Joe Biden Uses the ‘G-Word’: The Significance of Armenian Genocide Recognition
On April 24, Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, US President Joe Biden formally recognised the 1915 mass killing and deportation of Armenians from the Ottoman Empire as “genocide”. In modern international relations, Armenian genocide recognition has become a highly politicised issue with implications for regional and global affairs. The US now joins dozens of countries that have formally recognised the atrocities against Armenians as genocide, which has the potential to further strain their relations with Turkey amid ongoing strategic divergence, and open old wounds with NATO allies. Still, it is an important step in achieving reconciliation and preventing future atrocities.
The Armenian Genocide – An Untold Story of the Twentieth Century
Most historians agree that throughout World War One, the Ottoman Empire systematically executed “one of the largest genocides in history”. On April 24, 1915, Ottoman authorities commenced a series of violent attacks against Armenians, slaughtering as many as 1.5 million members of the minority community in a region they had inhabited for over 2,500 years. Many were death-marched into the desert or held in concentration camps. The remainder were forced into exile. By the end of the war, over 90 per cent of Armenians who had lived in the territory of the Ottoman Empire were gone and their legacy erased.
To this day, Turkey vigorously denies the genocidal intent of these mass murders and those who formally recognised the events as genocide are condemned by Ankara and accused of “sabotaging” their relations with Turkey.
As such, recognition remains of great political importance to both Turkey and Armenia. Turkey’s unwillingness to recognise the events as genocide continues to generate turbulent relations with other nations and has become a reoccurring barrier to their European Union accession. Among Armenians, recognition is crucial for the collective healing of diaspora communities.
Western governments have typically been cautious to recognise the Armenian genocide due to concerns over severing bilateral ties with Turkey, with whom they share vital interests, and worsening regional conflict between the two nations. However, recognition in recent years by Germany, Italy and the Netherlands indicates that Turkey has lost some of its influence over NATO allies.
A New Era of US/NATO – Turkey Relations Under Biden?
The Biden Administration has made it clear that they intend to improve previous records on human rights by utilising 'soft power', distinguishing themselves from former President Trump’s laissez-faire approach to foreign policy. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan welcomed Biden’s statement as a “much-needed message to the international community, which comes to reaffirm the primacy of human rights and values in international relations”.
The response from Ankara, however, was predictably unyielding. Turkey’s foreign ministry demanded Biden withdraw his statement: “This statement of the US, which distorts the historical facts… will open a deep wound that undermines our mutual trust and friendship.”
Diplomatic relations between Ankara and Washington have been strained in recent years. The US and their NATO allies have become increasingly concerned with President Erdogan’s “assertive” foreign policy toward both allies and adversaries, as well as his “self-serving and aggressive regional posturing”. The US recently imposed sanctions on Turkey following its 2019 purchase of Russian S – 400 air defence systems, which had the potential to compromise US fighter jets and posed a risk to NATO allies more broadly.
Biden’s harsher interventionist role comes with numerous risks. Bilateral cooperation, in Syria, Libya and Eastern Mediterranean maritime disagreements, may be in jeopardy, posing an even greater risk of instability in those regions. Turkey also remains a critical strategic ally within NATO as its second-largest military and 'Southern Flank', providing access to Asia and the Middle East. Continuing this approach is likely to prompt Turkey into deepening relations with Russia and Iran. President Erdogan's close coordination with Russian President Vladimir Putin is of particular concern and leaves many questioning whether Turkey remains a steadfast ally.
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Recognition of the Armenian Genocide remains an important symbolic step towards prioritising human rights and pressuring Turkey to begin a process of reparations for Armenian communities across the globe. Biden’s statement raises an important question: will other states follow suit or continue to prioritise strategic interests and geopolitical expedience over moral declarations?
Looking to the experiences of other Western states who previously recognised the genocide, US recognition may be akin to “ripping off the Band-Aid”, suggesting a quick turnaround for Western allies to repair relations with Turkey and encourage productive dialogue, considering Ankara’s reliance on the EU for economic support. However, Turkey's recent economic vulnerability and worsening diplomatic isolation may lead to a different outcome entirely and warns of greater instability to come. Nevertheless, Biden has announced clear intentions to pursue a "constructive bilateral relationship" with Turkey and talks will continue on the fringe of the upcoming NATO Summit in June 2021.
Chloe Marriott is a final year Law and Global Studies student at Monash University. Her interests include US foreign policy, human rights and international law.