Reasons for severing diplomatic relations

Diplomatic relations between countries are an important part of international relations and allow for dialogue, cooperation and the pursuit of mutual interests between nations. However, there are times when countries decide to sever diplomatic ties with one another due to serious disagreements or events. Breaking off diplomatic relations is a major step that signifies a significant deterioration in relations between two countries. There are various reasons why countries might decide to cut diplomatic ties, ranging from political and ideological differences to violation of sovereignty and acts of aggression. This article will examine the key reasons that can lead countries to sever diplomatic relations with examples from history.

Political and Ideological Differences

One of the most common reasons for severing diplomatic ties is fundamental political and ideological differences between countries. Nations naturally have different political systems, values, policies and strategic interests. When the differences become too great, countries may decide to break relations. For example, the United States severed ties with Cuba in 1961 due to Cuba’s communist revolution which brought Fidel Castro to power[1]. The ideological divide between capitalism and communism during the Cold War led the two countries to cut off diplomatic engagement. Similarly, South Africa broke ties with the Soviet Union in 1956 due to opposition to the Soviet Union’s communist ideology[2]. Political changes within a country can also lead to severed ties. When Sudan experienced a military coup in 1989, several countries including the US and UK severed relations due to the regime change and different ideological stances[3].

Violation of Sovereignty

Infringements on a nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by another country can prompt diplomatic ties to be cut off. Violations of sovereignty demonstrate aggression and disrespect of a country’s independence and authority within its borders. For example, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, many nations including the US suspended diplomatic relations with Iraq[4]. The unprovoked invasion and attempt to annex Kuwait stripped Iraq of legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. In 1979, the UK broke diplomatic ties with Argentina after Argentina’s military forces occupied British territory in the Falkland Islands[5]. The UK viewed it as an act of aggression and violation of British sovereignty. When sovereignty is violated, countries may use severing diplomatic ties to condemn the actions and enact a symbolic punishment.

Human Rights Abuses

Severing diplomatic relations can be a response to widespread human rights violations or abusive policies by another government. If one country feels that another government is unjustly oppressing its people, cutting diplomatic ties can be a statement of protest and condemnation of the abuses. For example, the US suspended diplomatic relations with Syria in 2012 due to the Syrian government’s violent crackdown on Arab Spring protestors and emergence of a civil war[6]. The US could no longer diplomatically engage with a regime attacking and killing its own citizens. In 2019, Kosovo cut ties with Serbia due to the latter’s continued denial of Kosovo’s independence and disputed territory claims[7]. Breaking off relations due to human rights abuses demonstrates moral opposition and pressure on the state perpetrating the abuses.


Acts of espionage and spying by diplomats or intelligence agencies are considered violations of trust and can prompt diplomatic ties to be severed. Diplomats who are found to be engaged in covert intelligence gathering under diplomatic cover may be expelled, signaling a breach in relations. In 2021, the European Union placed sanctions on Chinese officials and cut bilateral ties in response to malicious cyber activities by China[8]. The US took similar action in 2020 when it closed the Chinese consulate in Houston due to economic espionage concerns[9]. Spying using embassies and diplomats undermines the function of diplomatic missions and cannot be tolerated. Severing ties sends a strong message that such activities will hamper bilateral relations.

Harboring Terrorists/Criminals

A country that harbors or supports terrorist groups or fugitives wanted by another country risks damaged diplomatic relations. If one nation feels an other is not cooperating on extraditing criminals or restricting terrorist activities that undermine its security, cutting off diplomatic engagement may follow. This occurred between the US and Nicaragua in 1961 when Nicaragua provided a safe haven for revolutionary groups seeking to overthrow other Central American governments[10]. More recently in 2019, North Korea severed ties with Malaysia due to the extradition of a North Korean citizen to the US to face criminal charges, which North Korea viewed as an unfriendly act[11]. Safeguarding wanted fugitives and allowing terror groups to organize openly may compel targeted countries to sever diplomatic cooperation.

Economic Sanctions

Imposing economic sanctions or trade restrictions against a country can motivate that country to break diplomatic relations with the sanctioning power. If diplomatic efforts fail to prevent punishing economic measures, cutting ties may follow to signal opposition. For example, Iran severed relations with the UK in 2011 following increased economic sanctions by the UK and other powers designed to curb Iran’s nuclear program[12]. Similarly, Russia cut ties with NATO in 2014 after NATO members imposed sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea[13]. Countries may view sanctions that harm their economic interests as hostile acts that warrant severing diplomatic engagement and cooperation.

