As was widely expected, President Joe Biden in his April 24 statement called the massacres of the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 a genocide. He thus became the first U.S. president to do so after Ronald Reagan’s reference to genocide in 1981 — which Washington’s foreign policy establishment later convinced him to retract. Biden, however, was right to take this step which is in line with both his professed commitment to human rights and American interests.
In recognizing the Armenian genocide, Biden not only reflected the scholarly consensus on the events of 1915 but answered the call of the Americans of Armenian descent who had been waiting for this moment for 106 years. Although the Turkish and Azerbaijani officials routinely deride such calls as the work of a nefarious Armenian lobby, it is the job of American politicians to put the interests of their citizens first. With growing awareness of the genocide in recent years, demands to recognize it transcended the Armenian community and were framed as part of a broader quest for human rights, historical memory, and justice. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate virtually unanimously recognized the genocide in 2019. The ground was long prepared for an American president to follow suit.
While the politics of the recognition seem straightforward, this decision is also a sign of more restraint in U.S. foreign policy. The case against the recognition was built on the assumption that Turkey is a vital U.S. ally, a member of NATO, and a useful asset to challenge the two bêtes noires of the Washington hawks — Russia and Iran — in Syria, Ukraine, the South Caucasus, and elsewhere. Recognizing the Armenian genocide would, in this logic, antagonize Turkey and reward “pro-Russian” Armenia. Yet such thinking is premised on the belief that it is in the U.S. interest to seek dominance in all those far-flung places. Biden was right to reject this conventional hawkishness pervading parts of Washington’s so-called foreign policy “blob.”
Divergences between Washington and Ankara in recent years made the recognition more likely. From a dependable ally, Turkey has evolved into an ambitious middling power pursuing its own strategic interests as it saw them. The United States and Turkey clashed over the latter’s purchase and installation of the SU-400 Russian air-defense missile systems, attacks on Washington’s support for its Kurdish allies in Syria, and an assertive stance against some other U.S. allies in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara is fully entitled to diversify its foreign policies, but Washington has no obligation to heed its views when they conflict with its own.
The United States can manage any resulting diplomatic fallout. No retaliatory measures against Washington have been announced. In a speech on Tuesday, however,** President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Biden’s words were the “wrong step,” and opened “a deep wound,” in U.S-Turkish relations.
“The US president has made comments that are groundless and unfair,” Erdogan said.
“We believe that these comments were included in the declaration following pressure from radical Armenian groups and anti-Turkish circles. But this situation does not reduce the destructive impact of these comments.”
In additional remarks after a a Tuesday cabinet meeting, according to reports, he urged the reversal of the declaration.
Meanwhile, the country’s top diplomat, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, also issued a rebuttal to Biden’s statement. The foreign ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador but didn’t recall its ambassador in Washington. Talk of eviction of U.S. forces from the NATO base in Incirlik in retaliation was limited to marginal figures.
Erdogan’s spokesman and adviser Ibrahim Kalin said that Turkey’s reaction will come in “different forms and kinds and degrees in coming days and months.” However, Erdogan’s room for maneuver is reduced due to the dire state of the country’s economy. The Turkish leverage is also diminishing as Washington scales down its presence in the greater Middle East — by announcing a withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11, reducing its remaining military forces in Iraq, and seeking to rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran. In other theaters where Turkey’s help could be relevant, such as Ukraine, the Biden administration, for all its tough rhetoric, does not seek a military conflict with Russia.
The only somewhat credible argument against the genocide recognition could have been its potentially detrimental effect on the reconciliation between the Turks, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis. That was the reasoning that led Barack Obama to renege on his promise to recognize the genocide. However, the last serious attempt at reconciliation collapsed in 2009 when the bilateral normalization protocols signed between Turkey and Armenia failed to be ratified and implemented. No new attempts have since been undertaken.
Turkish and Azerbaijani officials have often talked up potential reconciliation with the Armenians after the military hostilities between Baku and Yerevan ended in November 2020. Yet for all the talk of renewed economic and transport connectivity, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev inaugurated a so-called “war trophy park” in Baku which elevated the hatred of the Armenians to a whole new level. In reaction, some “activists” in Yerevan publicly burned the Azerbaijani and Turkish flags. Azerbaijan and Armenia are trapped in angry mutual recriminations over the Armenian prisoners of war held in Azerbaijan and the demining of the Azerbaijani territories wrested from Armenian control. There is presently no reconciliation process to be hindered by anything the U.S. president can choose to do.
Yet it is ultimately the reconciliation between the Turks and Armenians that would offer the best insurance against a repetition of the genocide’s horrors. It is mostly down to the peoples in the region, but outsiders can play a role too. Raising diplomatic and reputational costs of denialism, as Biden did, is one way of doing so.
Another would be to take a long view of relations with Turkey. Voices exist in the Turkish society that question the dominant nationalist-conservative narratives. The pro-Kurdish HDP party publicly recognized the genocide. Liberal and some Islamic circles are also open to reconciliation. The long-term strategy of both Washington and the European Union should be to use whatever leverage they still have in Ankara to preserve space for these actors to sow the seeds of a more inclusive, peaceful polity. The Biden administration could, for example, encourage its European allies to keep Turkey’s moribund EU accession process alive, even if it is currently languishing on life support. That would be in keeping with the spirit of the president’s vow to mourn the past, while also “turning our eyes to the future.”
** Editor’s note: The article has been updated to reflect the comments in President Erdogan’s speech
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.