FP Explainer

How Does the U.S. Decide Which Governments to Recognize?

It tries not to.

Ousted Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced Tuesday that he was willing to resign, one week after being forced to flee the capital amid a bloody uprising. The U.S. Embassy announced Monday that it had "no plans to shelter Mr. Bakiyev or help him leave Kyrgyzstan," and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already spoken with the country's new interim leader to "support the efforts of the Kyrgyz administration." In contrast to the 2008 Honduras coup, when Obama administration officials demanded the return of ousted President Manuel Zelaya and refused, for months, to recognize the country's new government, the State Department has dispatched a delegation to Bishkek to establish ties with the new leaders. So in the event of coups or revolutions, how does the United States decide whom to talk to?

It waits until it become obvious. When the United States was founded, it established diplomatic relations with various foreign governments in an ad hoc fashion, and even today there are few codified rules concerning recognition. Generally speaking, it is the policy of the U.S. government to recognize states, not governments, and to deal (or choose not to deal) with whoever happens to be in charge. This hasn't always been the case: Woodrow Wilson used nonrecognition, with some success, to delegitimize nondemocratic foreign leaders like Mexican dictator Victoriano Huerta, and for years, the United States recognized the anti-communist government in Taipei as the legitimate government of China. In recent decades, however, U.S. leaders have mostly tried to avoid getting involved in recognition battles in which they would be lobbied by competing factions seeking legitimacy.

Of course, this can become more complicated when there are multiple leaders or groups within a country claiming to be the legitimate government. The United States typically avoids taking the lead in recognition, waiting for the domestic politics to play out or for regional bodies like the Organization of American States to resolve the crisis before deciding whether to confer legitimacy on the new government. In the case of Honduras, for instance, the United States followed the lead of other Latin American countries in deeming Zelaya's ouster illegitimate.

Military coups are another special case. U.S. federal regulations -- generally referred to by the shorthand "section 508" -- prohibit foreign assistance to "any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by decree or military coup." U.S. officials are often reluctant to formally describe the takeover of a foreign country as a "coup" because of both the consequences of cutting off aid and the fact that to resume aid, the State Department is required to certify that democratic governance has been restored.

The question of whether to recognize a government should not be confused with the question of whether to have diplomatic relations with a country. Although the United States chooses not to have formal diplomatic contact with the governments of Iran and Burma, for instance, it does not dispute that these are, in fact, the governments of those countries. The United States can also decide whether or not to recognize a particular geographic entity's claim to statehood, as it does with the newly independent Balkan enclave Kosovo, but not with the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Thanks to John B. Bellinger III, former legal advisor to the U.S. secretary of state from 2005 to 2009, and Kurt Volker, former U.S. ambassador to NATO.


FP Explainer

Why Didn't Britain Have Televised Debates Before Now?

Tradition and political gridlock.

Gordon Brown, Britain's embattled prime minister, announced Tuesday that he will hold the country's most hotly contested general election in a generation on May 6, four weeks from now. Before then, the Labour leader will face off in a contest of a very different sort: three televised debates against the heads of the two other major parties, the Liberal Democrats' Nick Clegg and the Tories' David Cameron. The debates -- set for April 15, 22, and 29 -- are the first such events in British history. Why only now?

Because Brown is desperate. In the British system, voters choose parties rather than vote for their leaders directly. So even though Parliament boasts a rich tradition of political debate dating back centuries, and serving prime ministers must face backbenchers' impudence every week during Prime Minister's Questions, candidates for the premiership have never before faced off on television.

Parliamentarians have actually requested televised debates for nearly two decades, but the parties never seem to be able to make them happen. In 1992, Labour requested a debate, but the Tories refused. In 1997, flailing Tory Prime Minister John Major thought a nationally viewed debate might be just the thing to defeat the charismatic, but young and inexperienced Tony Blair, who was game to do it. But the two camps never came to terms (whether to include the Liberal Democrats was a sticking point), and the event never happened. Four years later, in 2001, Blair was forecast to win the general election in a landslide and therefore declined to debate Tory leader (and noted wit) William Hague. Blair did so again in 2005.

What has changed this time around? Cameron and Clegg -- both considerably younger and considered more silver-tongued than the maladroit Brown -- publicly agreed to televised debates months ago. Awaiting Labour's response, the country's television networks decided to hold the debates with or without the prime minister. Now fighting a steep uphill battle for victory, Brown had little choice but to agree.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives worked out terms between themselves and three major television networks. The first debate, which takes place next Thursday, April 15, will focus on domestic affairs; the second on foreign policy and Europe; the third on the economy. The networks and parties have agreed to an exhaustive list of 76 rules -- including No. 57 (at the end, everyone shakes hands) and No. 71 (the cameras cannot cut to the audience when the debaters are talking).

The debates will broadly resemble those in the United States. The moderator is there to moderate, but not to comment; each participant has a minute to answer a question and a minute to respond to the others' answers. Half the debate will focus on the given topic, the other half on diverse subjects. The audience -- apportioned at a strict 7 Labour to 7 Tory to 5 LibDem ratio -- will be a group of locals resembling Britain in terms of age, race, and "social class." The audience cannot clap, but will be able to ask a few pre-approved questions.