Can the Joe Biden Administration ‘Flip’ Armenia?

In the annals of Cold War diplomacy, one of America’s great success stories was flipping Egypt. 

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President Dwight Eisenhower first courted Egypt for realist reasons. It was the most populous and powerful Arab country and the epicenter of Arab politics. This is why Eisenhower sided with Egypt against France, the United Kingdom, and Israel during the 1956 Suez Crisis. 

Eisenhower’s initiative did not work. Not only did his olive branch fail to win Arab loyalty, but Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser pushed Egypt increasingly into the Soviet camp. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev awarded Nasser the Soviet Union’s highest honor, the star of the Hero of the Soviet Union with the Order of Lenin. In 1971, Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, signed a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union. 

Diplomatic Success in Egypt and Beyond

Rather than write off Egypt, the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations sought to peel it away from Moscow and flip it back to the Western orbit. Much of the hagiography Henry Kissinger built around himself is undeserved; this is an exception. Kissinger and later Carter succeeded. By doing so, they also enabled the first and most important Arab-Israeli peace treaty. 

Had a Soviet proxy continued to control the Suez Canal, or stayed on its war footing against the Jewish state, the last half-century of American strategy would have been far different. Everything from the U.S. response to the Iran-Iraq War or Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, to the response to 9/11 and the broader war on terrorism, would have changed if the Pentagon had to consider how to avoid or bypass Egypt. The Suez Canal might be an international waterway in which all may pass, but Egyptians still take the helm of ships and are able to cause delays. Egyptian canal authorities, for example, repeatedly send Iranian ships to the back of the queue, sometimes for months on end.  

Nor was Egypt alone. Until recently, Cyprus leaned more toward Russia geopolitically. The country was a hub of Russian money laundering and a frequent port call for Russian ships. It voted with the United States at the United Nations less than half the time. Today, the Cypriot government works closely and successfully with the United States to clean up its finances, and the country has closed its ports to Russian vessels. Russian money today instead flows through Istanbul, Baku, Dubai, and London. Had Secretary of State Mike Pompeo simply dismissed Cypriot outreach due to the disputes of the past, rather than crafted a roadmap to move forward, not only would the United States lack a strong partner in a region in which it desperately needs allies, but Washington would be in far worse strategic position.

The same is true with India. President Harry Truman courted India at its independence, but Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru turned him down. India would be non-aligned, Nehru said, although in practice this meant it would tilt toward the Soviet bloc. Not only did this push the United States into a bad marriage with Pakistan, it also created a self-fulfilling cycle of suspicion. Only with the George W. Bush administration did the United States and India undertake a reorientation of ties that have brought the world’s two largest democracies closer.

That Washington and New Delhi today have become trade and strategic partners was not inevitable, but rather the result of decades of hard work among a bipartisan array of American officials and an equal number of Indians. It would have been strategic malpractice had Bush or Presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden simply turned their backs on India because of its relationship with Moscow.

Don’t Let the Opportunity Go to Waste

It is frustrating, then, that so many analysts in Washington have for so long counseled a rebuff of Armenia because of its past ties to Russia. In 1920, the United States turned down a League of Nations proposal to offer the United States trusteeship over Armenia. Had a shortsighted Senate not turned that down, the history of both Armenia and the Cold War might have been far different. 

The Armenians suffered under Soviet domination. A blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey forced Armenia’s continued reliance on Russia as a practical matter following the Soviet Union’s collapse. When Armenia seemed ready to pivot away from Russia in 1999, gunmen seized the Armenian parliament and killed the prime minister, parliamentary speaker, and several other prominent politicians. To this day, Armenians see a Kremlin hand behind events, as those most enthusiastic about a turn toward the West died in the hail of gunfire.

Armenians lean toward the West. While they share some religious and cultural similarities with Russians, Western democracy is far more compelling to the Armenian population than is Vladimir Putin’s autocracy. 

Likewise, Armenians seek partnership, something they find in their dealings with France and the United States. Russia, on the other hand, seeks peons rather than partners. Russian cynicism during and after the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, and its failure to uphold its agreements, have driven a further wedge between Yerevan and Moscow.

Armenia’s heart has always been with the West. Now its brain is, too. Azerbaijan and Turkey, meanwhile, drift increasingly away from the West as their leaders seek profit from Putin. 

Recent U.S. military exercises in Armenia should not surprise. While Azerbaijan has sought to buy volume with think tank voices and Twitter trolls, American policymakers increasingly see through the static. 

Flipping Armenia should be as strategically significant for Washington as was turning Egypt, Cyprus, and India. The danger now is a lack of sustained focus in American policy circles. Within the State Department, it is too easy to believe that there must always be a compromise between good and evil. But moral clarity is paramount, and American interests should always rest with the former while they oppose the latter. 

Armenia is flipping. In 1920, 1999, and 2020, Washington was asleep at the switch. It must not make the same mistake four times.

About the Author

Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

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