1946-48. It's a horrendous episode in our history of which most Americans have little knowledge.
As members of a global community, I'd assert that we're seeing an increasing shift away from states interacting purely through their regimes, a paradigm which established each country's rulers as the gateway of information to its people. In today's world, thanks to the spread of technology, information travels at the speed of light. At the same time, transnational organizations and corporations are now important non-state actors on the global stage.
The Obama administration isn't just speaking to governments, it's speaking to people. It strikes me that this is an essential and important shift in international outlook.
Given that fact, I'd imagine trying to influence people's hearts and minds is a bit more difficult when you ignore the fact that men and women bearing the same seals of government infected your grandfather with gonorrhea or provided weapons to the group that blew up your family home or backed more than one coup in your nation to remove a democratically elected leader.
Sometimes apologizing is the right thing to do.