Learning From History

The brutal and incompetent regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela is losing diplomatic recognition. Instead, the United States and its main European allies are recognizing the head of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as the acting president.

If this leads to a speedy resolution of the conflict, few will bother about the details. But history suggests that using diplomatic recognition as a weapon is a tricky business. After the Bolshevik revolution, most Western countries boycotted the new Soviet authorities. That stemmed from a mixture of hope (that the communist experiment would be temporary) and fear (that it might spread). European countries opened diplomatic relations quite quickly (starting with Estonia in 1920); the United States waited until November 1933. It is hard to see what gains that brought. The West made a similar mistake with the Communist authorities in China, with most countries waiting until the regime in Beijing took over the Chinese seat at the UN from Taiwan in 1971.

That is not to say that symbolic moves are worthless. When Lech Wałęsa became president of Poland in 1990, he received the seal and other insignia of office not from the outgoing communist authorities in Warsaw, but from the president of the government-in-exile in London. Fifty years on the sidelines were suddenly vindicated.

In the State Department lobby, the flags of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania hung throughout the years of Nazi and Soviet occupation. They no longer existed de facto, but the United States, and most Western countries, did not recognize Soviet rule there de jure. That seemed a pointless, even quixotic, stand during the Cold War. But when the Baltic states regained independence, it paid off. Countries like the U.S. and the Vatican that had looked after the Baltic states’ interests during the years of occupation felt justly proud. Those that had not, blushed. (In the early 1990s Britain, for example, had to pay the three countries £90m in compensation for their gold reserves, handed back to the Soviet authorities in 1967.)

At the United Nations, it was the other way around. The Ukrainian and Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republics were members, alongside the Soviet Union, even though most of the world knew that these “countries” were merely diplomatic stooges for the Kremlin, admitted as founding members of the UN in 1945 to lure Stalin into the world body. But as pro-independence sentiment stirred, the bribe turned out to be a Trojan horse. The two countries were pleased to have a ready-made, if rather Soviet-minded, diplomatic service and assorted foreign missions.

These things still matter. If and when Tibet regains independence, Britain may rue the careless way in which in 2008 it abandoned its long-held stance that Chinese rule there was “suzerainty” not “sovereignty.” Predictably, the communist authorities in Beijing swallowed the concession and gave nothing in return. The Belarusian National Rada (council) has maintained a tenuous existence in exile since 1918, when it fled from the Bolshevik and Polish forces that occupied the Belarusian state within weeks of its birth. The BNR’s main role is to hang on: if Vladimir Putin’s regime decides to bring Belarus into some new supranational union, or simply to incorporate it into the Russian Federation, then the existence abroad of an independent focus of statehood could be important.

Symbolism is no match for action, though. The nuances of diplomatic recognition can support a policy, but are not a substitute for it. The hard-pressed Venezuelan opposition will be delighted that the United States and its allies are signaling support. But just like the captive nations during the cold war, they will be hoping for something more substantial.

Photo: By alexandersr under Pixabay license.

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Edward Lucas

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August 19, 2020

Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.