The Recognition dilemma in world politics

Political leaders often engage in open fights for recognition, announcing that some crucial element of their state’s identity or status has not been properly acknowledged and respected in the conduct of diplomacy. Recognition campaigns of this sort have captured peace-negotiations, they have made reconciliation between adversaries more difficult and conflicts more entrenched, and they have been used to frame, defend, and oppose cooperation between states and international organizations.


Among international relations scholars, these instances are usually ascribed to the fact that states, like individuals, need recognition, but this hardly scratches the surface. Recognition’s intrinsic value also allows it to be manipulated and instrumentalized for other ends, empowering a much wider range of, otherwise ignored, recognition politics. In this light, my dissertation explores the agency that so often lurks behind these struggles, motivating the question of why recognition, and its perceived absence, is so often made to matter. The desire for recognition may very well influence state behavior in the background of political decision making, but I show how and why it is often also elevated to the foreground of international politics by elites themselves. The reasons why they do so reveal both a level of instrumentality, but also a kind of tension. Political considerations can cause recognition, and its absence, to matter more than it otherwise should, but it can also lead actors to see recognition campaigns as a vulnerable and ontologically harmful pursuit.


This motivates my interest in an alternative set of cases—highly public and visible campaigns for recognition—in order to better explain why actors vocalize demands for recognition, why they may abandon these demands, be harmed by them, and at times strategically and nefariously embrace the cause of recognition. These cases cut across the security and cooperation spectrum: (a) Israel’s insistence, since 2007, that it be recognized by Palestinians as a ‘Jewish state’ as part of any final status negotiations; (b) the Armenian diaspora’s long-standing demand that the world, and Turkey, recognize the 1915 massacres as genocide; and (c) the decisions of British elites on both sides of the Brexit referendum to make status-loss, real or imagined, a central feature of their campaigns for and against EU membership.


Taken together these cases draw from a range of empirical sources: Israeli-Palestinian negotiations transcripts, American court proceedings on the Armenian genocide, elite memoirs, Israeli and British newspapers, and state archives in the United States. Employing discourse analysis across this textual data I trace how Israeli, Armenian, and British elites in each of these cases pushed for recognition, promoted the view that it was absent, and yet claimed it was vitally necessary. At the same time, each case also reveals the unintended consequences of mobilizing around recognition in this way, as the dependence on others’ views that recognition-seeking entails also binds the actor to its audience in fundamental ways.