The French poet Charles Baudelaire famously remarked, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” In a similar manner, the current policy of verbal appeasement that refuses to recognize the historical reality of the Armenian genocide maintains a time-worn fiction and denies the reality of the victims’ suffering. As the world community commemorates the Armenian genocide on April 24 more than a century after it began, the Biden administration, following the lead of congressional representatives from the House and the Senate, must now demonstrate the moral courage to call these crimes by their rightful name.
Regaining the high ground of moral authority represents an uphill battle for President Joe Biden and for U.S. diplomacy. Taking the lead on this issue and delivering a clear statement calling the Armenian genocide exactly what it is for the sake of the Armenian people and for history would represent a step in the right direction — and it could create new momentum for positive change.
One of the most profound effects of the Trump administration involved the massive erosion of U.S. moral authority in the field of global affairs. The administration’s myopic focus on parochial U.S. interests at the expense of global cooperation was highlighted by the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, the denigration of individual European leaders and the NATO alliance, and the description of developing nations as s—hole countries. This loss of U.S. moral authority is neither merely symbolic nor temporary, but involves real consequences for U.S. hard and soft power and reversing the decay of U.S. moral authority requires decisive action on the part of the Biden administration.
Biden is faced with a daunting challenge in reestablishing the moral authority of U.S. foreign policy. It requires the courage to reexamine past positions and the wisdom to chart a new course based on universal values. Ending the policy of verbal appeasement with regard to the Ottoman Empire’s role in the genocide of an estimated 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children between 1915 and 1923 offers one opportunity to signal a reset in U.S. foreign policy in which issues of moral authority outweigh realist concerns of economic, political and military accommodation.
The ongoing crises associated with Syria and Iraq provide a decisive moment for reversing the past course leading into the oblivion of historical denial and for ending the timeworn policy of verbal appeasement with regard to Turkey. Historians argue that the past is prologue, and perhaps this is nowhere more apparent than in the Middle East today.
Ironically, it was the current president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who illustrated this point in his address to the United Nations in September 2018 by warning of the impending annihilation of a whole civilization in Syria and the “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. Erdoğan’s use of the terms annihilation and ethnic cleansing were reminiscent of the words of Henry Morgenthau Sr., the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, a century earlier who described the Ottoman campaign against the Armenians as a “campaign of race extermination.”
Samantha Power, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, aptly described genocide as a “problem from hell.” Dealing with the causes, events and after-effects of genocide is without doubt a predicament of infernal dimensions. But the open and candid identification of genocide does not require the valor of angels, but rather the strength of conviction in doing the right thing.
As a historian, I recognize the importance of not repeating the mistakes of the past and the U.S. engagement with Rwanda offers a clear lesson about the peril of ignoring moral imperatives for the sake of political expediency. Former President Bill Clinton revealed the danger of the latter in his apology to the people of Rwanda during a visit in 1998 four years after the genocide there. Clinton admitted that the U.S. and world community “did not act quickly enough after the killing began.” He also reflected, “We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide.”
Charting a new course requires a simple statement from a president who has repeatedly emphasized the need for the U.S. to live up to its founding ideals. Not only would such a pronouncement signal the end of a deafening silence for millions of Armenians worldwide, but it would demonstrate the new president’s commitment to rebuilding the shattered remains of U.S. moral authority in a world in continued need of such a voice as demonstrated by events in Syria, Iraq and Myanmar.