It is the prerogative of each state to extend recognition to a new community. Recognition admits to a state's having an international personality, yet the tests applied to statehood have often been violated by the use of constitutional, moral, humanitarian, and other subjective judgments. The practice of democratic states generally has been to recognize effective, or de facto, governments; the practice of undemocratic states, to recognize states espousing the objectives of their own national policies. Even if popular legitimation by free elections does not follow their extension of de facto recognition, democracies manage to live with undemocratic governments that are stable and permanent. States may withhold or withdraw recognition to punish illegitimate state or illegal conduct—by the latter, for example, for undertaking territorial changes by force in violation of the sovereignty of the victim and of the treaty rights of third parties. It is, of course, possible to have intercourse on a limited basis with states that are not recognized. Recognition is an executive act that extends to governments rather than to persons. Although regional and world organizations have used collective recognition to admit states to their membership, and thereby recognize them, unilateral recognition is still practiced.
Belligerent parties seeking freedom from a parent state may be recognized whenever they have created a new government capable of maintaining order within its boundaries and worthy of respect from abroad. If the parent state has stopped trying to impose its authority or has assented to its loss of sovereignty, recognition may be granted freely. Otherwise questions of timing and of degree must be weighed carefully by third parties, lest premature recognition lead to war with the parent state and belated recognition leads to loss of the friendship and trade of the victorious belligerents. In this connection it is difficult to improve upon John Adams's "utterly desperate" formula. Nevertheless, because insurgency has largely replaced civil wars, the recognition of belligerency by the United States was rarely accorded between World War I and World War II and has not been granted since 1945.