Over the weekend, President Biden recognized the World War I-era Armenian genocide, perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire, the precursor to modern Turkey. Previous administrations had avoided the topic because Turkey is a treaty ally of the United States as a member of NATO. Biden’s recognition signals a new era of U.S.-Turkey relations.
Though recognizing the genocide is a formal declaration with only symbolic value, Turkish nationalists have long fought against it (including through government-funded online trolls), while Armenians have fought for international acknowledgement of the crimes perpetrated against them. While most of the world’s advanced democracies have recognized the genocide, the United States was slow to join them because of Turkey’s value as an ally. Armenia, a former Soviet republic, has enjoyed closer relations with Russian than the free world since independence.
This is beginning to change. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been the head of the Turkish government for 20 years. Once a secular and “imperfect democracy,” Turkey is now an Islamist autocracy. Erdoğan’s government has been increasingly cozying up with U.S. adversaries such as Iran and the Taliban. It even supported the Islamic State on its border with Syria, as much for ideological affinity as battlefield advantage, while targeting the United States’s Kurdish allies there. Turkey is warming its tepid relations with Russia, a historical adversary. In 2020, Turkey completed the purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-air missile system, which could potentially expose U.S. military secrets to Russia, over strenuous American objections. Consequently, the United States imposed sanctions on Turkey and kicked it out of the F-35 fighter program.
The Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations all tried to repair the relationship, and all failed because Erdoğan is simply not interested. He holds the United States in contempt, which became most visible (and, for America, most humiliating) when, in 2017, his bodyguards attacked and beat up peaceful protesters in Washington, D.C., as the Turkish strongman was about to meet Trump—and got away with it. It symbolized U.S.-Turkey relations: Turkey does what it wants, the U.S. suffered what it thought it must.
By formally recognizing the Armenian genocide, the Biden administration seems to be rebalancing the relationship, which shouldn’t be a surprise. In 2018, Biden’s current assistant for national security affairs, Jake Sullivan, co-authored an op-ed with the former American ambassador to Turkey, Eric Edelman, arguing that the United States should stop treating Turkey as an unconditional ally. Rather, the authors wrote, the relations should become more “transactional.”
Most commentators portray the Middle East and the Caucasus as a set of coalitions—a pro-U.S. coalition, a Russian coalition, an Islamic Republic coalition, etc. In reality, the region is a circular firing squad. The United States’s efforts to remake the Middle East as it remade Europe and much of East Asia after World War II have failed. Now, Iran, Turkey, and Russia are all trying to restore their lost empires, while other states are pushing back. With the United States’s self-imposeddiminishing influence in the region, this is going to get worse. And so will America’s relationship with Turkey.
Going forward, as the Biden administration considers what it wants to do with Turkey, it needs to keep in mind that relations with Turkey have disproportionate ramifications for our interests in Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. Turkey remains an important country to U.S. interests. It is a member of NATO with access to information we cannot afford for Putin to have. But we also cannot afford to keep ignoring Turkey’s actions against U.S. interests.
Turkey has been strengthening ties with the Taliban, and, this week, Erdoğan is scheduled to meet with a top Taliban leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. It has helped Iran to evade sanctions. It has attacked U.S. allies in Syria. It has jeopardized NATO. It has committed war crimes against civilians. And yet the United States has treated it like any other unconditional ally.
The previous administrations weren’t stupid, but they were risk-averse and cautious. A transactional relationship with Turkey requires a strong will and a tolerance for risks. A more transactional relationship is a big risk—but worth taking.
As long as Erdoğan remains in power, relations will get worse. If Turkey were behaving resoponsibly, whether or not to recognize the Aremnian genocide would remain a more nuanced and diffuclt question. But as long as relations are bound to get worse, we might as well acknowledge what actually happened.