The Power of Recognition

In his endeavor in 1793 to minimize the importance of the President’s power of reception, Madison denied that it involved cognizance of the question, whether those exercising the government of the accrediting state had the right along with the possession. He said: “This belongs to the nation, and to the nation alone, on whom the government operates. . . . It is evident, therefore, that if the executive has a right to reject a public minister, it must be founded on some other consideration than a change in the government, or the newness of the government; and consequently a right to refuse to acknowledge a new government cannot be implied by the right to refuse a public minister. It is not denied that there may be cases in which a respect to the general principles of liberty, the essential rights of the people, or the overruling sentiments of humanity, might require a government, whether new or old, to be treated as an illegitimate despotism. Such are in fact discussed and admitted by the most approved authorities. But they are great and extraordinary cases, by no means submitted to so limited an organ of the national will as the executive of the United States; and certainly not to be brought by any torture of words, within the right to receive ambassadors.”668

Hamilton, with the case of Genet before him, had taken the contrary position, which history has ratified. In consequence of his power to receive and dispatch diplomatic agents, but more especially the former, the President possesses the power to recognize new states, communities claiming the status of belligerency, and changes of government in established states; also, by the same token, the power to decline recognition, and thereby decline diplomatic relations with such new states or governments. The affirmative precedents down to 1906 are succinctly summarized by John Bassett Moore in his famous Digest, as follows: “In the preceding review of the recognition, respectively, of the new states, new governments, and belligerency, there has been made in each case a precise statement of facts, showing how and by whom the recognition was accorded. In every case, as it appears, of a new government and of belligerency, the question of recognition was determined solely by the Executive. In the case of the Spanish-American republics, of Texas, of Hayti, and of Liberia, the President, before recognizing the new state, invoked the judgment and cooperation of Congress; and in each of these cases provision was made for the appointment of a minister, which, when made in due form, constitutes, as has been seen, according to the rules of international law, a formal recognition. In numerous other cases, the recognition was given by the Executive solely on his own responsibility.”669

An examination of this historical practice, along with other functional considerations, led the Supreme Court to hold in Zivotofsky v. Kerry that the Executive retains exclusive authority over the recognition of foreign sovereigns and their territorial bounds.670 Although Congress, pursuant to its enumerated powers in the field of foreign affairs, may properly legislate on matters which precede and follow a presidential act of recognition, including in ways which may undercut the policies that inform the President’s recognition decision, it may not alter the President’s recognition decision.671

The Case of Cuba.

The question of Congress’s right also to recognize new states was prominently raised in connection with Cuba’s successful struggle for independence. Beset by numerous legislative proposals of a more or less mandatory character, urging recognition upon the President, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in 1897, made an elaborate investigation of the whole subject and came to the following conclusions as to this power: “The ‘recognition’ of independence or belligerency of a foreign power, technically speaking, is distinctly a diplomatic matter. It is properly evidenced either by sending a public minister to the government thus recognized, or by receiving a public minister therefrom. The latter is the usual and proper course. Diplomatic relations with a new power are properly, and customarily inaugurated at the request of that power, expressed through an envoy sent for the purpose. The reception of this envoy, as pointed out, is the act of the President alone. The next step, that of sending a public minister to the nation thus recognized, is primarily the act of the President. The Senate can take no part in it at all, until the President has sent in a nomination. Then it acts in its executive capacity, and, customarily, in ‘executive session.’ The legislative branch of the government can exercise no influence over this step except, very indirectly, by withholding appropriations. . . . Nor can the legislative branch of the government hold any communications with foreign nations. The executive branch is the sole mouthpiece of the nation in communication with foreign sovereignties.”

“Foreign nations communicate only through their respective executive departments. Resolutions of their legislative departments upon diplomatic matters have no status in international law. In the department of international law, therefore, properly speaking, a Congressional recognition of belligerency or independence would be a nullity. . . . Congress can help the Cuban insurgents by legislation in many ways, but it cannot help them legitimately by mere declarations, or by attempts to engage in diplomatic negotiations, if our interpretation of the Constitution is correct. That it is correct . . . [is] shown by the opinions of jurists and statesmen of the past.”672 Congress was able ultimately to bundle a clause recognizing the independence of Cuba, as distinguished from its government, into the declaration of war of April 11, 1898, against Spain. For the most part, the sponsors of the clause defended it by the following line of reasoning. Diplomacy, they said, was now at an end, and the President himself had appealed to Congress to provide a solution for the Cuban situation. In response, Congress was about to exercise its constitutional power of declaring war, and it has consequently the right to state the purpose of the war which it was about to declare.673 The recognition of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1933 was an exclusively presidential act.

The Power of Nonrecognition.

The potentialities of nonrec- ognition were conspicuously illustrated by President Woodrow Wilson when he refused, early in 1913, to recognize Provisional President Huerta as the de facto government of Mexico, thereby contributing materially to Huerta’s downfall the year following. At the same time, Wilson announced a general policy of nonrecognition in the case of any government founded on acts of violence, and while he observed this rule with considerable discretion, he consistently refused to recognize the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and his successors prior to President Franklin D. Roosevelt did the same. The refusal of the Hoover administration to recognize the independence of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo early in 1932 was based on kindred grounds. Similarly, the nonrecognition of the Chinese Communist Government from the Truman Administration to President Nixon’s de facto recognition through a visit in 1972—not long after the People’s Republic of China was admitted to the United Nations and Taiwan excluded—proved to be an important part of American foreign policy during the Cold War.674


Letters of Helvidius, 5 WRITINGS OF JAMES MADISON 133 (G. Hunt ed., 1905). back
1 J. Moore, supra, 243–44. See Restatement, Foreign Relations §§ 204, 205. back
Zivotofsky v. Kerry, 576 U.S. ___, No. 13–628, slip op. (2015). The Court identified the Reception Clause, along with additional provisions in Article II, as providing the basis for the Executive’s power over recognition. Id. at 9–10. See supra Clause 1. Powers and Term of the President: Nature and Scope of Presidential Power: Executive Power: Theory of the Presidential Office: The Zivotofsky Case. back
See Zivotofsky, slip op. at 27. While observing that Congress may not enact a law that “directly contradicts” a presidential recognition decision, the Court stated that Congress could still express its disagreement in multiple ways: “For example, it may enact an embargo, decline to confirm an ambassador, or even declare war. But none of these acts would alter the President’s recognition decision.” Id. back
S. Doc. No. 56, 54th Congress, 2d Sess. (1897), 20–22. back
Senator Nelson of Minnesota said: “The President has asked us to give him the right to make war to expel the Spaniards from Cuba. He has asked us to put that power in his hands; and when we are asked to grant that power—the highest power given under the Constitution—we have the right, the intrinsic right, vested in us by the Constitution, to say how and under what conditions and with what allies that war-making power shall be exercised.” 31 CONG. REC. 3984 (1898). back
President Carter’s termination of the Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan, which precipitated a constitutional and political debate, was perhaps an example of nonrecognition or more appropriately derecognition. On recognition and nonrecognition policies in the post-World War II era, see Restatement, Foreign Relations, §§ 202, 203. back