Stop Giving Erdogan a Veto Over U.S. Recognition of the Armenian Genocide
Biden can do the right thing because Turkey has lost strategic significance.
Former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt understood the Soviet Union was an ally unworthy of the United States, but he also understood Nazism was the more pressing threat to civilization. “To cross this bridge, I would hold hands with the devil,” he once said to an advisor. Once the United States crossed the bridge and Nazism was destroyed, the two unlikely allies parted ways.
Today, long after the Soviet Union’s demise, Washington’s hands remain locked with other unsavory allies. One of them is Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Although the Cold War made a strategic partnership with Turkey sensible and the country remains part of NATO today, Turkey is not a natural ally of the United States. Of the three consistent Middle Eastern powers in the past millennium—the Turks, Persians, and Arabs—it is Turkey that has historically posed the greatest threat to the West. This is due, in part, to its geographic position but also to its long history of imperial expansion into Southeastern and Central Europe, which lasted well into the modern era. The post-Cold War era—and especially Erdogan’s long tenure—has witnessed a reversion to the historical norm.
The pundits debate endlessly whether Erdogan’s strategic posture today is best described as neo-Ottoman, pan-Islamist, or ethno-supremacist, but this is not really relevant. What matters is Turkey is an increasingly malign state that shares few interests or values with the West. The partnership’s benefits are quite simply outweighed by the costs. As last week’s announcement of a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan shows, the United States is in the process of ending its overextension in the Middle East, Turkey included. Today, Turkey is a regional power in a part of the world that no longer has the geostrategic significance to the United States it did 20 years ago.
One consequence of the United States’ lingering partnership with Turkey is allowing Ankara to exert veto power over official U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide. In 1981, then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan acknowledged the genocide—the last time a president uttered the term. Since then, Turkey has placed a de facto gag order on Washington. This silence not only undermines the United States’ moral credibility but projects weakness.
Over the past decade, Turkey has invested heavily in lobbying and public relations firms in the United States. According to public filings as of 2020, these include Amsterdam & Partners, Ballard Partners, Greenberg Traurig, LB International Solutions, and Mercury Public Affairs. At the same time, substantial donations have flowed in to pro-Turkish nonprofit organizations. Claims the Atlantic Council, which has accepted money from the Turkish government, caved in to Ankara’s influence have further eroded confidence in the objectivity of Washington think tanks. (The Atlantic Council has responded to such criticisms by noting that it diversifies funds taken from foreign countries and that no government pressure compromises its objectivity.) It can be safely assumed that wherever the Erdogan government exerts influence in Washington through its network, preventing U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide is on its list of priorities.
Senior U.S. defense officials, citing U.S.-Turkish defense cooperation, have played a pivotal role in blocking genocide recognition. But ties have been increasingly strained by Turkey’s arms deliveries to Islamist-held areas in Syria, imprisonment of journalists, purchase of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia, use of proxies in various conflicts, and growing authoritarianism under Erdogan. The U.S.-Turkish divide was most obvious in Syria, where Washington backed the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces to defeat the Islamic State while Turkey attacked them.
If further proof of the United States and Turkey’s divergent interests was needed, look no further than Erdogan’s sympathies for his fellow strongman, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite contrary interests in Syria, Libya, and the South Caucasus, Russia and Turkey have maintained a pragmatic relationship. This is possible in part because both states operate largely through proxies rather than risking their own prestige, a lesson they learned while observing Washington’s inability to extricate itself from the region with its prestige intact. It is possible because the two countries, unlike in previous centuries, are no longer locked in conflict by their expansive territorial objectives. Perhaps above all, the Putin-Erdogan liaison is possible because their relationship weakens NATO—an alliance both Erdogan and Putin likely regard as a long-term nemesis. That has made each strongman willing to endure setbacks to the relationship, including Russia’s repeated recognition of the Armenian genocide. If the relationship is in Erdogan’s interest, recognition will not stand in the way.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump often saw eye-to-eye with Erdogan—in part, perhaps, because they shared at least one common goal: Both wanted U.S. troops out of Syria. Nonetheless, his administration probably came closer to recognizing the Armenian genocide than most people realize. During the transition period after the election of U.S. President Joe Biden, senior Trump officials seriously considered recognizing the Armenian genocide, but in the end, for whatever reason, the White House decided not to. Trump’s failure to recognize the genocide was a missed opportunity to strengthen U.S. sovereignty against Turkey’s attempts to constrain U.S. actions and restore the United States’ moral credibility.
April 24, Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, marks the anniversary of the deportation of Armenian intellectuals, most of whom were later murdered, from what was then called Constantinople in 1915. The event set in motion the systematic deportation and murder of more than 1 million Armenians and perhaps half a million Assyrians and Greeks within the Ottoman Empire. It is anticipated the Biden administration will use the anniversary to finally recognize the Armenian genocide.
Whatever Turkey’s consequences are, they will be tolerable. After all, many countries that Turkey does business with, including Russia, acknowledge the genocide. However, the fact that Turkey seems to be more invested in preventing the United States from recognizing the genocide than any other country suggests just how much weight is given to Washington’s moral pronouncements. This is all the more compelling of a reason to finally recognize it—and to ignore the pundits and policy wonks who counsel otherwise.
A former colleague on the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff called recognition of the Armenian genocide “ripping off the Band-Aid,” meaning it will hurt momentarily but heal soon thereafter. This seems right and suggests one ought to be sanguine about long-term U.S.-Turkish relations, which many in the U.S. government are not. Either way, there is a lesson from the last four decades of silence on the issue. If U.S. leaders raise human rights issues only when it happens to serve some larger interest—or when, like former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s determination that China’s actions in Xinjiang constitute genocide, it concerns an adversary—then it is best to simply not raise questions of human rights at all. To invoke human rights only when it serves realpolitik is transparently cynical, cheapens the United States’ prestige in the world, and dishonors the idealism and sacrifice of millions of Americans. That U.S. leaders permitted Turkey—and its inside-Washington proxies—to bully them into silence for so long is simply disgraceful.
Andrew Doran is a senior research fellow at the Philos Project and a former member of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff during the Trump administration.