History shows that US recognition policy has been shaped by both moralism and pragmatism
The main question vis-à-vis Afghanistan now is: “Will the US recognize the Taliban government, now that the gruelling 20-year war has ended, and the Taliban have got de facto control over Afghanistan?
Some say the US will, citing the fact that it had already recognized the Taliban de facto, having negotiated with the Taliban to install an inclusive post-war government and to take its troops out by August 31. But others contend that the de facto recognition was for a limited purpose, principally to take US troops out safely. Diplomatic recognition, these experts point out, is a different ballgame altogether with many issues to be addressed.
As on date, the fact is that while the Taliban regime is very keen on US and international recognition, the US is dragging its feet. The US is using the ‘morality’ card quite successfully because all countries, including Taliban’s friends like Pakistan, China and Russia, are insisting that the militants form an inclusive government; assure the rights of the minorities and women; and stop Islamic terror groups from using Afghanistan to stage attacks on other countries. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made it plain that deeds and not words would count, and if the Taliban fails to show signs of reform, the US could take punitive action (without putting troops on the ground).
Blinken has also said that the US would not re-open its mission in Kabul but act from Qatar. President Joe Biden went a step further and pledged to seek and destroy groups that strike at US targets. The US has already slapped financial sanctions by freezing Afghanistan’s funds totalling US$ 9.5 billion. The IMF has denied SDR facilities valued at US$ 500 million. The World Bank has suspended its Afghanistan projects.
The Taliban have said that they are willing to meet America’s demands, but it will not be easy for them to do so on the ground. Compliance would mean a dilution of their Islamic ideology, their USP. They will also be denied the full benefit of their military and ideological victory if they have to share power with groups that did not fight against the US occupation forces or actively collaborated with them. At any rate, extremist groups generally loathe sharing power.
Though a great power, the US is peevish. It has failed to take its defeat at the hands of the ragtag Taliban gracefully. History shows that it had not taken any defeat gracefully. It took the US twenty years to recognize Vietnam after the ignominious withdrawal of US forces from that country in 1975. The US took 30 years to recognize Communist China after it failed to sustain the rule of its ally the Kuomintang government.
America has had no consistent policy on according recognition to foreign governments. While democracy is touted as the principal criterion, US interests, which could be economic, political, strategic or even psychological, have been very important criteria.
When Louis XVI of France was deposed and beheaded in 1793, the newly formed American government of George Washington was in a dilemma over recognizing the new government in Paris. Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the US, argued that the supplanting of an admittedly tyrannous government by an equally tyrannous mob should not be accorded recognition. But Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson said that the French people had the inherent right to form their own government. President George Washington agreed with Jefferson and recognized the new French republic. Following this decision, the US adopted the policy of recognizing de facto governments, setting other issues aside.
However, during Woodrow Wilson’s Presidency (1913-1921), moralism was back in the reckoning. Wilson did not recognize the Yuan Shih-k’ai government in China in 1913 because Yuan had forcibly seized power and made himself Emperor. Wilson refused to go with Britain, Germany, Japan on this issue. Again, in 1913, Wilson refused to recognize the government of Victoriano Huerta in Mexico on the grounds that he was not fulfilling the aspirations of his people. This despite Huerta’s controlling 80% of Mexico and enjoying the recognition of 28 other governments.
Wilson gave de facto (but not de jure) recognition to Huerta’s successor Venustiano Carranza in 1915. But a dispute over sub-soil properties in Mexico made him threaten Carranza with non-recognition. Full recognition was given to Mexico only when the dispute was resolved in America’s favor.
In 1917, when there was a coup d’etat in Costa Rica by War Minister Tinoco Granados. Wilson disapproved of it although the coup would have served a vital American economic interest. The US had taken a policy decision not to recognize governments that came to power through coups or through violence.
In 1920, the US refused to recognize the Soviet Union on the plea that it had “subverted a popular government and denied Russians the democratic right of self-determination; had taken American property without paying for it; and had sent agents abroad to foment communist revolutions.” Despite extensive commercial links between the US and the Soviet Union throughout the 1920s, Wilson’s successors upheld his policy of not recognizing the Soviet Union.
However, economic and strategic factors brought about a change in policy. Almost immediately upon taking office, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved to establish formal diplomatic relations with the USSR. According to a US government publication, Roosevelt hoped that recognition would serve US strategic interests by limiting Japanese expansionism in Asia. He also felt that enhanced trade relations with the USSR would help America recovery from the Great Depression.
In 1933, he initiated unofficial moves to negotiate with the USSR. His envoys approached Boris Shvirsky (the Soviet Union’s unofficial representative in Washington) with an unsigned letter from Roosevelt to the Soviet Union’s Head of State and Chairman of the Central Executive Committee, Mikhail Kalinin. The letter intimated that the US would be willing to negotiate terms for recognizing the Soviet Union, and requested that Kalinin dispatch an emissary to Washington.
In response, Moscow sent its Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Maxim Litvinov, to Washington in November 1933 to begin talks. The talks were successful and on November 16, 1933, the US recognized the Soviet Union, almost 16 years after it came into being. US interests had finally prevailed over moral or human rights concerns.
The US did not recognize changes in government brought about by an outside force as in the case of Manchuria (Japan was the external aggressor); the Baltic states (victims of Soviet aggression), and in the States of Western Europe during World War II (victims of German aggression). The US recognized these States only after they were freed from the hold of the aggressors.
However, the US shed its fixation on the demand that a new government must have the consent of its people immediately. It began to feel that legitimacy could be acquired over time through appropriate democratic means. As per this principle, in the 1930s, the US recognized new governments in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru. In 1932, when the US recognized a new government in Chile, Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson introduced a new principle: It would be enough if the new government furnishes evidence “that it is in control of the country and that there is no active resistance to it.” However, Stimson added the moral principle that each government must “hold, in due course, elections to regularize its status.”
Therefore, US policy on recognizing the Taliban government may not be etched in stone. With so many rival powers competing for a slice of the Afghan pie, Washington might eventually opt for pragmatism and accommodate the Taliban.