Lecture Notes





















































Legitimacy and Recognition

Giving a country diplomatic recognition means that you are willing to treat it as a sovereign equal.

The word “legitimate” has several meanings, most of them related to “legal” in a positive sense. The opposite of legitimate is “illegitimate,” meaning “unlawful.”  Study the following examples:

legitimate =

  • according to the law, lawful:
    • a legitimate business.
  • genuine (not fake):
    •  It was a legitimate complaint.
  • born in wedlock (of legally married parents):
    • He has three legitimate children and several illegitimate children.
  • acceptable, allowed, permitted:
    • Using the computers is a legitimate after-school activity.

A legitimate government is one that has come to power in a legally acceptable way, such as an election. Dictatorships are sometimes considered illegitimate—at least until they become well established. The word legitimate can also imply that a government has broad popular support. In other words, a government is usually considered “legitimate” if most of the people within the country support the government or the ruler.

On the other hand, a ruler who clings to power long after his people have stopped supporting him—such a ruler might well be considered illegitimate, even if he originally came to power in a legally acceptable way.

The term legitimate also implies that the government has control over the country. A government that only controls a small part of the country is usually not considered the legitimate government. Obviously, in a civil war, a country may have two competing governments, with each side trying to become the only legitimate government.

Countries, like people, go to great lengths to gain respect. In international relations, the idea of respect is conveyed with the word “recognition.”  When one government “recognizes” another government, it is giving its official acknowledgement that it considers that government to be a legitimate government. To give a country diplomatic recognition means that you are willing to treat it as a sovereign equal—a nation that has the right to control what goes on within its own borders.

Whenever a country changes government— after a revolution or civil war, for example—the new government will be especially anxious to get recognition from its neighbors and the international community.  The number of countries that are willing to recognize you is a good indication of whether or not your government is considered legitimate. Your ultimate goal is to be recognized by the United Nations. This would mean that you have been “voted into the club,” and that other member-states are obliged to respect your borders.


Check Your Understanding

  1. This term means the same thing as “lawful.”
  2. A government that has broad popular support is often described as ____________________.
  3. Give an example of an illegitimate activity.
  4. When one country formally acknowledges that another country fulfills the conditions of statehood and deserves to be treated as a sovereign member of the international community—this idea is conveyed with the term ____________________.
  5. After a revolution or civil war, who decides whether the new government is legitimate or not?
  6. What is your ultimate goal as a country, if you want the respect that comes with international recognition?