After Cuba: The Only 3 Countries That Have No Relations With the U.S.

Why is one of them Bhutan?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Prime Minister of Bhutan Tshering Tobgay. (Rick Wilking / Reuters)

On Wednesday, the United States and Cuba announced that they would reopen embassies in each other’s capitals, thus restoring diplomatic relations for the first time since 1961. The agreement doesn’t mean that Washington-Havana ties will go back to where they were before Fidel Castro’s revolution: Congress still maintains an economic embargo on the island, a policy that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. But the re-establishment of embassies, scheduled to occur on July 20, is nonetheless a major breakthrough in the long-acrimonious relationship between the two countries.

According to The New York Times, the overture to Cuba leaves just three countries with which the United States has no diplomatic relations. Two of these are easy enough to guess: Iran and North Korea. Washington severed ties with Tehran in 1980, months after Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy there and took 52 Americans hostage. U.S. ties with North Korea, meanwhile, have been fraught throughout the latter country’s existence, and have only grown worse since Kim Jong Un assumed control of the country in 2011.

But the third country is one with which the United States has no real dispute or grievance—or really much history of any kind. It’s the South Asian kingdom of Bhutan.

Bhutan is a landlocked nation around the size of Switzerland that’s situated in the Himalayan mountains between India and China. Since joining the United Nations in 1971, the country has maintained a Swiss-like aversion to foreign entanglements of any kind. The kingdom has no relations with any of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and only two states—Bangladesh and neighboring India—have embassies in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu. Bhutan is so isolated that until 2007, it didn’t even conduct its own foreign policy—India took care of it for them.

In spite of its retreat from the rest of the world, Bhutan is not free of contentious relations. The kingdom has a long-running border dispute with China, which claims roughly 10 percent of Bhutanese territory as its own, and the Chinese government is eager to include Thimphu in its sphere of influence. So far, however, Bhutan has kept its distance: The country recently declined to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a Beijing-led rival to the World Bank. Bhutan’s resistance to China has led some analysts to speculate that the United States should seize the opportunity to formalize relations with the kingdom, a newly consolidated democracy.

But Bhutan’s leaders just don’t see any reason to get closer to the United States. In 2011, Jigmi Yoser Thinley, Bhutan’s then-Prime Minister, told the Bhutanese News Agency that “there was a time when diplomatic relations signified one’s position vis-à-vis conflicting powers, choosing sides. It’s no longer the case.”

The United States also appears to be satisfied with the status quo. In January, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Tshering Tobgay, Bhutan’s prime minister, at a regional summit in Ahmedabad, India, the first-ever meeting between America’s top diplomat and a Bhutanese leader. The talks were apparently warm and productive, but “establishing diplomatic relationship was not a subject of the conversation,” said Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Desai Biswal.