The militant group Hamas emerged as the victor in the Palestinian elections held on Wednesday, despite warnings that neither Israel nor the United States would be willing to negotiate with it. Hillary Clinton declared on Thursday that no government should recognize a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority until it has renounced violence and recognized Israel’s right to exist. Meanwhile, a Hamas official announced that “recognizing Israel is not on the agenda.” What happens when one government doesn’t recognize another?
They cease to have diplomatic relations (or choose not to start). According to international law, recognition comes in several varieties. You can recognize a state or a government, and your recognition can be either de factoor de jure. A de factorecognition suggests only a provisional acceptance and can be assumed when one nation has at least some contact with another. A de jurerecognition—which is often issued with a formal declaration—results in formal diplomatic ties.
You can have diplomatic relations with a foreign country by establishing an embassy there or by sending it an accredited ambassador. A government might choose instead to keep its distance by dispatching a few midlevel diplomats to another country’s embassy in the same place. In Cuba, for example, the United States has what’s called an “interests section” associated with the Swiss Embassy. (We recognize the state of Cuba, but we don’t have full diplomatic relations with its government.)
Countries that don’t recognize each other de jure can still communicate through other means. The governments of North Korea and South Korea stayed in touch for many years in the absence of mutual recognition or open diplomatic ties. Officials in the two capitals were able to fax documents to each other, interact at international conferences, and pass messages through third-party governments. And no matter how chilly relations become, two countries can always communicate through the media.
Once the United States recognizes a state, it doesn’t usually mess around with recognizing or not recognizing each government that takes power in that state. That doesn’t mean we never change our minds about whom we recognize and whom we don’t. In 1979, Jimmy Carter announced that the United States no longer recognized Taiwan as “China,” and gave that distinction to the People’s Republic of China.
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Explainer thanks Stephen Bosworth of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, Francis Boyle of the University of Illinois, and Chester Crocker of Georgetown University.