What recognizing the Armenian genocide means for U.S. global power

It could spark a recognition that America First is the wrong course.

November 14, 2019 (released April 15, 2020)
Source: Washington Post (Washington, DC)

By Charlie Laderman

It is apt that the U.S. House of Representatives recently formally recognized the Armenian genocide and called for “education” about the United States’ own humanitarian response. Just over 120 years ago, the House passed a different resolution regarding the Armenians that confirmed a fundamental departure in U.S. foreign policy. That event signaled that the United States was becoming a great power with global responsibilities and would no longer remain indifferent to events beyond its continent. The House’s latest action could serve as another watershed moment in American diplomacy if it challenges a new isolationist spirit and stimulates a fresh debate over the nation’s international role.

In early 1896, Congress responded to the first large-scale massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire — which claimed roughly 100,000 lives — by passing a resolution calling for President Grover Cleveland to intervene diplomatically to help “stay the hand of fanaticism and lawless violence.” It was an unprecedented step, the first time that a branch of the federal government advocated a political response to a humanitarian problem outside the Western Hemisphere.

Cleveland demurred, outside of sending a couple of warships to the Eastern Mediterranean to protect U.S. missionaries, the nation’s principal regional interest. Still, the resolution revealed a bold new spirit in American diplomacy. Theodore Roosevelt would soon emerge as the leading advocate of an American duty to aid the Armenians — and of greater intervention in the world beyond U.S. borders. Atrocities against Armenians profoundly shaped his commitment to counter “crimes against civilization.”

In his 1904 address to Congress, Roosevelt even suggested that intervention might be warranted. Roosevelt was personally “entirely satisfied to head a crusade for the Armenians.” But he recognized that Congress would not back an intervention in a remote region, at a time when the majority of Americans wished to keep their country isolated from great power politics.

A decade later, in 1915, during World War I, reports reached the United States that the Ottomans were again perpetrating atrocities against Armenians. Roosevelt, at that point a former president, was the most outspoken proponent of intervention on their behalf. But although the American public responded with an impassioned expression of philanthropy to aid survivors, the official U.S. response was restraint. President Woodrow Wilson was concerned that public condemnation of one of Germany’s principal allies would compromise U.S. neutrality in a conflict that most Americans wished to stay out of. Even after entering the war against Germany in 1917, Wilson avoided declaring war on their Ottoman ally.

Roosevelt was adamant that if the United States failed to vindicate the Armenians by punishing the Ottomans, then it would reveal all of Wilson’s “talk of guaranteeing the future peace of the world” as “mischievous nonsense” and “insincere claptrap.”

But Wilson’s prime concern at the time was the defeat of Germany. He was also concerned that military intervention would threaten the security of U.S. missionaries and their institutions, and risk worsening the Armenian situation by impeding the missionary-led relief efforts.

Yet Wilson’s apparent inaction in the face of the massacres belied the outsize role that the Armenians would come to play in his own vision of reforming global politics. While he was against military invention during the conflict, at the end of the war Wilson wanted Americans to take the lead in establishing a new international system, in which the Ottoman Empire would be dismembered and the security of its subject peoples guaranteed.

Armenia played a key role in this vision. Wilson hoped the United States would help the Armenians establish a state under the new League of Nations’ “mandate system,” through which the victors assumed responsibility for the imperial possessions of the defeated powers and prepared them for self-determination. The Armenian mandate was a clear manifestation of Wilson’s new world order, providing an American alternative to Europe’s imperial practices and, more importantly, ensuring the United States assumed a position of global leadership.

But the public didn’t agree. Whereas Wilson perceived the mandate as a symbol of American selflessness and moral authority, his opponents interpreted it as evidence of the unrewarding and open-ended commitments the new international organization would impose. For Wilson’s opponents, there was a fundamental difference between private expressions of charity and a political commitment to Armenian security. Republican Sen. Warren Harding, who succeeded Wilson as president in 1920, summed up their position: “I am not insensible to the sufferings of Armenia … but I am thinking of America first. Safety, as well as charity, begins at home.”

Ultimately, Wilson was unable to convince Americans to join the League and his request to assume a mandate was also rejected. Correspondingly, deprived of protection, Armenian independence was short-lived, crushed between Russian expansion and Turkish nationalism.

Although the United States was unable to prevent the wartime atrocities or secure Armenia’s independence in the aftermath, the plight of the Armenians was a major political issue at the time — reflecting how, as American power expanded at the turn of the 20th century, so did some Americans’ sense of global responsibility.

Events that would have been lamentable but unresolvable in an earlier era, occurring far away, began to provoke intense debate over whether the United States should respond and, if so, how. The humanitarianism was certainly selective. At a time when lynchings were rife within the United States and the country had just fought a brutal war to suppress an insurrection in the Philippines, it opened the government to charges of hypocrisy. Yet in attempting to convince the public of its responsibility to the Armenians, first Roosevelt and then Wilson extended the parameters of debate on the purpose of American power and the nature of the national interest. Their attempts to safeguard the Armenians encapsulated the nation’s internal conflict over its world role.

Today, the question of the United States’ moral responsibility to victims of humanitarian atrocities could again spark a debate over the nation’s global mission. It was strained relations with Turkey — a longtime NATO ally that has successfully lobbied for decades to prevent recognition of the genocide — that created an opportunity for advocates of recognition to convince congressmen that the pursuit of historical truth trumped considerations of realpolitik.

As well as recognizing the genocide, the House also stressed its relevance to “modern-day crimes against humanity.” Indeed, the passage of the House resolution was justified by its sponsors with reference to Turkey’s current human rights violations. Alongside the resolution, the House passed a bill to impose sanctions on Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. This served as a riposte to President Trump, whose announcement that U.S. troops were withdrawing from northeastern Syria provided the precursor to Turkey’s assault on the Kurds. Moreover, it was a rejoinder to the more narrowly nationalistic “America First” approach to foreign policy advocated by Trump and, before him, by Harding.

The House’s actions increased pressure on the administration. It has already faced a backlash from American Christian leaders, including formerly loyal supporters such as Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson, for sanctioning a withdrawal that has also left 50,000 Syriac-Assyrian and Armenian Christians on the Syrian-Turkish border in grave peril. Many Christians live in al-Hasska and al-Qamishli, two cities founded by survivors of the 1915 genocide.

In the early 20th century, two internationalist presidents, in their different ways, urged a reluctant Congress to adopt a more interventionist role in the region. Today it is a branch of Congress that is attempting to pressure a recalcitrant president to change course. But unless Congress succeeds in reversing the U.S. withdrawal, it is likely that forces sponsored by Turkey and Russia will fill the vacuum, just as they did in 1920. And if they do, the remnants of these ancient Christian communities risk being cleansed from their ancestral homes for good.

Charlie Laderman is a lecturer in war studies at King's College, London, and the author of "Sharing the Burden: The Armenian Question, Humanitarian Intervention and Anglo-American Visions of Global Order."