Biden’s recognition of Armenian genocide and the slippery slope of US–Turkey relations
29 Apr 2021|

On 24 April, Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, which commemorates the massacre of Armenians during the last years of the Ottoman Empire, President Joe Biden announced that the US now recognises the massacre as genocide. The announcement followed the passage of a resolution by the US Congress in December 2019 recognising Armenian genocide.

Commentators have attributed the decision to Biden’s intention to signal clearly his administration’s commitment to making protection of human rights an important part of his foreign policy. However, retroactively declaring that a massacre that took place more than a century ago was genocide while not using the same term to describe the ongoing massacre of the Rohingyas in Myanmar or the mass killings that took place a few decades ago—for example, in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) by the Pakistani military in 1971 or of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 by the Hutu-dominated government—pours doubt on this explanation.

In the first case, it was the Nixon administration’s close relationship with Islamabad, which had facilitated Washington’s contact with Beijing, that led to the US turning a blind eye towards the atrocities committed by the military on hapless Bengali citizens. In the second, the Clinton administration made a deliberate decision not to use the term genocide because that could have increased domestic and international pressure on it to intervene.

Just as in those case, there were other factors that influenced Biden’s decision and it was not merely about correcting a historic wrong and promoting human rights. Primary among these was the strong Armenian lobby, especially in the crucial Democratic state of California, which had been agitating for such an announcement for a long time. There was and is no Bengali, Hutu or Rohingya lobby in the US comparable to the Armenian one, which helps to explain Washington’s relative indifference towards the plight of these people.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, had asserted that during his years in Washington he found the three most effective lobbyers in the US were the Israeli-Americans, Cuban-Americans and Armenian-Americans. The strength of the Armenian lobby is derived from the concentration of the Armenian-American population in a few congressional districts, such as California’s 28th district, which is represented by the powerful Democratic member Adam Schiff, a leading champion of Armenian causes. The fact that the overwhelming majority of Armenian speakers live in California and about two-thirds of them live in Los Angeles County explains in great part House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s enthusiastic advocacy of the Armenian genocide argument.

But, foreign policy decisions based primarily on domestic political considerations can have major negative consequences. The full impact of Biden’s decision on US–Turkey relations is still to be assessed. However, given the deterioration of the relationship in the past few years over several unrelated issues, the Biden administration must have calculated that this decision wouldn’t have much additional negative impact on Washington’s relations with Ankara. Now that the US is drawing down its military commitments to hotspots in the Middle East, Turkey is seen as a dispensable ally. This is why Biden didn’t call his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for three months after taking office while he made calls to other heads of state and government, both important and unimportant. He finally called Erdogan on 23 April to break the news that he was going to make the announcement on Armenian genocide the next day.

For its part, Turkey has also thumbed its nose at the United States on several occasions. It decided to buy the S-400 air-defence system from Russia despite America’s strident objections and threat of sanctions. Turkey even sacrificed its participation in the US F-35 joint strike fighter program at the altar of the S-400. Ankara also defied American wishes when it intruded into Syria to clear the Kurdish allies of the US, who had played a crucial role in defeating Islamic State, from areas bordering Turkey. While Turkey did curtail its purchases of oil from Iran under threat of American sanctions, it continued to support Tehran on many regional issues because of shared interests vis-à-vis the Kurds, and in opposition to Saudi Arabia’s claims for pre-eminence in the region.

Ankara’s response to Biden’s announcement has so far been rather muted and it appears that Turkey has decided to soft-pedal the issue for the time being. The Turkish foreign minister tweeted: ‘Words cannot change or rewrite history. We have nothing to learn from anybody on our own past. Political opportunism is the greatest betrayal to peace and justice. We entirely reject this statement based solely on populism.’ The deputy foreign minister told the US ambassador, ‘The statement does not have legal ground in terms of international law and has hurt the Turkish people, opening a wound that’s hard to fix in our relations.’ Erdogan denounced the decision in a televised address and urged Biden to reverse it.

These official statements are relatively mild given the wave of resentment the announcement has unleashed in Turkey. However, it was bound to provide ammunition to the strong anti-American sentiment already existing in Turkey at the popular level. This sentiment is widespread in large part because of the perception that the US and the West in general are bent on obstructing Turkey’s rise to major-power status because it is a Muslim country.

The pejorative use of the term ‘neo-Ottomanism’ by Western commentators to describe Turkey’s independent foreign policy in the Middle East, which at times has run against American and European preferences, has already raised hackles among political commentators in the country. The Turkish government argues that the charge of Armenian genocide doesn’t take account of the fact that it was a time of war and 2.5 million Ottoman Muslims also died in Anatolia during that period.

Taken together, policies perceived by Turks as anti-Turkish are attributed to Islamophobia in the West, including in the US. Biden’s decision to label the Armenian massacre as genocide feeds into that narrative and is likely to negatively impact Turkey’s relations with the US in the long run even if a dramatic downturn isn’t immediately visible.