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From Manchuria to Ukraine
Japan, Russia and American non-recognition
A fundamental question of international affairs turns on who governs what territory. Governing is partly a matter of power, of boots on the ground. But it is also a question of legitimacy: do those boots have a right to be there? In nearly all cases, the parties controlling the boots assert that they do. Yet legitimacy is also a question of opinion: do other people recognize the authority of the boots?
Before the emergence of modern nation-states, recognition could be conferred by the likes of the pope in Rome, who blessed Portuguese colonies in Africa and Spanish colonies in the Americas. (Brazil fell into Portugal's lap by accident, on account of a misapprehension of Atlantic geography.)
In modern times, nation-states have made their own decisions on recognition. During the American Civil War, the United States government pressed hard and successfully to keep Britain from recognizing the Confederacy. During the Mexican revolution of the early 20th century, Woodrow Wilson withheld recognition from revolutionaries in Mexico City. Wilson and his presidential successors denied recognition to the Bolshevik regime in the Soviet Union until the 1930s.
Such decisions were sometimes consequential, sometimes not. If Britain had recognized the Confederacy, and then provided the economic and military assistance recognition would have allowed, the outcome of the Civil War might well have been different. America's refusal to recognize the Soviet government had little effect on Soviet life or the state of international affairs. It stored up resentment of the United States in Moscow, but not enough to prevent the Soviet-American alliance of World War II.
Even while the American diplomatic boycott of the Soviet Union continued, the U.S. government faced a new question of recognition. Following a 1931 explosion on a Japanese-owned railroad in Manchuria, Japanese troops seized control of that province of China. They installed a puppet government for a new country they called Manchukuo.
Henry Stimson, the American secretary of state, and Herbert Hoover, his boss as president, disapproved of the Japanese action. It violated China's territorial integrity, which American policy for thirty years had sought to defend. It enhanced the power of the militarists in Tokyo who were threatening the stability of East Asia and the Pacific, with potentially dire consequences for the Philippines and Hawaii, the former an American colony and the latter an American territory.
Yet neither Stimson nor Hoover thought the Japanese seizure sufficiently dangerous to warrant a military response. Nor, amid the deepening world depression, was Hoover eager to employ economic sanctions against Japan.
They settled for a policy of American non-recognition. Other countries and the League of Nations joined the United States in refusing to recognize Manchukuo.
Non-recognition did not reverse the Japanese takeover of Manchuria. Indeed, the absence of sterner rebuke might have encouraged the Japanese to continue their aggression. Japan attacked Shanghai in 1932 and launched an all-out war on China in 1937. It subsequently invaded Indochina before attacking Hawaii in 1941.
The American government is in a stronger position today via a vis Russia's assaults on Ukraine. The American economy is strong enough to sustain sanctions against Russia. And for the time being at least, Russia's ambitions appear less grandiose than Japan's in the 1930s.
But the similarities are significant nonetheless. When governments like that of the United States are faced with threatening actions by foreign governments, their range of possible responses runs from doing nothing to launching general war, with non-recognition and economic sanctions lying in between. In the 1930s the U.S. government calculated that it could not do nothing, for that might connote a disregard for national sovereignty and the rule of international law. Since the mid-2010s, the U.S. government has made the same reckoning about Russia and Ukraine. In both cases Washington decided that the provocation did not warrant a resort to war, with all the costs and uncertainties war entails.
Will non-recognition and economic sanctions be any more of a deterrent to Russia today than non-recognition was to Japan in the 1930s? At the moment it is impossible to say.
But it's worth noting that the Stimson approach was not without effect. Although Japan continued its aggression against China, the world was under no illusions about Japan's culpability. And when Tokyo went too far and attacked the United States, Franklin Roosevelt had little difficulty persuading a previously isolationist American public that strong action had to be taken, not simply for America's sake but for world democracy. On this premise he laid the foundation of the United Nations and the postwar order of international security.
The non-recognition policy of Barack Obama and Joe Biden regarding the Russian seizure of Ukrainian territory hasn't compelled a pullback and might not prevent an extension of the Russian occupation. But it has formed a rallying point for NATO, the United Nations, the European Union and other countries and organizations around the world. Only a few years ago NATO appeared fractured and the international order was slouching toward disarray. Vladimir Putin's policy toward Ukraine has had the inadvertent effect of reinvigorating governments devoted to the international rule of law.
Words aren't armies, and non-recognition can appear feckless when the tanks start rolling. But words have meaning, and sometimes the best thing to do is to loudly and consistently say no to bad behavior.