Why Biden recognising the Armenian genocide matters across the world

U.S. President Joe Biden is reportedly considering an extraordinary break with his predecessors by officially recognising the Armenian genocide of 1915 perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire.

According to U.S. officials speaking to the New York Times, Biden is expected to make the announcement on April 24, the 106th anniversary of the start of events known in Armenian as the Meds Yeghern (Great Disaster).

There is still no guarantee that Biden will acknowledge the genocide as official U.S. policy, but in the run-up to April 24 he has received vocal bipartisan support for the move from the U.S. Congress. The U.S. legislative branch has historically taken a more assertive stance on the issue, formally recognising the genocide, and passing repeated motions calling on the executive to do the same. 

U.S. presidents have traditionally resisted these calls for fear of alienating Turkey, whose government continues to reject accusations that it bears any responsibility for events prior to the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has already warned Biden that recognition would harm bilateral relations at a time when ties are already strained.

Speaking to an Ahval podcast, Salpi Ghazarian, director of the Institute of Armenian Studies at the University of Southern California (USC), said it would be “hugely welcome” and “gratifying” if Biden flipped the script on decades of U.S foreign policy in formally recognising the genocide,

However, she cautioned against placing too much stead on the symbolism, rather than what follows it.

“At the end of the day, how much of an effect this has on American foreign policy and Turkey’s actions are what we have to see,”

Ghazarian, an Armenian-American with family members who survived the genocide, said that too often the process of designating a genocide has more to do with political considerations than the facts of the matter.

Contrary to the Turkish government’s insistence that the question is unsettled, there is a widespread scholarly consensus on the events of 1915. But Ghazarian said debates in Washington had for too long been a “political football” depending on the state of U.S.-Turkey relations.

Biden has made a point committing his administration to a more ethical foreign policy and now has the chance to reaffirm this position, according to Ghazarian.

“Human rights have to continue to remain on the foreign policy agenda,” she said.

“This is important because if the U.S. and other powers today in the world are able to consistently say ‘human rights matter’, it would send a message of consistency in American foreign policy’s capacity to prevent these abuses.”

The current moment provides a potentially unique opportunity. There has been a steady drift in recent years between Turkey and the United States over a range of issues, including the latter’s faltering commitment to human right and the rule of law.

The growing gap between the NATO allies has undermined traditionally assiduous efforts by Ankara’s diplomatic corps and well-paid cadre of Washington lobbyists to nurture a belief that recognition of the Armenian genocide would not be worth the damage to the so-called “strategic partnership”.    

Ghazarian dismissed these threats and pointed to the example of France, which formally recognised the genocide in 2001, becoming the first major European nation to do so. Ten years later, France went further, criminalising the denial of the Armenian genocide, a move Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan slammed as “Turkophobia”. Turkey subsequently went as far as banning French military ships and planes from entering its territory. The countries remain regional rivals but maintain strong trading partners and appear to be seeking a diplomatic detente. 

Likewise, the United States, Ghazarian insisted, is too important for Turkey to fully alienate.

“Turkey may make a lot of noise, but Turkey needs the United States relationship,” she said.

The real concern for Ghazarian was the potential backlash in Turkish domestic politics. Faced with a wakening economy, Erdoğan has been looking for means to hold together his electoral base of conservative Islamists and nationalists.

Armenians in Turkey were targeted by Turkish nationalists during last year’s clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, and the community remains fearful of future reprisals.    

“I worry about what nationalist sentiments that the (Turkish) government might foment internally will mean for Armenians in Turkey who already with a great deal of insecurity, and knowing full well no one has their back,” Ghazarian said.

However, Ghazarian said she still sees U.S. recognition as a welcome development for Armenia and its global diaspora by signalling Washington is “no longer missing in action” when human rights are violated, a message with the potential to transcend particular contexts.   

“Even though I am speaking of Armenia, this is something that the world needs to know,” she said. “It is that right does make might and that authoritarians do not have the right to get away with violence against their citizens.”