Realism and the Armenian Genocide Resolution

Responding to Matt Yglesias‘ assertion that the Armenian genocide resolution is essentially irrelevant because “Turkey is going to formulate its policy vis-à-vis the United States of America in light of Turkey’s interests and not actually radically restructure things in the wake of a symbolic resolution,” Jim Henley notes that,

Turkey needs to figure out where the US fits into the picture of its interests, and something like the Armenian genocide resolution can play a crucial signaling role. On the view of the Turkish government, Turkish Kurdistan is part of Turkey, and Turkey is under assault from the territory of a US protectorate. The genocide resolution says, to Turkey, we care more about what your predecessor government did 90 years ago than what others do to you now. It also says, our instincts are to support your ethnic minorities in any conflict. This strikes me as information, and information that Turkish rulers would figure has to be reckoned in any account of how relations with the US affect their interests.

I think that’s right. Obviously, good relations with the United States are important to Turkey’s interests and they’re unlikely to cut off their proverbial nose to spite their face. But Turkey has multiple interests, domestic and regional, that are harmed by this resolution.

Fred Kempe, my boss at the Atlantic Council, dubs this “the most-irresponsible, self-defeating and short-sighted congressional foreign policy action of this year” and observes it “can only produce a nationalist backlash that will make it harder for those, such as Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, who have called for a more open historical accounting in a Turkey aspiring to European Union membership.”

Turkish resistance to the prevailing global view that the Ottoman government tried to exterminate its Armenian population is a testimony to the tensions inside modern Turkey. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk aggressively forged the state from the remains of the Ottoman Empire 84 years ago and forced aside ethnic, tribal and religious identity to create Turkish civil society.

The House resolution thus is an outside intervention into a painful and long-repressed family debate, a match tossed into brew made more combustible by the country’s rising religiosity and nationalism.


Those who think this vote is about setting historic facts right aren’t paying attention to the present. What we’re dealing with isn’t some rogue, failed state housing sworn enemies but Turkey, the only Muslim country in NATO, a potential European Union country and the most-important front-line state in the struggle against Islamist extremists. It is the West’s leading bridge to and democratic model for the Mideast.

It also is the country through which 90 percent of cargo passes for U.S. and allied troops in Iraq. At the very least, U.S. logistical problems will increase.

Howard LaFranchi observes in today’s CSM that the debate “illustrate[s] a recurring tug of war in US foreign policy: when to take the moral high ground and when to heed the pragmatic realities of national interests.” It would appear that those pressing for the resolution have decided to do the latter.

In this case, the overriding interest appears to be keeping on good terms with Turkey, a NATO ally that opposed the war in Iraq but that allows the United States to use bases there as part of crucial supply lines to US troops and personnel in Iraq.

Prospects for a full House statement on Armenian genocide have been feeding nationalist flames in Turkey. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already been battling heavy anti-American public opinion as it acts to address the problem of recurring attacks by Kurdish rebels from across the border in Kurdish Iraq.

For many in Turkey, including in the government, the US has not done enough in next-door Iraq and with its Kurdish allies to address the activities of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK — a group the US lists as a terrorist organization. On Wednesday, the government won a vote in the Turkish parliament authorizing the military to undertake cross-border incursions into Iraq where the PKK is based. The destabilizing potential of such military operations is as worrying to the Bush administration as Turkish threats to end use of its air bases by the US.

Indeed, this illustrate that Matt’s point about Realism works both ways:

The intense politicking on the issue further exemplifies how national interests tend to supersede all other concerns in international relations, experts say. “The United States, like any other great power, seriously considers moral issues only to the extent that those moral issues coincide with substantive interests,” says Andrew Bacevich, who teaches foreign policy at Boston University’s Center for International Relations.

Or when there’s no real cost in standing up and preaching.

Henley also notes a subtle irony in the proposed resolution: “Barely 20 years before the 1915-17 ethnic cleansing of Turkey’s Armenians, the US was still wrapping up its own comprehensive forced march of its indigenous enemies.” Nations then, as now, had interests and used whatever means necessary to pursue them.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Funny the subject of realism vs. idealism should come up since I posted on the subject this morning. They’re not mutually reinforcing, at least not as they’re presently operating. Indeed, the two contending interests are exposing us to greater risks.

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