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The End of an Era in the Armenian Genocide Debate: Will Recognition Lead to a Turkish Policy Transformation?

February 5, 2007

If Turkey gives up its opposition to potential US recognition of the atrocities between Turks and Armenians that took place during World War One as a “genocide,” will its diplomatic hand ultimately be strengthened? The following article argues that this just might be the case.

By Mehmet Kalyoncu

What should have happened ninety-two years ago in 1915 is finally likely to happen in 2007. Both Houses of the U.S. Congress are expected to pass a resolution that recognizes the bitter WWI experience of the Turkish Armenians as genocide after it is discussed in the House Foreign Relations Committee in April. Ankara reflexively and as usual warned Washington that bilateral relations may be damaged to a degree never before seen. A similar resolution was stopped in the year 2000 due to Turkish diplomatic pressure. But times have changed.

For many Turks, passing the resolution will verify their suspicions of the unfaithful friendship of the United States. Ankara is right when it maintains that bilateral relations would be damaged severely during a period in which the United States needs a reliable ally in the Middle East. Nevertheless, by acknowledging the distinction between recognizing the so-called Armenian genocide and letting the U.S. Congress recognize it, Ankara could actually benefit by letting the latter happen.

A sizeable part of the Turkish public, from officials to intellectuals and ordinary men on the street, view the recognition of the so-called Armenian genocide by the US Congress as an opportunity to break free from an area of coercion in the United States’ allegedly unfaithful friendship, and from an almost century-long hysteria surrounding the question of “what if the United States recognizes the so-called genocide?” In this regard, the recognition of the so-called genocide seems to present a more of a threat to the interests of the United States than to those of Turkey.

Recognizing the So-Called Armenian Genocide

Mr. Turgut Ozal, former President and Prime Minister of Turkey, was among the first who sought to get rid of the hysteria by signaling a tacit approval of recognizing the so-called genocide in 1991. However, Ozal had to back up when political opponent Suleyman Demirel, some high-ranking generals and the secular establishment accused him of not being sensitive to this most important national matter.

Nuzhet Kandemir, then Turkish Ambassador to the US, ironically and yet somehow proudly notes that he managed to convince Ozal to believe that such an approval would not serve the Turkish national interests.[1] More ironically, Ilter Turkmen, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, suggests that Ozal did not in fact believe in what he said, but just seemed so in order to stimulate a debate when he asked if it would not be better for Turkey to recognize the so-called genocide.[2]

It is not clear whether Ozal thought the same way, but today it seems like the “genocide card” is destined to lose its value dramatically as a foreign policy instrument against Turkey once the United States, the long-time strategic ally of Turkey, recognizes the so-called Armenian genocide. For so many years, thinks the majority of the Turkish public, especially the Western European countries and the United States have exploited the genocide question as a stick to beat Turkey when the carrot did not indulge her.

Today, US recognition is likely to make the genocide issue much less effective as a foreign policy instrument; with the threat of it gone, Turkey will be freed of a longstanding preoccupation in its relations with the United States.

Although there is no unanimity among them, some in the media and secular circles have speculated about the aftermath of the genocide recognition and foresee potential sanctions against Turkey. These speculations are often countered in the public debate by questions such as: What happened after France long ago passed the resolution in its parliament? What happened even after France declared it a crime not to recognize the so-called Armenian genocide? Would the case be any different with the United States?

International criminal law does not provide a guideline to deal with historical atrocities, argues Swedish historian Bertil Duner.[3] Yet international law suggests the creation of an international expert body representing both historians and the legal profession to investigate such historical cases, and arrive at an eventual condemnation of the responsible party or parties. This is actually not much different from what Turkey, especially during the AK Party government, has been advocating.

Whether the U.S. recognition makes any difference is something to be seen in the future. However, it is not difficult to argue for now that such recognition will have implications at multiple levels.

Possible Implications of the US Congress’ Recognition

Turkey and Armenia are likely to gain from the US recognition of the so-called genocide, while the United States is likely to lose in the long term. First of all, the recognition will bring an end to a prolonged era throughout which Turkey has suffered continuous hysteria when considering the implications of the United States recognizing the so-called Armenian genocide. Consequently, by the end of its de facto liability to the United States for not recognizing the so-called genocide, Turkey is likely to increase its bargaining power against the US in their bilateral relations. Secondly, Turkish foreign policy, which has essentially revolved around three issues throughout the republic’s history (defending against Armenian genocide allegations, Cyprus, and relations with Greece), is likely to gain momentum that could be developed down lesser-explored avenues such as increasing bilateral relations with non-Western states.

Armenia has suffered profound economic hardship since the break-up of the USSR. Some of this would have been lessened had the country been able to develop economic relations with its immediate neighbor to the west. However, the Armenian Diaspora’s continuous efforts to inflict pain on Turkey in the international arena have not helped in this capacity. Beside its occupation of Azerbaijani territory adjoining Karabagh, Armenia’s constitutionally certified territorial claims on areas of Eastern Turkey caused Turkey to impose a blockade on Armenia, shutting off Yerevan’s road and rail links to the West.[4]

However, with the Turkish people’s overwhelming show of sympathy following the recent murder of Turkish Armenian intellectual Hrant Dink, Armenia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Arman Kirakosyan stressed his government’s readiness to open full diplomatic relations with Turkey unconditionally.[5] Such a gesture hints that in the absence of the Diaspora influence, Turkey and Armenia are likely to sort out the problems hindering the two countries’ ability to engage in bilateral political and economic relations.

