The sorrow of empire: Rituals of legitimation and the performative contradictions of liberalism

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Unexpectedly, several prominent European countries have begun to issue official state apologies to their former colonies. What does this proliferation of official colonial sorrow from such countries as Germany, Belgium, Italy, and Britain reveal about the normative tenets of the contemporary international order? This article analyses colonial apologies as crucial symbolic and ritualistic sites where state elites project liberal credentials and affirm liberal normative tenets in the international system. Specifically, the article demonstrates how these apologies for colonial atrocity appear to reinforce liberal conceptions of human rights, the renunciation of violence, cordial relations with formerly colonised states, and commitments to state accountability and transparency. Yet, textual analysis of several state apologies reveals that these performatives simultaneously contradict each of these liberal tenets. It finds that – even in apology – political elites reflect ambivalence about certain human rights violations; persist in glorifying or sanitising the violent colonial past; recycle paternalistic and hierarchical discourses and policies towards the apology's recipients; and offer contradictory notions of the state's historical responsibility. In exposing these performative contradictions of empirical sorrow, the article seeks to expand the discipline's understandings of, and dilemmas within, a key performative and ritualistic legitimation strategy whereby liberalism reproduces itself in the international system.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)623-645
Number of pages23
JournalReview of International Studies
Issue number3
Early online date11 Dec 2014
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2015


  • Former colonies
  • Germany
  • Belgium
  • Italy
  • Britain
  • Colonial apologies
  • International apologies
  • Liberalism
  • Human Rights
  • International Relations (IR)


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