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President Biden’s decision to formally acknowledge genocide against Armenians by the Ottoman Empire ends a debate between Americans and Turks stretching back four decades. The decision was inevitable sooner or later, even as those who wanted to avoid it for geopolitical reasons always knew. For reasons sketched below, Turkey’s response will be harsh, but the silver lining is that this action could, if both sides play their cards well, send a positive shock through a relationship vital to both countries, but long in the doldrums.

Not just President Erdogan but Turks of all stripes are outraged by the decision. Fears from forty years ago that recognition of genocide could unleash new Armenian terror against Turks, or calls for reparations, have faded over the decades as scores of countries have formally accepted the accusation without serious repercussions. But it’s the Turks’ job, not outsiders, to judge the impact.  Many find the genocide appellation objectionable not because it distorts events of a hundred years ago—few Turks deny the horrors Ottoman Armenians suffered—but because they see it as an effort by Turkey’s ‘Atlantic’ partners to deny Turkey a seat at the table, despite its extraordinary accomplishments and contributions since joining the West 70 years ago.  Rather, their argument goes, the stain of ‘genocide,’ a word created to describe Nazi crimes, positions Turkey as the eternal ‘other’, condemned to second class status in the Western community.  The fact that this is not objectively how Americans or Europeans think is less important than the fact so many Turks think they do.

We could move towards a better relationship than the one that is currently troubled and foundering on false assumptions by both sides. 

But the shock of this decision could produce a positive outcome, once the inevitably harsh Turkish reaction passes. We could move towards a better relationship than the one that is currently troubled and foundering on false assumptions by both sides.  The impetus to such an outcome can be found in the Biden administration’s just-released 2021 “Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community.” That document lays out a dire picture of a world moving away from the happy post-Cold War era. Specifically, “in the Middle East and North Africa, Moscow is …increase(ing) its clout, undercutting US leadership, (and presenting) itself as an indispensable mediator. “  While Iran presents a “continuing threat to US and allied interests as it tried to erode US influence…entrench its influence and project power in neighboring states.”

If the Biden administration, so concerned about reestablishing American global leadership, seriously wants to confront these threats, it can’t succeed without Turkey. Just look at the map. Moreover, Turkey on its own has confronted Iran and Russia in Syria, and Russia in Libya and in the Caucasus, over the past 14 months. Turkey is also a key supporter of Ukraine and Afghanistan and hosts a vital NATO radar focused on Iranian missiles. Turkey, in turn, is facing a host of threats to its north and south which absolutely require reliance on NATO partners, particularly the U.S., in any emergency.

For such cooperation to succeed, the two states must take three steps:  The first is to move beyond the set of bilateral conflicts, from Turkish purchase of Russian S-400 missiles and its often-despicable domestic human rights violations, to U.S. partnering in Syria with a PKK offshoot, the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), and hosting the accused organizer of the 2016 Turkish coup, Fethullah Gulen. These are all now ‘frozen disputes.’ Both sides have already retaliated, from U.S. S-400 sanctions to a limited Turkish operation against the SDF, and little will improve, or necessarily get worse, on any of them.  They need to be set aside rather than have their scabs constantly reopened.

This all exacerbates policy conflicts, but will continue unless both leaders make clear neither they nor their people will routinely lash out at the other.

Second, learn from a contrast. The U.S.-German relationship remains healthy despite equally serious disputes (Nordstream Russian gas, trade tariffs, pathetic German behavior on military issues, U.S. spying on Merkel) because leaders and foreign policy cadre on both sides assiduously maintain civil discourse despite policy differences.  With Turkey and the U.S., it’s the opposite. Washington, including the formerly pro-Turkish Pentagon, cannot hear “Turkey” without muttering ‘disloyal’ for some supposed sin. Meanwhile, Erdogan and political forces allied with him, attempt simultaneously to summon the West to their defense while insulting non-stop its values and behavior.  This all exacerbates policy conflicts, but will continue unless both leaders make clear neither they nor their people will routinely lash out at the other. Erdogan’s careful language with Russia despite outright military confrontations is a good model.

Finally, plus up communications.  Whatever retaliation Turkey may take, the outstanding ambassadors assigned to the other country must remain. President Biden needs to talk to Erdogan. It’s not about friendship, but interests. Channels to each leader’s advisors need to be reinvigorated, not least to avoid new disputes like the S-400 and SDF.  Normally ‘form’ does not substitute for substance in diplomacy, but with this relationship, the ‘form,’ usually bad, is undercutting the close alignment on much substance.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.

About the Author

James F. Jeffrey

James F. Jeffrey

Chair of the Middle East Program;
Former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more