Guaidó's Diplomatic Rulebook Problem

The region’s diplomats are throwing the standard diplomatic librito out the window to recognize Juan Guaidó, even though he doesn’t actually run the country. There are obvious risks involved.

Photo: El Confidencial retrieved

Here’s the thing about other countries recognizing Juan Guaidó. However much sense it makes politically, it is—how to put this delicately?—not the thing they teach you at Diplomat School.

The librito—standard diplomatic practice—is emphatic on this point. “Recognition” in international relations, is not a value judgment. It doesn’t imply approval, in any way. It doesn’t imply you accept the other side’s democratic legitimacy. “Recognition” is exactly what its name implies— it recognizes facts on the ground. Namely: that a given government exercises actual control over a given territory, and is able to represent it internationally.

In international law, states don’t really recognize “governments”—they recognize other states. That includes states whose governments’ they’re vehemently opposed to.

The U.S. recognized Soviet governments throughout the Cold War, to cite just one example. No one sane thinks that means the U.S. accepted Stalin’s democratic legitimacy.

“Recognition” is exactly what its name implies— it recognizes facts on the ground. Namely: that a given government exercises actual control over a given territory, and is able to represent it internationally.

These norms are old. They’ve developed slowly over the four centuries since the Peace of Westphalia. Diplomats, as a norm, are a prudent, plodding, precedent-obsessed bunch. They don’t disregard standard practice willingly.

Over the last 24 hours, though, the Western Hemisphere’s diplomats have gone wild. Canada, the U.S., Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Perú and a bunch of others have tossed the librito in the garbage and recognized as president someone they know doesn’t control Venezuela’s state.

As Venezuelans who hate Nicolás Maduro’s goddamn guts, it’s all kind of exhilarating. But hot times call for cool heads, and it’s worth stopping to ponder why the norms around recognition developed in the first place.

The reason the librito counsels against recognizing regimes that don’t control the actual territory is that doing so generates conflict points. We saw the first of those yesterday, as the Maduro regime ordered the expulsion of U.S. diplomats in Venezuela and Juan Guaidó declared them un-expelled. This left the U.S. with little choice but to say they were going with Guaidó’s plan. Which led Diosdado Cabello to threaten the embassy’s water and electricity lines. Of course, it’s Diosdado Cabello who has his hands on the switch of the embassy’s utilities, not Juan Guaidó, because it’s Diosdado who controls the actual territory.

In the long run, establishing recognition as a normative (who should run the country) rather than a positive (who does run the country) question is a recipe for conflict. That’s why standard practice counsels against it.

As things stand, the U.S. now recognizes a counterpart that has no power. So does the rest of the region. If the regime collapses in the next few days, the move will be hailed as a diplomatic masterstroke.

But…what if it doesn’t?

“It’s a strategy that only works if it works,” is how Crisis Group’s Phil Gunson put it to me on the phone yesterday. “If it doesn’t, there’s no plan B.”

If Maduro manages to hang on through the coming few weeks, the hemisphere will find itself in the very uncomfortable situation of having no interlocutor in Caracas. If Nicolás Maduro grabs Peruvian diplomatic facilities, who is the Peruvian Foreign minister going to call to protest, Guaidó? If the government expropriates Colombian company assets, what good does it do Duque to call Guaidó to protest? If an American Airlines jet gets impounded in Maiquetía, who does Pompeo bawl out? If Canadian citizens get thrown in jail on plainly made up spying charges, who is Chrystia Freeland supposed to complain about consular access to? Gustavo Tarre?

Recognizing Guaidó is a strategy that only works if it works. If it doesn’t, there’s no plan B.

Which is why I think the Europeans are striking a smarter balance here. One after another, European governments have tried to express maximum support for Juan Guaidó without explicitly recognizing his claim to the presidency. A lot of Venezuelan opposition supporters roll their eyes at this, slam it as weak. It’s not weak. It’s librito-bound.

The risk is that if the Guaidó recognition gambit doesn’t pay off quickly, governments up and down the region are going to be forced into an extremely despiriting climbdown—re-recognizing the Maduro regime simply because they have pressing diplomatic business that can’t be put off. Such a climbdown would entrench chavismo in power for another generation.

The librito, it turns out, is there for a reason.