War/Military Action

The outbreak of war or direct military attacks between two countries generally necessitates the suspension of diplomatic relations. Open warfare and exchange of arms fire make maintaining diplomatic ties illogical. Even without a formal declaration of war, undertaking military action against another state will rupture relations. Egypt broke ties with Israel in 1973 following the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War[14]. The US cut relations with Cambodia in 1975 after the US supported a coup and began overt operations in the Cambodian Civil War[15]. Active armed conflict demonstrates the diplomatic process has broken down and severed relations often follows.

Expulsion of Diplomats

The expulsion of diplomats by a host country in response to perceived unacceptable behavior may motivate the diplomats’ home country to break ties. Large scale expulsion of embassy staff demonstrates condemnation and may be interpreted as undermining bilateral relations to an unacceptable degree. The UK severed ties with Libya in 1984 when a British policewoman was killed by shots fired from within the Libyan embassy, prompting the UK to expel all Libyan diplomatic personnel[16]. Likewise, the Philippines cut ties with Kuwait in 2018 after claims that Kuwaiti diplomats abused Filipino workers led to expulsion of the Kuwaiti ambassador[17]. Having one’s diplomats declared persona non grata and expelled can offend a country’s prestige.

Refusal to Honor Agreements

When countries refuse to adhere to or outright reject bilateral or international agreements, severed relations may result. Violation of mutually accepted treaties and contracts can signal a dramatic shift in relations. In 2018, Ecuador cut diplomatic ties with Venezuela after Venezuela refused to comply with bilateral agreements and withdrew its diplomats from Ecuador[18]. The US severed ties with Cuba in 1961 after Cuba nationalized American businesses and properties, violating pre-existing agreements[19]. Reneging on mutually agreed accords indicates a change in intentions and undermines the basis for diplomatic engagement, which may prompt ties being cut.

Regime Changes

Changes of regime, especially via coups or revolutions, can alter a country’s approach to international relations enough to result in severed diplomatic ties. Foreign nations may be wary of new unpredictable regimes and withdraw formal relations until the situation stabilizes. For example, multiple nations cut ties with Haiti following the 1991 military coup against President Aristide[20]. Similarly, Liberia broke ties with itself – suspending relations with the Liberian embassy – after the Doe coup in 1980[21]. Governments overthrown through unconstitutional methods become isolated as the validity of their formal diplomatic ties comes into question.

Recognition of Rival Governments

When a country recognizes an alternative competing government or political entity as legitimate, diplomatic relations with the existing government may cease. By recognizing a rival, countries demonstrate withdrawal of formal relations with current leaders. The US severed ties with Cuba in 1961 after recognizing exiled opposition groups as the rightful government[22]. Nicaragua cut ties with the US in 1908 when the US recognized dissidents contesting the recent Nicaraguan election results as representing the lawful government instead of the incumbent leader[23]. Accepting a parallel competing government as valid often compels the sitting regime to cut off engagement.

Provocation/Undiplomatic Statements

Insulting, outrageous, and undiplomatically threatening language by officials of one country against another can inflame tensions and cause a severing of ties. While controversial statements are generally avoided in diplomacy, provocative remarks that cross a line may rupture relations. North Korea cut ties with Malaysia in 2017 after allegations by North Korea’s ambassador that Malaysia was colluding in a conspiracy to tarnish North Korea’s reputation[24]. Ecuador severed relations with Iran in 2012 after the Iranian ambassador made anti-Semitic remarks and expressed support for terrorist attacks which were condemned by Ecuador[25]. Verbal provocations by diplomats undermine trust and can rapidly deteriorate bilateral ties.

Recognition of Enemy States

Countries may cut ties with nations that make moves toward recognizing or establishing relations with their adversaries. If one country perceives another nation is engaging with its enemy, severing formal relations sends a strong rebuke. In 2010, Russia broke off ties with Georgia after Georgia announced it had established relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two territories Russia supports that are seeking independence from Georgia[26]. Similarly, Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran in 2016 after Iran failed to prevent attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran following Saudi execution of a Shiite dissident[27]. Strengthening ties with adversarial states can cut off engagement.


