Biden on Saturday became the first president in more than three decades to officially label as genocide the mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
The move comes after plenty of fits and starts in the U.S. journey toward this moment. It also reflects an increasing boldness by the Biden administration both when it comes to human rights and the U.S. government’s relationship with Turkey — a complex alliance that has deteriorated in recent years but still makes such a decision fraught.
Biden made his announcement on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day — a date on which much of the world reflects on what it has deemed to be a genocide.
For decades, though, the United States has stopped short of that — and conspicuously so — for fear of angering Turkey and harming relations with a key ally in a vitally important region. Presidents have campaigned by declaring it a genocide and pledged to recognize it as such, but then failed to follow through. Congress has repeatedly sought to apply pressure to take that step, only to have it fall upon deaf ears.
George W. Bush wrote a letter during the 2000 campaign in which he said he would recognize the genocide, but then backed away from it as the United States once again became entangled in the Middle East and Turkey became important to the war effort in Iraq. By 2007, Bush urged Congress to reject a resolution recognizing the genocide.
About the closest an administration has come in recent decades to recognizing the genocide actually came, somewhat counterintuitively, during the presidency of Donald Trump. Trump otherwise sought a controversially close relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even as Erdogan drifted further toward authoritarianism. But in a news conference, then-White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany at one point referred to the vandalism of an “Armenian Genocide Memorial.”
In a response that reflected how sensitive this topic is, Turkey objected to the use of the word even in that context, while acknowledging that it might simply have been a “slip of the tongue.” And it did indeed turn out to be an aberration. The Trump administration pushed back on a congressional attempt to recognize the mass killings as a genocide in 2019. Even when legislation passed overwhelmingly with huge bipartisan support, the State Department declared that it didn’t reflect the official position of the administration.
So why now? According to experts, the answer is a combination of the Biden administration getting bolder than its predecessors on human rights — it has also labeled the killing of Uyghur Muslims in China a genocide — and on Turkey in general, along with relations with Turkey deteriorating despite Trump’s efforts to cozy up to Erdogan.
Previously, the Biden White House issued a statement calling Turkey’s decision to withdraw from a European convention on women’s rights and domestic abuse “deeply disappointing.” The administration also issued a tough verdict on Turkey in a report on human rights abuses around the world. Biden has flatly labeled Erdogan an autocrat and promised to confront a “new moment of advancing authoritarianism” (while not explicitly tying the comment to Turkey). And Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in his confirmation hearing, referred to Turkey as “a strategic — so-called strategic — partner of ours” while criticizing its drift toward Russia.
“Biden has upended the traditional way in which U.S. presidents engage with Turkey,” said Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “The way in which the U.S. traditionally has dealt with Turkey is to try and keep them enmeshed closely with the United States and Europe through sustained engagement and tight military ties.”
Stein added: “Biden has flipped this thinking and has pocketed the idea that Turkey has no interest in leaving groups like NATO, but that close cooperation with Washington is not something that Ankara can take for granted any longer. Instead, Erdogan has to earn it. … His administration has made the relationship nakedly transactional and, in this way, his team has become much more Turkish in how they view bilateral relations.”
While Biden’s move would build upon that nascent effort to apply pressure, there’s a reason recent presidents have avoided it. Despite an uneasy alliance, Turkey has declared such a step to be completely unacceptable and an affront to it and its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Given Turkey’s strategic placement in the Middle East, it carries potential implications in a number of areas, depending upon the response — including Russia, Syria and Ukraine.
“If dramatic, which is possible, then the relationship could really break, with impact on our forces in Turkey, cooperation on Syria, Ukraine, Libya and Iran, leading to a U.S. counter-reaction and a downward spiral,” said James F. Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq who is now with the Wilson Center.
For one, experts say it could tempt Turkey to align even more closely with Russia. Turkey has been on the opposite side of Russia in a number of conflicts, including in Ukraine and Syria. Russia has also supported Armenia’s interests in the region. But Turkey and Russia have occasionally found their interests aligned when it comes to American influence. The Trump administration also sanctioned Turkey last year over its purchase of a Russian missile defense system.
“It would also be consistent with Putin’s MO,” said Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations. “He offers good ties to American partners who are having trouble with the United States.”
While very few expect the decision to have immediate and recognizable impact on Turkey’s human rights practices, some see potential benefits beyond simply doing what’s right by applying the “genocide” label. Turkey faces plenty of economic strain, has lost a number of allies in recent years and public sentiment has turned against Erdogan. Turkey’s large youth population poses an increasing threat to Erdogan.
Jenny White of the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies says the United States increasingly has leverage in the relationship, which makes the Biden administration’s decision more practical.
“President Biden has made democracy and human rights a central tenet of his administration. At this point, the Biden administration has nothing to lose by acknowledging Turkey’s failure in these respects,” White said. “What could nudge Turkey to change? Turkey needs the U.S. more than the U.S. needs Turkey right now.”
In other words, it makes sense to finally do what top American politicians have been threatening to do for a very long time. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a bold step that couldn’t reverberate in the region and in U.S. foreign policy. And it’s one of the biggest early subplots in Biden’s emerging foreign policy agenda.