What is in it for the United States?

What are the pros and cons of the US recognizing the so-called Armenian genocide? Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) notes, “[t]o truly dedicate ourselves to improving human rights across the world, our government must first learn from and properly condemn the mistakes of the past”[6] in order to express the rational behind his introduction of the Armenian Genocide Resolution. He is right in that the U.S. government should learn from and properly condemn the mistakes of the past, but it hardly needs to look at the mistakes of others or go that far back into history when it has more than enough of its own indiscretions to use for that educative purpose. Understandably, however, Pallone may not be able to distinguish between his own electoral interests and the US national interests.

US-Turkish relations are unlikely to radically change due to the Congress’ recognition of the so-called genocide. Nor is Turkey likely to take any radical action against the United States for that matter, given the fact that it needs the US support to deal with the Kurdish PKK separatists and the looming crisis in northern Iraq, over Kirkuk.

Nevertheless, the very fact that the United States recognizes the so-called genocide would entail structural changes in Turkey’s foreign policy orientation, which would indirectly rather than directly impact the US-Turkish relation in the long term.

Diminishing Influence of the “White Turks”

There are likely to be losers on the Turkish side of the debate as well once the so-called genocide is recognized by the US Congress. These will include mainly the exclusivist and elitist secular establishment in the state apparatus, its extension within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara, and their contacts in Washington, who have been reportedly lobbying on behalf of Turkey.

Throughout the republic’s history, a small number of elite members and diplomats have been considered to have the decisive influence on Turkey’s foreign policy orientation, formulation and implementation, serving as a conduit between Ankara and Washington. This diplomatic elite has earned the popular moniker, Beyaz Turkler (“White Turks”), and frequently derive from familial dynasties, some non-Anatolian in origin. The name implies a sort of “untouchable,” elevated image compared to the unwashed masses.

The prolonged conflicts such as the Armenian genocide issue, Cyprus, Turkish-Greek relations, which pretty much constituted the triad of Turkish foreign policy in the second half of the 20th century, entailed an exclusivist foreign policy apparatus independent of whatever particular government was in office.

Understandably, dealing with such conflicts required diplomatic expertise and personal connections in Washington. Yet some have speculated that by prolonging these conflicts, the very exclusivist “White Turks” elite has kept the Ministry of Foreign Affairs immune from the more traditional-minded bulk of Turkish society, the so-called “Black Turks,” and maintained their grip on the country’s foreign affairs.

Winds of Change in Turkish Foreign Policy

Nevertheless, in the recent years the so-called White Turks grip on Turkish foreign policy, which is marked simply by an unconditional attachment to the West, has started to diminish gradually. Turkish foreign policy has gained multiple dimensions with the AK Party’s efforts to reach out to Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and even Latin America. This new foreign policy orientation has thus opened the door to those intellectuals who speak the languages, know the cultures, or have even lived in these new regions of interest.

This expansion of interests represents a welcome breath of fresh air for a foreign policy establishment that has become somewhat close-minded due to a limited orientation traditionally focused on a few narrow issues. By reaching out to other corners of the globe, Turkey will develop for itself a more sophisticated and cosmopolitan mindset and inevitably a more prestigious place on the global stage.

The most significant example of the new breed of foreign policy intellectuals is probably Dr. Ahmet Davutoglu, foreign affairs counselor to the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was allegedly the most influential thinker who crafted the new multi-dimensional foreign policy paradigm of the AK Party government, which resulted in closer relations of Turkey with its immediate neighbors such as Syria, Saudi Arabia, and even Iran.

The US Congress’ recognition of the so-called Armenian genocide should only speed up the transformation within the Turkish foreign policy apparatus, which is in any case already underway, by eliminating a nagging issue that has for too long forced Turkey to expend its political capital in an investment promising little return.


[1] “Soykirimi tanisak daha iyi olmaz mi — Would it not be better if we recognize the genocide”, Hurriyet 7, March 2005, available at http://hurarsiv.hurriyet.com.tr/goster/haber.aspx?viewid=546223

[2] Ibid

[3] Bertil Duner, “What Can Be Done about Historical Atrocities? The Armenian Case” International Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 217–233, Summer 2004

[4] Jon Gorvett, “Armenia, Turkey Takes Steps towards Rapprochement,” May 29, 2002, available at http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav052902.shtml

[5] “Cenazede gordukleri tablo Ermeni diasporasini sasirtti” Zaman, January 25, 2007, available at http://www.zaman.com.tr/webapp-tr/haber.do?haberno=492256

[6] “Armenian Genocide Resolution to be Introduced Tomorrow,” posted by N.J. Dem. Rep. Frank Pallone, January 29, 2007 available at http://blog.thehill.com/category/politics/

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