Although the Taliban regime in Kabul now controls the bulk of Afghanistan, the Biden administration’s policy toward the government remains unclear. Some officials indicate that Washington wants Kabul’s cooperation with respect to ISIS-K. At the same time, it appears that the administration will refuse to establish diplomatic relations with the new government. Indeed, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain even stated that it was uncertain if the United States "will ever" recognize the Taliban. That would be a myopic, fruitless policy, but one that is all too likely.
Refusing to develop and maintain normal relations with governments that have incurred the displeasure of U.S. leaders is a feature that has corrupted US diplomacy for more than a century. And as with so many foolish and destructive developments plaguing America’s foreign policy, the principal source for this one was President Woodrow Wilson. Before Wilson, the United States conducted diplomatic relations with an array of governments around the world. The sole consideration was if a regime controlled the country in question. Whether the regime was moral or immoral, benign or repressive, did not dictate Washington’s decision.
Wilson introduced a selective, frequently hypocritical, moral purity test into such decisions, and the result has been most unfortunate. During the subsequent decades, Washington has had no trouble establishing diplomatic ties (and even forging close partnerships) with some of the most corrupt, brutal regimes on the planet – as long as they helped advance US strategic or economic objectives. The 8-decade-long partnership with Saudi Arabia is a prime example, but there are many others.
The reaction to governments that US leaders deem uncooperative has been very different, and the probable response to the Taliban fits that pattern. In multiple cases, Washington has tried to isolate and undermine such opponents, operating on the premise that the regime is not the "legitimate" government of the country it controls. At times, US administrations have persisted in such fiction for decades.
Wilson and three succeeding presidents adopted that rationale and refused to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. It took the United States four decades to finally accept China’s communist revolution and officially recognize the People’s Republic of China as that country’s government. Even when the Vietnam War ended, US administrations did not normalize relations with Hanoi for more than 20 years. Dwight Eisenhower’s administration severed relations with Cuba, and those ties still have not been restored. Similarly, there are no official relations with Iran since the Islamic revolution and the subsequent hostage crises. Washington still refuses to recognize North Korea’s government despite the passage of more than seven decades.
Of course, international realities frequently compel US policymakers to conduct "informal" diplomacy even with governments that Washington declines to recognize officially. Typically, another government acts as a go-between, passing along messages, warnings, and proposals between the United States and its adversary. Sweden, Switzerland, and India have played that role on many occasions. Sometimes, there even will be direct, but totally unofficial, interactions between US envoys and representatives of the officially shunned regime.
Such back-channel diplomacy at least keeps the lines of communication open to some extent, but it is highly inefficient and its limitations can produce tragic results. In 1950, China’s government passed along warnings through third parties that it would respond militarily if US troops continued their advance to the Yalu river border between North Korea and China. Harry Truman’s administration did not believe such relayed warnings, and the subsequent Chinese offensive caught US leaders by surprise. One wonders if formal relations had existed between Washington and Beijing, and the Chinese ambassador had been able to convey his government’s ultimatum directly to President Truman or Secretary of State Dean Acheson, if the administration might have taken the warning more seriously. The lack of direct diplomatic ties certainly did not help matters.
The United States should abandon the corrosive Wilsonian tradition of hypocritical moral posturing. Refusing to recognize a disagreeable reality does not change that reality. Like it or not, the Taliban now controls Afghanistan. Like it or not, a communist regime still governs Cuba, despite Washington’s 6-decade-long effort to unseat it. Like it or not, Iran is and will continue to be a major power in the Middle East. Like it or not, North Korea is a nuclear weapons power in a volatile region, and the U.S.-led policy of trying to isolate the country and wreck its economy has failed.
Establishing formal diplomatic ties with such governments simply is a recognition of reality. Persisting in policies based on comforting fictions has produced nothing except frustrations and needless tensions. The Biden administration should take the initial step toward adopting a more sensible and sustainable US foreign policy by recognizing the Taliban government. That move should be followed by normalizing relations with Iran, Cuba, and North Korea, despite the political flack the president would undoubtedly receive from myopic domestic critics. The Wilsonian tradition of denying reality merits a long-overdue burial.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 950 articles on international affairs.