Severing diplomatic relations is a significant but necessary step nations may take when bilateral ties become untenable. Various factors like political conflicts, infringement of sovereignty, human rights abuses, harboring of fugitives and economic sanctions can corrode relations until engagement is suspended. War and military acts, expulsion of diplomats, regime changes and provocative acts can instantly rupture ties. While ending diplomatic relations limits cooperation and communication, it sends a powerful signal of condemnation and may be the only recourse when core interests are threatened. Diplomatic connections may be restored when conditions change, but severing ties remains an important tool for nations to assert disapproval amid substantial disputes.


[1] US Department of State Office of the Historian. (n.d.). Milestones 1961-1968. Retrieved from

[2] South African History Online. (2019, March 21). South Africa severs diplomatic ties with Soviet Union. Retrieved from

[3] Mahmoud, M. (1989, July). Repercussions of the military take-over in Sudan. Arab Studies Quarterly, 11(3), 313-324.

[4] Parks, M. (1990). The United Nations Security Council takes economic sanctions. Yale Journal of International Law, 15(1).

[5] O’Reilly, K. P. (1982). The Falklands crisis and the ending of the Argentine military regime. International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-), 58(3), 466-477.

[6] CBS/AP. (2012, March 18). U.S. closes Syrian embassy, pulls out all staff. CBS News. Retrieved from

[7] RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. (2018, November 15). Kosovo Fails For Third Time To Gain Interpol Membership After U.S. Lobbying On Albania’s Behalf. Retrieved from

[8] Emmott, R. (2021, March 22). EU imposes sanctions on four Chinese officials over Uyghur abuses. Reuters. Retrieved from

[9] Wong, E., & Steven Lee Myers. (2020, July 22). U.S. Orders China to Close Houston Consulate, Citing Efforts to Steal Trade Secrets. The New York Times. Retrieved from

[10] Vanderlippe, J. M. (2005). The Politics of Latin American Liberation: Theology and Liberation Movements.

[11] Shim, E. (2019, March 18). North Korea withdraws from inter-Korea liaison office. UPI. Retrieved from

[12] Borger, J., & Hopkins, N. (2011, December 01). UK raises stakes on Iran nuclear crisis with embassy closure and sanctions. The Guardian. Retrieved from

[13] Clark, P. (2014, March 18). Russia Breaks Off Relations with NATO – Beginning Military and Political Cooperation with India. Russia Insider. Retrieved from

[14] Jewish Virtual Library. (n.d.). Egypt Cuts Diplomatic Ties with Israel. Retrieved from

[15] Clymer, K. J. (2015). The United States and Cambodia, 1969-2000: A troubled relationship. Routledge.

[16] Walter, B. F. (1985). Reagean Severs Ties with Libya. New York Times, 85.

[17] Heydt, C. (2018, April 30). A crisis of credentials: the diplomatic dispute between the Philippines and Kuwait. The Interpreter. Retrieved from

[18] Kuo, M. A., & Phillips, T. (2018, March 13). Ecuador cuts Julian Assange’s internet at London embassy. The Guardian. Retrieved from

[19] Eckstein, S. (2021, January 26). On This Day, Kennedy Announced the Cuban Embargo. History Stories. Retrieved from

[20] Brown University Library Center for Digital Scholarship. (2013). Haitian Government since the Departure of Duvalier in 1986. Retrieved from

[21] Pham, J. P. (2004). Liberia: Portrait of a failed state. Reed Press.

[22] Eckstein, S. (2021, January 26). On This Day, Kennedy Announced the Cuban Embargo. History Stories. Retrieved from

[23] Musicant, I. (1990). The Banana Wars: A history of United States military intervention in Latin America from the Spanish-American War to the invasion of Panama. Macmillan Publishing Company.

[24] Osborne, S. (2017, March 6). North Korea bans all Malaysians from leaving country following Kim Jong Nam ‘assassination’. The Independent. Retrieved from

[25] British Broadcasting Corporation. (2012, January 6). Ecuador expels Iranian ambassador over Ahmadinejad’s comments. Retrieved from

[26] Levy, C. J. (2010, September 3). Russia Cuts Ties With Georgia After Bombings in South Ossetia. New York Times. Retrieved from

[27] Wintour, P. (2016, January 4). Saudi Arabia cuts diplomatic ties with Iran in row over cleric’s execution. The Guardian. Retrieved from

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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