A number of questions and answers on this site, and in the general commentary on the Internet, talk about "international recognition" or "recognition" by one country or another.

Where does the concept of "recognition," as a diplomatic tool, come from?

People often insist on it being an all important thing (as if a recognition of the Roman Empire might conjure it into being or as if a lack of recognition for a country might erase its existence). Clearly, that's not what the term actually means.

Since this site is dedicated to learning concepts that a political science student may find elucidating, can someone with a proper knowledge of the topic explain what the term means formally? And what it doesn't mean? I am not looking for anyone's favorite examples. And let's not (because that will turn into a mudslinging match) do that.

Rather, can we have a rigorous academic reference for the meaning and scope of the term (and possibly its brief history)?

To clarify, people often insist that "recognition" in politics means endorsement. But maybe its formal meaning is closer to the plain-English meaning of the word (which is closer to "acknowledgement" than to "endorsement")?

  • 6
    What aspects do the WP articles on sovereign statehood and diplomatic recognition not answer? Note also the book mentioned in the latter article: Hersch Lauterpacht: Recognition in international law, Cambridge 1947.
    – ccprog
    Commented May 8 at 11:18
  • I'd expect this question in the meta stack. Think an agreed glossary is missing on this platform, as it might reduce the temperature of controverse discussions and give more objectivity to whether contributions should be marked as opinion-based. Commented May 8 at 11:47
  • @ccprog: Lauterpacht's book was not as influential as he might have hoped though brill.com/previewpdf/journals/nord/59/4/article-p247_2.xml It's also somewhat fututile to search for academic answers here. As one poster here said in a related discussion, politicians won't be referring to those. Amuse yourself with this piece from the Swiss though. eda.admin.ch/content/dam/eda/en/documents/aussenpolitik/… Commented May 8 at 12:10
  • Note that the US doesn't fully subscribe to the effectiveness principle (unlike the Swiss) both with respect to states and governments. You'll probably be hard pressed to find written down the exact rules that most states, incl. the US follow, in this area. (The Swiss write-up is also self-contradictory to some extent. E.g. they add "Realistically, however, an entity cannot function as a state unless at least a certain number of states recognize it as such." after claiming it's mainly based on effectiveness.) Commented May 8 at 12:17
  • 2
    Recognition of what? I'm guessing you mean states, but it could also apply to international bodies, human rights concepts, treaties, ethnic groups, religions/religious leaders, and many other things.
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 8 at 12:18

4 Answers 4


can someone with a proper knowledge of the topic explain what the term means formally? And what it doesn't mean?

The substance of the term recognition in international relations is that if a country or its governing regime is recognized by another country's regime, then the country that recognizes it will treat it as another country whose authorized representatives are that regime.

For example:

  • The recognizing country will acknowledge the obligation to respect the right of the recognized regime's right to control the borders of the recognized country.

  • The recognizing country will afford diplomats from the recognized regime status as diplomats under the Vienna Convention.

  • The recognizing country will acknowledge the right of nationals of the recognized country to diplomatic assistance from diplomats of the recognized regime.

  • The recognizing country will seek extradition of people that the recognizing country wants to try criminally in its own courts from the recognized regime, rather than exclusively resorting to self-help.

  • The recognizing country will, out of comity, recognize legal determinations and court rulings of the recognized country as presumptively valid.

  • The recognizing country will treat diplomatic representatives of the recognized regime as people who have the authority to negotiate treaties on behalf of the country that the recognized regime claims to rule.

  • The recognizing country will treat ships under the flag of the recognized regime as being subject to the laws of the recognized regime under international maritime law.

This list is not exhaustive. In essentially any context in which the law calls for a country to have certain rights, a recognized regime will be treated by a recognizing regime as the valid spokesperson for the county and the country will be treated as if it really exists, while an unrecognized regime will not receive this treatment.

To give a concrete example, the government of Taiwan purports to be the legitimate government is mainland China. But essentially no other country in the world, not even Taiwan's close allies, like the United States, recognizes Taiwan as the legitimate government of mainland China. When Taiwan does anything that purports to speak for mainland China, every other country in the world treats the Taiwanese government officials making that proclamation as if they were having a bad LSD trip and ignores them.

On the other hand, when the People's Republic of China purports to be the legitimate government of Taiwan, Taiwan's allies, like the United States, politely but firmly, ignore what the PRC is saying.

Another parts of the world where territorial claims of regimes are not taken seriously are Syria, where the Assad regime controls some but not all of the territory of pre-Civil War Syria.

It also comes up, more generally, in situations where some organized group of people, call them a regime, purports to be the legitimate government of some geographic area (often a region within a widely recognized country), despite the fact that another regime also purports to be the legitimate government of that geographic area.

