The Trump administration has spent months cajoling Muslim countries to establish diplomatic relations with Israel ahead of the U.S. election. The latest target is Sudan, reports the New York Times. The effort has already garnered recognition from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as established diplomatic ties between Israel and Kosovo. Even before this move, a number of governments, most notably Australia but also some countries in the Pacific and Central America, have followed the Trump administration’s lead by recognizing Jerusalem as capital of Israel. It also signals a shift in momentum after years in which an increasing number of countries and international organizations were recognizing Palestine’s statehood, over U.S. opposition.
Recognition fights like these are often less about the actual countries being recognized than they are about superpowers flexing their muscles on the world stage and signaling to adversaries.
The Trump administration’s push to win diplomatic recognition of Israel mirrors, in a strange way, U.S. rival China’s ongoing campaign to get countries to unrecognize Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory. Only 15 countries currently have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan—most of them in Central America and the Pacific—and China has been dangling economic incentives to get them to switch. Since Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen took power in 2016, seven countries have cut ties with her government. (When I visited the tiny pacific nation of Kiribati in 2016, signs touting Kiribati-Taiwan cooperation and economic aid from Taipei were everywhere, but the island nation switched to Beijing at the end of last year.)
Vatican City still recognizes Taiwan, though leaders in Taipei were made nervous last month with the renewal of a controversial deal between the Holy See and Beijing over the appointment of bishops. Taiwan did get a rare diplomatic win this week when the EU intervened to convince a global alliance of mayors to stop referring to Taiwanese cities as part of China.
Technically speaking, despite its strong military support for Taiwan, the U.S. is on the “Chinese” side of this divide; it does not have formal diplomatic relations with Taipei. But that hasn’t stopped the U.S. from urging other smaller nations to keep their ties with the island nation.
Recognition fights are one of the weirder realms of geopolitical competition. Taiwan and Israel plainly do exist as independent countries, but the most common definition of a state under international law requires it to have the “capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” So denying recognition is a way of denying a country’s political legitimacy.
Countries like Kiribati and Honduras probably aren’t actually all that interested in the status of Israel or Taiwan, but recognition is a low-cost way to curry favor with the superpowers—the U.S. and China—that are extremely invested. Clearly, the UAE and Bahrain have made the calculation that strong ties with Washington and building a coalition to counter regional rival Iran are more pressing concerns than these nations’ long-standing support for Palestinian statehood. (Some valuable weapons sales also sweetened the deal.) Sudan’s big ask is likely to be removal from the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list, on which it has been included since Osama bin Laden’s residence there in the early 1990s.
For the superpowers, these recognition fights are a form of coalition building, of getting allies lined up behind their respective geopolitical priorities and worldviews. In the U.S. case, recognition of Israel represents backing a regional coalition against Iran. In China’s, disavowing Taiwan’s independence means accepting China’s status as the preeminent regional power. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has attempted to wage a proxy fight, somewhat less successfully, with its ongoing campaign to win recognition of its annexation of Crimea, and the Russian-backed separatist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Caucasus. The ongoing international divide over whether to recognize the Russian- and Chinese-backed de facto President Nicolas Maduro or U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate leader of Venezuela serves a similar function.
Recognition battles were a prominent tactic during the Cold War. From the Chinese Revolution until 1979, the U.S. refused to grant international recognition to the Communist government in Beijing. The government of Taiwan occupied the Chinese seat at the United Nations despite the communist regime’s de facto control of all of mainland China. The U.S. also formally recognized the three Baltic countries—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—as independent throughout the Cold War, even though they had been under Soviet control since World War II.
In this new era of rising superpower conflict, the tactic seems as popular as ever.