Like every U.S. leader before him, President Joseph Biden issued a commemorative statement on April 24 to mark the annual commemoration of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. But this year’s statement was eagerly anticipated, as the Biden Administration was widely expected to break with the previous position by boldly acknowledging and affirming the Armenian Genocide.
Unlike previous American presidents, those hopes and expectations were met with no political equivocation or use of semantics. Breaking with recent precedence, President Biden fully embraced the suffering of the Armenians by referring to the massacres and forced dispossession in 1915 as clear components of the crime of genocide.
Although with some nuanced language in the statement’s reference to Ottoman Turkey rather than the modern Republic of Turkey, the U.S. president’s commemorative recognition of the Armenian genocide was significant for several reasons.
Clearly, for Armenians both in Armenia and throughout the global diaspora, the moral clarity and moral courage of the Biden statement, which directly and explicitly refers to the Armenian genocide twice, was hailed as a long-sought vindication of a determined campaign to secure official U.S. recognition. And as an emotional vindication, the statement was especially welcome in Armenia, in light of the lingering shock from an unexpected loss to Turkish-backed Azerbaijan in the war for Nagorno Karabakh late last year.
But in real terms, the Biden statement has no legal or even policy implications for Armenia. Nevertheless, it does extend significant credence and political capital to the Armenian quest for recognition and reassurance. It may also help to end the destructive and counter-productive state policy of genocide denial by the Turkish government.
This latter point also offered a second significant factor, whereby other Western countries, such as the UK for one prominent example, will be hard-pressed to follow suit and come under pressure to no longer back or buttress Turkish denial of the genocide. In this way, the Biden recognition only exposes the moral weakness of other Western leaders who may still cling to Turkey’s policy of denial and historical revisionism.
And third, it was a move to not necessarily punish Turkey, but to help Turkey to more sincerely deal with its difficult past. It was not vindicative, but rather, was a vindication of history.
But a fourth factor of significance stems from the decision by the United States to call the bluff of the Turkish government and to face down the bellicose threats from Turkey over genocide recognition. In this way, the U.S. statement demonstrated that geopolitics are no longer an effective excuse for genocide denial.
From this perspective, the genocide recognition is in part a move to regain some of the United States’ moral standing that was lost under Donald Trump and stands out as an element in a broader strategy to correct the policy mistakes of the past as a course correction. And while it is precedent-setting, making it difficult for any U.S. president to retreat later, it also helps Washington to begin to regain and restore the moral high ground in international relations.
And moving forward, the U.S. statement also makes the genocide issue less confrontational for Turkey and offers a fresh opportunity for Turkey to reengage in the earlier diplomatic effort with Armenia to “normalize” relations.
But most importantly, the Biden announcement is more about defining a principled moral stand to defend the historical veracity of the Armenian genocide and less about Turkish sensitivities or excuses. And its relevance is lasting, for not only affirming the past but to also safeguard the future to deter any future reoccurrence of genocide or related heinous crimes against humanity.