During World War II, the issue was whether the Nazi regime or a puppet regime of the Nazi regime, or instead, a government in exile, was the legitimate government of countries that the Axis powers has conquered militarily.

maybe its formal meaning is closer to the plain-English meaning of the word (which is closer to "acknowledgement" than to "endorsement")?

The formal meaning in this context is indeed closer to acknowledgement than endorsement.

can we have a rigorous academic reference for the meaning and scope of the term (and possibly its brief history)?

I'll see what is possible. Like a lot of terminology, there isn't one top down authoritative adjudicator of what legal and political terms mean. The operative term in legislation and treaties is usually "state" or "country" and the notion of recognition is buried deep in the conceptual framework of how those terms are defined and operationalized.

The concept heavily overlaps with the issue of when someone purporting to be an agent can speak for a principal, and how you determine if a purported agent is such a person.

  • I don't think there's anybody who does not recognize Syria's territorial integrity. Sure, some may say that Assad is illegitimate government kr simply must go. But they still legally treat Syria as Syria.
    – alamar
    Commented May 8 at 19:58
  • @alamar Recognition is really about the authority of a particular regime over a particular territory. Assad's regime is not recognized as having authority over parts of Syria that it does not control and other countries such as Turkey and the U.S. feel free to be present in those parts of Syria without its consent.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 8 at 20:33
  • USA has to explain why they are present in Syria and get scolded for it. So everyone still assert Syrian sovereignity in theory.
    – alamar
    Commented May 8 at 23:02
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    "Cyprus (where both Turkey and Greece claim the entire island)" - what? Commented May 9 at 7:08
  • I thought extradition was more treaty based over recognition based.
    – David S
    Commented May 10 at 17:55

Not the only aspect, nor necessarily the main aspect, but if a particular entity is recognised as a "state", that makes a difference to what other states, and the UN, are or are not allowed to do under article 2 of the UN Charter, specifically paragraph 4

All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

and paragraph 7

Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter Vll.

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    The Geneva Conventions also make this complicated distinction between international and internal ("non-international") conflicts, with fewer rights explicitly recognized in the latter case. Commented May 8 at 13:55

Let's be clear… International politics is effectively anarchic: there is no overriding structure or rule of law, aside from what has been established (and is currently accepted) by treaty. Even that can be broken, at need. 'Recognition' literally means that a sufficient number of currently accepted states — adjusted for relative power — have decided that 'X' is a state with specified boundaries. That decision makes 'X' (for all practical purposes) a state.

It's a bit like that grade/high-school thing where certain kids sit at the 'cool kids' table. Other kids might strive to get there, but mainly/only achieve that goal when it serves the interests of the people already seated at the table. It's not rational or systematic; it's a blindingly opportunistic matter of ad hoc social politics.

Forget about the cachet of 'states' for a moment. Think of 'states' as selfish, pragmatic, un-idealistic individuals deciding whether to accept 'X' into their (quite exclusive) club, with all the benefits and entitlements that entails. Recognition as a state is analogous to acceptance into that club, and that's really all there is to it.


To add to the existing answers, the modern concept traces back to the age of revolutions that started out with the American revolution and ended with WW1, a period in which most modern countries we see today were formed (even though not necessarily in the current borders).

As empires were falling apart, peoples that were once part of an empire would form independent countries, and those countries wouldn't stand much chance of survival without:

  1. Recognition from major powers (mostly France and Britain in Europe). These would essentially guarantee their independence, and prevent the former empires from claiming back the territories.
  2. Recognition from other countries, particularly other self determining countries. These would enable the trade and possible later alliances that would contribute to the long term survival and viability of the country.

Note that these 2 aspects have always been necessary, but the further you go back in time, the less global the issue becomes, as there would be no major global powers to enforce 1.

Essentially, countries that do not get international recognition are unlikely to survive simply because they cannot get a working economy. Taiwan is a major exception to this, because they ended up being indispensable to the western economy. But this was a combination of sheer luck and skillful politicians. Taiwan is defacto recognized, just not made official in order to not upset mainland China.

  • Taiwan (aka the Republic of China) was the founding member of the UN. I believe both Taiwan and PRC adhere to 1 China policy. Both entities (de jure) view each other as rebel territories (putting the 1 China in a formal state of a civil war). Taiwan, for many year, paid the UN dues both for itself and the "red" China even though it had no control over it. It's similar to how both S Korea and N Korea view the other one as part of their territory, but not exactly the same b/c there is a formal armistice allowing both to function as separate countries.
    – wrod
    Commented May 31 at 22:04

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