Thursday, March 01, 2007

Diplomatic non-recognition

As plans develop for a regional conference in the Middle East, initiated by the Iraqi government, the U.S. faces the prospect of sitting down at the table with Iran and Syria, two governments that it regularly denounces in terms usually reserved for the naughtiest children. Since the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Teheran in 1979, the U.S. has had no diplomatic relations with Iran at all. American "interests" there have been represented by the Pakistani government.

Despite its radical approach to foreign policy in the Middle East, the Bush administration's understanding of diplomatic relations is strangely consistent with most of its predecessors, from Kennedy through Clinton. In brief, that policy has been based on the notion that diplomatic relations can be withheld and thereby used as a kind of "sword" to punish or coerce an unrecognized government. Some prominent examples include:
  • Cuba, most notably, since its 1959 revolution. The "sword" in this case includes another potent and crippling economic weapon, the embargo.
  • Iran
  • North Korea
  • The Palestinian Authority
Nonrecognition is usually combined with economic sanctions in an effort to destabilize, or at least delegitimize, governments that have lost Washington's favor (or never had it).

Since the end of World War II, the U.S. finally conferred the "gift" of diplomatic relations on various other states that were formerly isolated and demonized, including Libya (recognized in 2006), Vietnam (1995), Iraq (2003) and China (1979, seven years after Nixon's "opening" in 1972).

Wikipedia's handy definition of "diplomatic relations" describes the concept as a "political act by which one state acknowledges an act or status of another state, or government, thereby according it legitimacy and expressing its intent to bring into force the domestic and international legal consequences of recognition."

"Domestic" consequences of recognition? This definition is flawed because it's far too ambitious, suggesting as it does that recognition is a tool for modifying the behavior of an errant government. I'd offer a more minimal version: diplomatic recognition is a means of establishing a channel for communications between two governments in order to reduce the risk of conflict and facilitate long-term peaceful interaction. The premise here is that talking, or at least the option of communicating, is always better than an atmosphere of threats, perpetual antagonism and bullying.

In 1961, the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations declared that the goals of diplomatic relations are to acknowledge "the sovereign equality of States" and "contribute to the development of friendly relations among nations, irrespective of their differing constitutional and social systems..."

The Nixon-Kissinger opening to China was far more modest in scope than Wikipedia's definition would suggest. After three decades of refusing to officially acknowledge mainland China's existence, the U.S. finally yielded to the reality principle and, in 1979, belatedly established formal relations. At the same time, it abandoned the fiction that the Nationalist Chinese government, confined on the small island of Taiwan, represented the vast population on the mainland. The U.S. refusal to recognize China was an utter failure if its goal was to undermine the legitimacy of the communist government and produce eventual regime change. The "silent treatment" has not proven to be a very effective tool of statecraft.

By the same standard that it applied to China nearly three decades ago, the U.S. could justify extending diplomatic relations to the de facto regimes in Cuba or Iran. Both countries have established relatively stable governments that have been in power for decades—48 years in the case of Cuba. Despite years of open hostility, threats and economic sanctions, regime change is still elusive in both places. In fact, the antagonism and contempt of the U.S. government may have had the paradoxical effect of reinforcing popular support for both regimes.

Diplomatic recognition should not, and need not, indicate approval. The U.S. extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in 1933, fifteen years after it came to power and long before the two became allies in the war against Hitler's Germany. Britain recognized the Soviet government even earlier, in 1924, despite its obvious and very deep disapproval of the communist regime.

It's widely recognized that the isolation of Cuba is a result of domestic political considerations having a lot to do with the politics, and 27 electoral votes, of Florida. During the long embargo of Cuba, the U.S. has vigorously supported many regimes with far worse human-rights records than Castro's: the regime of the House of Saud in Arabia, the Shah's Iran, Somoza's Nicaragua, South Vietnam under numerous dictators, Pinochet's Chile, and other countries too numerous to mention.

South Africa during apartheid is worth special consideration. As with China, the U.S. justified its close relationship with the atrocious regime of the National Party under the theory of "constructive engagement." The U.S. and Britain saw South Africa as a profitable trading partner and an ally against communist penetration of southern Africa.

If trade and other forms of "constructive engagement" were useful tools in relations with South Africa and China, why doesn't the same logic apply to Cuba, which poses no military threat whatsoever to the U.S.? The real reason is that U.S. policy there, as in Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion, is designed to create enough hardship among the general population to undermine the government and produce regime change.

As for the comprehensive sanctions imposed on Iraq after the Gulf war, a 1999 report prepared at the direction of the U.N. Security Council found that:
"In marked contrast to the prevailing situation prior to the events of 1990-91, the infant mortality rates in Iraq today (1999) are among the highest in the world, low infant birth weight affects at least 23% of all births, chronic malnutrition affects every fourth child under five years of age, only 41% of the population have regular access to clean water, 83% of all schools need substantial repairs."
Despite the mayhem visited on the Iraqi people by the sanctions, it was still necessary to launch an invasion to accomplish regime change. The use of sanctions against an entire population to effect regime change, whether the target is Iraq or Cuba or any other country, is both immoral and ineffectual. Economic sanctions, including bans on trade in armaments and spare parts, can be effective and appropriate, but they shouldn't include prohibitions on food or medicine required by the general population.

Diplomatic relations with Iran may seem problematic in light of mutual hostility, its despicable leadership and the seizure of the U.S. embassy by student radicals in 1979. However, the steady deterioration in the U.S.-Iranian relationship is a good reason to increase communications rather than cut them off altogether.

Last year, President Ahmadinejad wrote a long letter to George Bush that, among other things, challenged whether the Holocaust ever occurred. Bush ignored it, though there was much outrage against Ahmadinejad from Israel to western Europe to the U.S. and elsewhere. What would have been the harm in responding to that letter, in English and perfect Farsi? No doubt George would need a lot of help with both languages, but it would give him a chance to challenge Ahmadinejad's preposterous statements and communicate directly with the Iranian people, who are reported to be much less hostile to the U.S. than their government.

Iran would be a good candidate for informal "Track II" diplomacy that, as greater confidence develops (perhaps requiring regime changes in both the U.S. and Iran), could eventually produce normal diplomatic relations.

This is not to suggest that the U.S. must automatically extend diplomatic recognition to every de facto government on the planet, no matter how outrageous its conduct. Some regimes have leaderships that can only be described as insane: for example, those engaged in genocide or mass murder, or those (like Iran in 1979) that can't be trusted to protect American embassy personnel. There's no bright line, beyond which recognition can't be extended, but at least the U.S. should develop, for the first time in its history, consistent standards for extending diplomatic relations.


(1) While the outrage in the U.S. back in 1979 was understandable and justified, few Americans, then or now, have appreciated the role of that embassy in the CIA's overthrow of the nationalist government of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. A brief but thorough account of the U.S. role in the coup can be found in Overthrow (2006) by Steven Kinzer.

PHOTO: U.S. Embassy in Athens, Greece (subjected to a rocket attack in January, 2007).

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