What Recognition of New Nations Really Means

FOREIGN policies evolve so rapidly today that we risk losing sight of their significance, contradictions, and dangers. Witness the extraordinary diplomatic joust over recognition criteria for the newly emerging states of Eurasia.

The European Community recently recognized Slovenia and Croatia as independent nations. The EC imposed new conditions for recognition which judge the legitimacy of self-determination movements striving for statehood. Under the EC checklist, new states must pledge to respect international law, guarantee ethnic and minority rights, honor borders, accept commitments for disarmament and regional stability, and resolve disputes peacefully.

Since late last year, the United States also has been bartering diplomatic recognition of the old Soviet republics in exchange for democracy, free markets, disarmament, and guarantees for ethnic minorities. Russia and Ukraine are among those six republics which have "earned" US recognition.

There is much to gain from both the willingness to recognize new states and the setting of standards, but we need to understand the real consequences.

First, fundamental norms of international law are being radically transformed, a development that challenges governments to create new universal rules. Until recently the criteria for recognition of a new state were minimal: effective control of a defined territory, permanent population, and viable engagement in inter-state relations.

Now the criteria have expanded and in some cases been fused with politically charged criteria for recognition of the government of a new state. The US recognized both the state of Russia and the government of Russia on the same day. In contrast, Washington has recognized the state of Azerbaijan but not its government.

Another norm that has taken a direct hit is the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states. The new principles for legitimacy suggest that emerging states will be held to the growing consensus on how all states should - but often do not - treat their peoples.

Second, self-determination has assumed a far different character than it had only a few years ago. During the cold war the concept principally stood for the right of colonial peoples to achieve independence from their alien rulers. Only recently has self-determination also meant the right of an ethnic group to carve out a smaller sovereign state deserving of recognition.

As the locus of self-determination diminishes in size, we need to decide whether America's traditional quest for multinational states still has any merit.

At some point the West's criteria for recognition will confront the critical question: "Who decides?" Should the Slovaks alone vote on independence, or should both Czechs and Slovaks determine the wisdom of an independent Slovak state?

Third, we risk glaring double standards in our recognition policy. The US recognizes Ukraine but withholds recognition from Slovenia and Croatia, two republics clawing their way toward sovereignty and democracy in the face of Serbian aggression. They would appear to meet the relevant US criteria for recognition.

Further, the US and its allies now require of newly emerging states far tougher standards of conduct than they do of existing nations. Burma fails almost every test, but the US continues to maintain diplomatic relations with it.

President George Bush would lead the Iraqi people to believe that if only Saddam Hussein were removed from power, the US would be prepared to restore diplomatic relations with any successor.

But if Saddam fell and a "tolerable" dictator seized power, should the fate of the Kurds and the Shiites, the prospects for democracy, the enforcement of international law, and even the liberalization of the Iraqi economy be forfeited as conditions for recognition?

Fourth, formal recognition may not be enough. If we believe a people have a right to be free, our commitment to a new world order should compel us to defend their freedom.

This responsibility soon may confront us in the Balkans, in the new Commonwealth of Independent States, and in other regions.

Finally, a new state's performance following diplomatic recognition is equally important. The US and the EC have to plan how they will discipline a new state which violates the recognition principles. Pledging allegiance to the recognition criteria is not the same thing as actually fulfilling them.

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