Fourteen American presidents have come and gone since the term “genocide” was coined in 1944, nearly 30 years after the Ottoman Empire committed unfathomable atrocities against ethnic Armenians during World War I, yet not a single commander-in-chief acknowledged the violence as genocide. For decades, the Armenian diaspora in the United States passionately advocated for recognition of an ethnic cleansing that left an estimated 1.5 million people dead, many of whom perished through massacres and death marches. Prior to Joe Biden’s presidency, a mere 30 nations formally recognized the massacres as genocide, while many other countries have been cautious in maintaining good relations with Turkey. Most historians acknowledge the genocide while the UN has demonstrated limited recognition. Even the small group of historians who disagree with a formal declaration of genocide concede that ethnic Armenians faced forced expatriation under the duress of violence.
Many American presidents have traditionally tiptoed around the subject. President Reagan, on a singular occasion, briefly referred to the a genocide in a speech, but neither he nor or any of his successors formally recognized the genocide. For decades, the United States has viewed Turkey as a critical ally in the Eastern Mediterranean, for geographical, military, and economic purposes. Its position as a gateway between the Middle East and Europe has enabled the United States to station troops and launch offensives into neighboring Syria. Its close proximity to the Soviet Union and Russia has made the deployment of American nuclear weapons a strategic headache for the Kremlin. Likewise, its control over the Bosphorus Strait has given NATO smooth accessibility to the Black Sea for the purpose of conducting military exercises on Russia’s doorstep.
For more reasons than can be listed, upsetting a nation whose government staunchly denies the occurrence of a genocide has historically been viewed as ill-advised foreign policy. That does not seem to bother Joe Biden, however, who promised on the campaign trail that he would break with previous Presidents – including his former boss – and officially recognize the Armenian Genocide. His decision, which came on the 106th anniversary of the atrocity, garnered immediate backlash from Ankara. President Recep Tayip Erdogan, who is currently juggling the volatility of runaway inflation in his own country, promptly rebuked the recognition by referring to this new era in American relations as being damaged by a “deep wound.” The Turkish president is now coming to terms with the realization that American policymakers no longer view Turkey’s strategic importance in the same light. Its military capacity is still the second largest in NATO and its GDP remains upwards of $700 billion, yet its deterioration into an authoritarian society has restrained its ability to maintain strategic influence or act in a manner that is serviceable to its allies. For Biden, there has been no better time to announce recognition of the genocide.
A man whose vindictive personality often translates into policy, Erdogan has explicitly indicated that there will be some semblance of retaliation for the recognition. The question now becomes, what can he actually do? There has been speculation by foreign policy analysts that intelligence sharing with the United States could become restrained by Ankara. In the past, Turkey has expelled diplomats and cancelled trade deals with countries that have recognized the genocide. Ankara has previously threatened to block American use of early-warning missile radars in the southeastern area of Kurecik, which is home to military installations that play a pivotal role in NATO’s ballistic missile defense systems. The United States also operates tactical nuclear weapons and other critical military assets at the Incirlik air base, the likes of which could be removed if Turkey were to force their departure. Such actions have the support of various Turkish protesters.
There are not many economic actions that can be taken against the United States considering the weakness of the Turkish economy and the disproportionate response that would be levied by Washington. One unintended manner in which Turkey has struck back, however, relates to its removal from the F-35 program; replacing engine parts that were slated to be manufactured in Turkey will now raise the price of the program for the United States.
Other forms of retaliation would be equally detrimental for Erdogan, not just because of American retaliation but because of possible self-inflicted damage. Turkey could respond by reducing its cooperation with American sanctions, specifically as they relate to Iran and China. Ankara could also decide to act more sporadically in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly as it relates to Libya, Cyprus, Israel, and Greece. While all of the aforementioned actions may constitute responsive measures taken against the United States, they will foster proportionate troubles for Turkey. When Trump took actions against Turkey early on in his term, the Turkish Lira suffered significantly; a deteriorated relationship with the United States will only exacerbate the hardship of a Turkish economy in freefall.
If Erdogan were to unexpectedly reverse course and seek warmer relations with the United States, he would enter a separate dilemma, since there is little that can be done by Ankara to reverse course and detach themselves from the Kremlin. Withdrawing from the Russian S-400 program could result in harsh retaliatory sanctions against Turkey, measures that could target and deal devastating blows to its economy and tourism industry which typically sees 50 million visitors per year. Putin could also exact revenge by spurning Russian-backed forces to attack the Turkish-held Idlib province in Northern Syria, thereby troubling Erdogan with hundreds of thousands of more refugees. The Kremlin could inflict further damage by spoiling Erdogan’s strongman image — the foundation of his domestic support — by intervening in Libya and demonstrating Ankara’s inability to handle several regional crises at once. Erdogan thus finds himself in a conundrum.
It should be noted, however, that Erdogan’s retribution doesn’t necessarily need to be directed towards the United States. The contempt for ethnic Armenians spurred by Erdogan’s nativist rhetoric decisively outweighs any disdain for America. The Turkish President’s revenge could culminate in harsh actions taken against the nation that has lobbied for genocide recognition for decades. It was not long ago that Ankara made its support abundantly clear in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict by supplying arms to the Azeris and minimizing diplomatic relations with Yerevan. Any aggressive actions taken against Armenia, especially those out of spite, might garner backlash from regional powers such as France – who has been at odds with Turkey for years over Libya, Greece, and Cyprus – but will likely generate a modest response from Washington lawmakers wary of Armenia’s close security ties with Moscow. If there is any unscrupulous course of action that Erdogan could take in response to the recognition, it would likely involve aggression displayed towards Armenia. While harsh actions taken against Armenia would be morally repugnant, they would do little to inflict damage to the United States.
Prior to the November election, Biden was an outspoken critic of his Turkish counterpart, boldly suggesting that the United States support his political rivals, a highly unorthodox stance to take towards a NATO ally. The rhetoric has not changed much since. Remarkably, the President spoke with the Greek Prime Minister on a phone call a month before his first communication with Erdogan. Even before Biden took office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo broke traditional protocol by traveling for a diplomatic visit to Greece without making the customary stop in Ankara. In many ways, Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide is more of a reflection of Turkey’s diminishing strategic influence than it is of personal contempt between the American President and Erdogan.
Regardless of how much Turkey lobbies Washington, or how often Turkish leaders voice emphatic disagreement, American recognition of the Armenian Genocide is now official. Only a wildly unconventional move by a future President could revoke it. With recognition being cemented, there is very little Turkey can do to exact revenge on the United States and forge a new era of relations on its own terms. If Erdogan were to act in his nation’s best interests, he would bear the brunt of recognition and strive to maintain warm relations with Washington. Unfortunately for the United States and the Eastern Mediterranean as a whole, a diminished strongman will likely lash out instead.