Glimmering Recognition

Foreign Secretary William Hague performed a diplomatic dance-move yesterday which he hopes will wrong-foot Muammar Gaddafi.

Britain has expelled the Libyan despot’s embassy team and recognised the rebels’ national transitional council as the “sole government authority”.

This is a new tactic for Brits, and, if the ghosts of Mr Hague’s predecessors were yesterday pacing the corridors of the Foreign Office, many of them would have stroked their beards in scepticism.

The UK is using diplomatic recognition as a way of trying to shape the future. The Government does not like the spectacle of Gaddafi remaining in power, and it is aware that months of aerial bombardment and the rhetoric of the Arab Spring have not ignited a revolution in Tripoli.

Britain is now elevating the status of the council it hopes will one day be in charge of Libya, even though it is manifestly not today.

Traditionally, the UK has taken an unromantic view of diplomatic recognition: you identify who pulls the levers of power in a country and you deal with them.

This is why Britain recognised Communist-run China in 1950, not long after its founding in October 1949.

In contrast, the United States has an aversion to recognising governments run by people it regards as thuggish and hostile. It did not establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China until 1979.

This latest stage in our embrace of the rebels suggests we are becoming more American in our foreign policy, more idealistic – which is not something one would have expected when William Hague won the keys to his impressive office.

However, Britain has not abandoned realpolitik. This is a calculated gamble by a Government that insists it is not under time pressure but must keenly hope that the intervention in Libya does not come with a billion-pound price tag.

It now seems unthinkable that there will be a Tahrir Square moment in Libya in which the country’s different factions come together in an outstanding moment of unity and force an epoch-defining moment of change.

If polarisation intensifies between we may be witnessing the de facto partition of Libya. Neighbouring Sudan has shown it is possible for a country to split in two, and our military campaign will not have been a wasted effort if it has prevented the type of bloodbath that tore through the African state.

Nevertheless, hard thinking needs to take place in Britain about when and how we recognise countries, not least because the Palestinian Authority may shortly ask us to consider its territory as an independent state. Do we see the world as we wish it was or how it is?

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