The Archaic Practice Of `Recognition'

A DIPLOMATIC anachronism plagues the United States in dealing with the newly-declared Lithuanian government: Recognize the new government, as it has requested, and bollix relations with Gorbachev and the USSR; or, withhold recognition, and turn a cold shoulder to an incipient democracy. This double-bind was forced on US policymakers by the antiquated concept of recognition, which presumes a government to either recognize or not recognize another - with no middle ground. Apparently, recognition emerged in the Middle Ages, when European monarchs claimed legitimacy as a divine right and reinforced one another's claims through recognition.

Today, the practice does more harm than good. Britain dropped it in 1980. The US remains mired in confusion, as seen by the contortions created by the situation in Lithuania.

When Lithuania claimed independence in March, administration spokesmen awkwardly sidestepped the issue of recognition by suggesting the new Lithuanian government can't be recognized until it has gained control of its territory. But the US has never acknowledged Soviet control over Lithuania, and since 1940 has officially recognized a Lithuanian ``government'' that is manifestly not in control of its territory. In fact, as of Jan. 1, 1990, the Lithuanian embassy was on the formal diplomatic list of the State Department. The same is true with Latvia and Estonia.

Recognition has no consequences in international law and little in international politics. It confers no legal benefit on any government; one government's rights must be respected by others whether they recognize that government or not. Politically, the effectiveness of nonrecognition as a stigma is overstated. It can have a certain rhetorical or symbolic significance. But pure symbolism as a foreign policy tool has limited utility - as a 50-year recognition of Baltic governments demonstrates.

Recognition has only a minor effect in US domestic law: The courts usually don't permit unrecognized governments to appear as plaintiffs. This issue seldom arises, however, and when it does there is no reason why the courts should not themselves sort matters out and, if they wish, seek guidance from the State Department. The same can be said when similar questions arise relating to title to property, sovereign immunity, marriage and divorce decrees, and notarial certificates.

For reasons such as these, the US, without ever formally announcing it, has in practice moved steadily away from traditional recognition policy. This has been impelled in part by the headspinning changes of government in some third-world countries. The State Department has taken to responding to questions with an evasion: ``The question of recognition does not arise; we are conducting our relations with the new government.''

The need for this diplomatic dodge hints at an important reality: It's possible for one government to conduct diplomatic relations with another it does not recognize - as the US does with Taiwan. Unlike the binary notion of recognition, diplomatic relations fall on a spectrum that presents a broad range of policy options. The number and rank of diplomatic representatives can be altered. Cultural exchanges can be modified. Military and economic aid can be adjusted. Actions in international organizations can be taken, or not. In short, diplomatic relations, as opposed to diplomatic recognition, permit nuanced policy calibration capable of reflecting real national interests.

Twenty-first century diplomacy will be more complex than that of medieval Europe. It's time the US officially renounced the practice of recognition. Had we done so earlier, hard choices concerning Lithuania would still remain. But we would not face the dilemma we do today. The big question of recognition would dissolve into smaller questions concerning whether, when, and how to initiate what sorts of bilateral relationships. Our internal debate might then focus more on substance than form.

As Lithuania demonstrates, a flexible, case-by-case approach would better serve the national interest than the light-switch diplomacy of an either/or recognition policy.

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