Recognition, Policy of

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RECOGNITION, POLICY OF. It has generally been accepted that the power of the president to recognize any country, mainly through his constitutional authority to appoint and receive ambassadors, is absolute. Congress has never seriously challenged this presidential prerogative.

The criteria for recognition were established by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in 1793, following the execution by the French of their king, Louis XVI, and the French Republic's declaration of war against Great Britain. The opening of the English phase of the French Revolution—Paris was already at war with her neighbors on the continent—launched the conflict upon the sea and brought it to the very shores of the United States. Aside from popular sentiment, which was pro-French in its commitment to republicanism and democracy, the United States had treaty obligations to France, in particular an obligation under certain circumstances to protect French possessions in America as well as an obligation to allow French naval vessels and privateers privileges denied to ships of Great Britain. To these forces, pulling the United States toward France, was added a British policy of ruthless interference with American trade at sea and consistent opposition to American interests on the frontier. To drift into war with England would be easy, but a war with England, when the United States was barely getting on its feet under the new Constitution, was certain to lead to disastrous consequences.

Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton thought the treaties invalid, since, among other reasons, the government with which they had been made was now destroyed. Even if the treaties were still in force, Hamilton added, the Treaty of Alliance (1778) was expressly a "defensive" one, and France, having declared war against England, was the aggressor. Jefferson opposed Hamilton's reasoning, arguing that the treaty had been made by the government of Louis XVI acting as the agent of the French people, and that a mere change of agents did not invalidate the agreement. On this point, Jefferson's position was the one now generally accepted in the conduct of international relations: a treaty is made with a nation and is not abrogated by a change in government. Still, while Jefferson would not repudiate the treaty, neither was he inclined to interpret it to involve the United States in the war on the side of France. For the most part, President George Washington followed Jefferson's counsel.

Jefferson's policy of de facto recognition was generally followed until President Woodrow Wilson changed direction from this practice, beginning in 1913. Shocked by the assassination of the leader of Mexico, Francisco I. Madero, a reformer and a man of good will, by General Victoriano Huerta, Wilson looked upon the new regime as "a government of butchers," unworthy of recognition. On 11 March 1913, Wilson announced in a press release that friendship and cooperation with the "sister republics" of Latin America would be possible only when supported by the orderly processes of just government based on the rule of law, not upon arbitrary or irregular force. Although called forth by rumors of revolutionary plots in Nicaragua, this statement was obviously also applicable to Mexico. In fact, it hinted at what was to become an established feature of Wilson's foreign policy regarding Latin America: a refusal to recognize governments that had attained power only by force and violence. Thus he deviated from the practice, followed quite consistently since Jefferson's day, of recognizing, regardless of origin, any government that was firmly seated and capable of performing its duties, internally and externally.

Several years later Wilson had an opportunity to further advance his moralistic approach to recognition. The United States had hailed with enthusiasm the overthrow of Nicholas II in March 1917 and the establishment of a liberal provisional government in Russia. However, the enthusiasm had turned to dislike and suspicion when the Bolshevists, led by V. I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, seized power in November, made a separate peace with Imperial Germany, and adopted a program of world revolution. Communist Russia was excluded from the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and was long refused recognition by the United States. The reasons for withholding recognition (after an initial period when the new regime was in doubt) were: the refusal of the Soviet Union to recognize the financial obligations of its predecessors; its refusal to recognize claims of American citizens for damages sustained as a result of the revolution; its denial of the validity of international agreements; and the subversive activities of the Communist International, the propaganda agency of the Moscow government, operating through Communist parties in the United States and elsewhere.

By 1933, some of the arguments against recognition had lost part of their force. In Russia, Trotsky, the chief apostle of world revolution, had been expelled from the Communist Party and from the country while Stalin had adopted the slogan "Socialism in one country." To a considerable degree, the Soviet government had also settled many of the claims of American individuals and corporations, as the price of doing new business with them. Most importantly, the Great Depression of the early 1930s aroused a hope that official recognition of Russia would expand the Russian market for American producers. In any case, the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt was not, like its predecessor, committed to a policy of nonrecognition. Consequently, at Roosevelt's invitation, the Soviet government sent Maxim Litvinov to Washington, D.C., and on 16 November 1933 the United States established regular diplomatic relations with Moscow. By an exchange of notes prior to recognition, the Soviet government agreed not to sponsor propaganda or any activity aimed at the overthrow of the United States, to allow religious freedom and protection in the courts of American nationals residing in the U.S.S.R., and to negotiate for a final settlement of debts and claims. The results were disappointing as Moscow-sponsored communist activity in the United States continued, a number of claims went unsettled, and trade figures fell well below expectations. The good news was that the United States had finally returned to the Jeffersonian criteria of de facto recognition that had served the nation so well.


Coletta, Paul E. "Recognition." In Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. Edited by Alexander De Conde et al. 3 vols. 2d ed. New York: Scribners, 2002.

Goebel, Julius, Jr. The Recognition Policy of the United States. Buffalo, N.Y.: W.S. Hein, 2001. The original edition was published in 1915.

Jaffe, Louis, L. Judicial Aspects of Foreign Relations, in Particular of the Recognition of Foreign Powers. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1933. A standard text in the field.

Moore, John Basset. A Digest of International Law. 8 vols. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1906. Indispensable reference on international law.

Joseph M.Siracusa

See alsoForeign Policy ; France, Relations with ; Mexico, Relations with ; Revolution, American: Diplomatic Aspects ; Russia, Relations with .