How Does the U.S. Decide Which Governments to Recognize?

It tries not to.

TALANT SHABIEV/AFP/Getty Images
TALANT SHABIEV/AFP/Getty Images
TALANT SHABIEV/AFP/Getty Images

Ousted Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced Tuesday that he was willing to resign, one week after being forced to flee the capital amid a bloody uprising. The U.S. Embassy announced Monday that it had "no plans to shelter Mr. Bakiyev or help him leave Kyrgyzstan," and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already spoken with the country's new interim leader to "support the efforts of the Kyrgyz administration." In contrast to the 2008 Honduras coup, when Obama administration officials demanded the return of ousted President Manuel Zelaya and refused, for months, to recognize the country's new government, the State Department has dispatched a delegation to Bishkek to establish ties with the new leaders. So in the event of coups or revolutions, how does the United States decide whom to talk to?

It waits until it become obvious. When the United States was founded, it established diplomatic relations with various foreign governments in an ad hoc fashion, and even today there are few codified rules concerning recognition. Generally speaking, it is the policy of the U.S. government to recognize states, not governments, and to deal (or choose not to deal) with whoever happens to be in charge. This hasn't always been the case: Woodrow Wilson used nonrecognition, with some success, to delegitimize nondemocratic foreign leaders like Mexican dictator Victoriano Huerta, and for years, the United States recognized the anti-communist government in Taipei as the legitimate government of China. In recent decades, however, U.S. leaders have mostly tried to avoid getting involved in recognition battles in which they would be lobbied by competing factions seeking legitimacy.

Of course, this can become more complicated when there are multiple leaders or groups within a country claiming to be the legitimate government. The United States typically avoids taking the lead in recognition, waiting for the domestic politics to play out or for regional bodies like the Organization of American States to resolve the crisis before deciding whether to confer legitimacy on the new government. In the case of Honduras, for instance, the United States followed the lead of other Latin American countries in deeming Zelaya's ouster illegitimate.

Ousted Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced Tuesday that he was willing to resign, one week after being forced to flee the capital amid a bloody uprising. The U.S. Embassy announced Monday that it had "no plans to shelter Mr. Bakiyev or help him leave Kyrgyzstan," and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already spoken with the country’s new interim leader to "support the efforts of the Kyrgyz administration." In contrast to the 2008 Honduras coup, when Obama administration officials demanded the return of ousted President Manuel Zelaya and refused, for months, to recognize the country’s new government, the State Department has dispatched a delegation to Bishkek to establish ties with the new leaders. So in the event of coups or revolutions, how does the United States decide whom to talk to?

It waits until it become obvious. When the United States was founded, it established diplomatic relations with various foreign governments in an ad hoc fashion, and even today there are few codified rules concerning recognition. Generally speaking, it is the policy of the U.S. government to recognize states, not governments, and to deal (or choose not to deal) with whoever happens to be in charge. This hasn’t always been the case: Woodrow Wilson used nonrecognition, with some success, to delegitimize nondemocratic foreign leaders like Mexican dictator Victoriano Huerta, and for years, the United States recognized the anti-communist government in Taipei as the legitimate government of China. In recent decades, however, U.S. leaders have mostly tried to avoid getting involved in recognition battles in which they would be lobbied by competing factions seeking legitimacy.

Of course, this can become more complicated when there are multiple leaders or groups within a country claiming to be the legitimate government. The United States typically avoids taking the lead in recognition, waiting for the domestic politics to play out or for regional bodies like the Organization of American States to resolve the crisis before deciding whether to confer legitimacy on the new government. In the case of Honduras, for instance, the United States followed the lead of other Latin American countries in deeming Zelaya’s ouster illegitimate.

Military coups are another special case. U.S. federal regulations — generally referred to by the shorthand "section 508" — prohibit foreign assistance to "any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by decree or military coup." U.S. officials are often reluctant to formally describe the takeover of a foreign country as a "coup" because of both the consequences of cutting off aid and the fact that to resume aid, the State Department is required to certify that democratic governance has been restored.

The question of whether to recognize a government should not be confused with the question of whether to have diplomatic relations with a country. Although the United States chooses not to have formal diplomatic contact with the governments of Iran and Burma, for instance, it does not dispute that these are, in fact, the governments of those countries. The United States can also decide whether or not to recognize a particular geographic entity’s claim to statehood, as it does with the newly independent Balkan enclave Kosovo, but not with the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Thanks to John B. Bellinger III, former legal advisor to the U.S. secretary of state from 2005 to 2009, and Kurt Volker, former U.S. ambassador to NATO.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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