America's refusal to recognize Palestine has always been controversial.
In his 2013 visit to the West Bank, President Obama said that "It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own." Yet, like administrations before it, the Obama administration has not only refused to recognize the statehood of Palestine, but has used that non-recognition to reap billions for the military-industrial complex. Whether they support U.S. foreign policy or not, Americans should understand the role U.S. political recognition plays, not only in thwarting regional stability, but in undermining our democratic ideals.
As a political sociologist, I am most familiar with the inner workings of political recognition. Through recognition, the practice of acknowledging an entity's statehood, governments open the doors to treaty relations, trade, foreign aid, and, potentially, membership in the United Nations. Recognition offers hope, the promise of equality and having a nation's voice heard on the world stage. But it also provides leverage by which powerful states like the U.S. can extract concessions and meddle in internal affairs.
Look at the enduring conflicts surrounding suppressed states like Taiwan and Palestine, which the U.S. does not recognize--the decades of bloodshed between Israel and Palestine, the Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan since the third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996--and the costs of being unrecognized become blazingly clear.
During my research into the United States' refusal to recognize the statehood of Palestine, I found that the state of Palestine was recognized by a higher percentage of governments at the time of its failed application to the U.N. in 2011 (68 percent) than Israel was (64 percent) when it was successfully admitted in 1948.
Contrary to claims, the primary reason for this wasn't Palestinian unilateralism and belligerence. No, the real reason was U.S. obstructionism and efforts designed to blame the Palestinian people--depicting them as unreasonable unilateralists in order to further U.S. and Israeli interests.
By withholding recognition and blocking its admission to the U.N., the U.S. has attempted to force Palestine into accepting statehood that, by design, fixes the game by ensuring a "qualitative military edge" for Israel.
I can't imagine anything less democratic, less American.
That military edge goes well beyond arguments about what is "right" and "just." Privileging Israel by denying recognition to Palestine strengthens America's strategic foothold in an oil producing region. It also supports Israel as a client market for U.S. weapons sales. By 2015, American aid to Israel had long surpassed the $100 billion mark, transforming Israel into one of the top ten arms suppliers in the world.
Withholding recognition, it turns out, is big for business.
And it doesn't end there. The U.S. has reaped billions more by strategically withholding recognition from Taiwan, too. By denying recognition while still treating Taiwan like an independent state by selling it weapons to defend itself from the invasion of China, the United States has helped perpetuate Taiwan's ambiguous international position while setting it up as a lucrative client for U.S. arms sales in the Asia-Pacific.
Last year, the Obama administration authorized the sale of $1.83 billion in arms to Taiwan. This was over and above the $23.59 billion (not adjusted for inflation) made since 1980 as reported by the Arms Control Association in 2012.
There are several reasons why the U.S. recognition game has become a political racket. First and foremost is that with no central authority to provide oversight, state leaders are free to interpret the "facts" of an entity's statehood in ways that support stereotypes and further their own interests. Furthermore, as I found in my research on the recognition of Taiwan and Palestine, the institution of recognition has built within it an institutionalized privilege for Great Powers like the United States. Such states wield disproportionate power and influence, such as in the United Nations Security Council, and they typically do everything they can to ensure that the game remains fixed in their favor.
As we've seen time and time again with Taiwan and Palestine, this creates a self-reinforcing cycle: suppressed states fight for their rights by seeking recognition, recognition is denied in order to further self-interests, and the conflict continues--with those on top reaping the benefits.
If the U.S. is to be taken as anything other than a bully, and if we truly have an interest in creating a lasting peace in the Middle East and across the Taiwan Strait, it will not be through denying recognition of Taiwan and Palestine in order to further American self-interests. We must acknowledge and take responsibility for the conflicts we have helped to create, and act to create real change. That, after all, is the true hallmark of democracy -- a commitment to justice, honest self-appraisal, and action -- even when it means challenging ourselves and the political institutions we hold most dear.
DaShanne Stokes, Ph.D., is a sociologist, writer, and television and radio commentator. He received his doctorate in sociology from the University of Pittsburgh for his research on the recognition of Tibet, Taiwan, and Palestine.