President Biden will issue his first Armenian Remembrance Day statement this Saturday — his 95th in office and his 95th abstaining from calling Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Biden’s off-the-cuff character stands in contrast to previous administrations, presenting an unprecedented possibility that he could indeed use the “G” word to define what happened to Armenians in 1915 in the last throes of the Ottoman Empire.
At the same time, an intense debate is taking place from Washington to London to Brussels to Moscow and beyond about very old questions in a very new political world. The pandemic has not changed the essence of this debate and the questions somehow all intersect here in Turkey. If the U.S. is gradually divorcing from the Middle East and shifting its weight to Asia, is it also time to politically divorce from Turkey? If Turkey’s reaction to the “G” word does not count any longer, does the calculation promise an obedient Ankara continuing its cooperation in the Caucasus and the Middle East, or has Turkey’s presence in all these areas gone awry in deed and word?
Turkish elections will ultimately break free of their political stagnation, but the opposition parties’ performance keeps kicking that action further down the road. But in the context of the Armenian Remembrance Day statement, Biden’s White House must ultimately consider whether Turkey is still a vitally important ally.
President Biden has announced he will withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan, and those talks would have begun in Istanbul on April 24 – if it were not to be postponed on Tuesday to after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Whether the Taliban will ever attend the meetings or stay put until the last U.S. troop departs Afghanistan remains to be seen. While Turkey’s role in shaping these developments is limited, Washington called upon its government to play this role. At stake, however, is Washington’s approach to the new political world in terms of its defense alliances and prospects to contain China and Russia, stability in the Middle East, stability in the Caucasus with potential armed conflict in Ukraine, the future of the Iranian nuclear program, and Israel’s security dilemmas despite the Abraham Accords. Add to this mix Turkey itself, which has nearly 85 million people, hosts almost 4 million Syrian refugees, and is economically weak and increasingly at unease with itself.
While some may debate whether Turkey has lost some of its importance on the world stage, the U.S. is better off with Turkey as an ally in its defense, security, diplomatic and economic endeavors. Pushing Turkey away from NATO will surely have a cost. If the Biden administration wants to keep Turkey aligned with the West, it has no option but to pass on using the “G” word. And let’s be clear: the debate over what happened between the Ottoman Empire’s government and its citizens of Armenian origin in 1915 has long ceased to be about honoring the dead. It has become a political tool to push the government in Ankara to behave in a particular way. The U.S. opposes Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles supposedly because it will threaten NATO military operations. But the U.S. also continues to keep pressure on its ally to avoid losing Turkey to Russian influence.
Western governments and planners may reckon with how they misread Turkey’s importance once, and may still do it again. Turkey’s current vulnerabilities and weaknesses did not emerge all at once but over time — but once things start to go south, the damage is done. How does the Biden White House define the state of today’s Turkish state? Can the Biden administration afford to burn bridges with the Turkish public by using the “G” word?
President Biden’s first Armenian Remembrance Day statement will have a direct impact on Turkey – either breaking a bond or finding a way to connect with ordinary citizens. If he passes on using the “G” word, he would boldly convey his disapproval of Erdogan’s politics without opposing the Turkish people. That could open new opportunities during this time of so many pressing security dilemmas in and around Turkey. If he decides differently, though, the Turkish public could see it as yet another example of American two-facedness. The already existing distrust to U.S. intentions and politics will get easily quadrupled. And that certainly would make a statement on the shaping of the new world politics.