Illustration by Armine Shahbazyan.
Armenia, for the last 30 years, has struggled to enhance and strengthen its relationship with the United States. Successive Armenian governments, including the current one, have failed to convince Washington that Armenia should be prioritized within the framework of America’s strategic interests. The Armenian-American lobby, regardless of its bona fide efforts in Washington, but due to strategic limitations, has been out-maneuvered and out-strategized by Azerbaijani interests. Meanwhile, Armenia’s diplomatic initiatives in Washington, collectively speaking, have been a mosaic of underperformance. Considering the general assumption that Armenian society holds a generally positive view of America, and considering the same assumption that denotes America’s reciprocal respect for Armenia’s resilience and democratic growth, how can we understand the state of stagnation and stasis in U.S.-Armenia relations?
The answer is simple on the surface, yet inherently complex to articulate: the Armenian nation has failed to convince the United States that the Republic of Armenia is important to American interests. The Armenian realm has operated under the assumption that the United States “likes” Armenia, that it “cares” for Armenia, and as such, America “helping” Armenia should be taken as a given. It is this givenness that better explains why Armenia has failed to enhance and expand its relationship with the U.S. In essence, the United States has served as some form of welfare provider, with Armenia as its recipient. Unfortunately, this is neither a policy nor a strategy of advancing mutual interests.
This is why relations have not grown and why Washington does not take Armenia seriously. There is a difference between saying “We’re good people, help us,” and saying “Helping us is in your interest.” Thus, if America was to ask “What’s in it for me?”, the entire Armenian realm will struggle to answer this question. Why? Because we have been Armeno-centric when gauging relations with America, as opposed to being U.S.-centric.
To alleviate this failure in policy, as well as the general thinking of the Armenian nation when it comes to relations with the U.S., it is vital to reconceptualize the relationship through an America-centric lens. Namely, at the strategic and policy level, it needs to be explained why or how Armenia is important to American interests. Unless the discourse is reconceptualized and strategic initiatives re-aligned, the United States will continue to see Armenia for what it is: a friendly nation that keeps asking for handouts.
To address this gap in Armenia’s policy thinking, and to offer a broader strategy of rearticulating U.S.-Armenia relations through an America-centric lens, five policy areas are developed to establish the mutual advancement of interests: America’s regional strategic interests, American soft power, regionally balancing Russia, supporting democratic growth, and developing a regional democratic dyad.
America’s Strategic Regional Interests
Azerbaijan’s recent and continuous violation of Armenia’s sovereignty, and the latter’s continued presence on the internationally-recognized territorial boundaries of Armenia, pose a severe problem for American interests and how America qualifies the expansion of its interests within international law. As the reigning global hegemon, the international order remains fundamentally hinged on the role the U.S. plays in advancing and, when need be, enforcing international norms and standards. Azerbaijan’s behavior starkly contradicts this important underlying pillar that shapes U.S. posturing and American interests in the world, and more specifically in the Eurasian space. Qualified within the framework of U.S. regional and global interests, and the immense resources that the U.S. applies in expanding and enforcing international norms and regulations, the preservation and securing of Armenia’s sovereignty, and the security of Armenia’s borders, are of fundamental importance to America’s interests. U.S. policy in the South Caucasus is defined by three main pillars: regional stability, expansion of democracy and long-term peace. These three pillars are specifically designed to be commensurate with both America’s interests as well as its broader international obligations. Contextualizing within this framework, and framing it within America’s broader grand strategy on the global scale, the sovereignty of states like Armenia, their strategic relevance to U.S. interests, their role in reinforcing international norms and regulations, and the detrimental effects and outcomes should the sovereignty of such countries be violated contradict and harm U.S. interests.
Collectively, the sovereignty and security of the Republic of Armenia, as an extension of U.S. regional values and global interests, remains inherently crucial to the U.S. More specifically, stability in the South Caucasus is of important strategic relevance to the U.S. As long as Armenia’s sovereignty is violated, or attempts are made to negate it, this produces the opposite outcomes to what America considers vital to its goals. It is also in America’s strategic interests for a stable Caucasus to serve as an important transport and commercial hub, for economic growth contributes to regional stability, while simultaneously opening up markets for American commercial interests. Namely, the modernization of the economic and political sectors of developing societies, especially in the post-Soviet space, are an important part of America’s vision for the region. Regional development, connectivity, stability, peace and economic modernization are all hinged on the preservation and security of the sovereignty of the states within the region. In this context, Armenia’s sovereignty, and the threats posed against it, are harmful and in contradiction to America’s regional and global interests.
America’s Soft Power
America’s interests in the South Caucasus, and America’s relationship with Armenia, can no longer be defined through the U.S./Russia dichotomy. In the conflicting and competing interests that define U.S.-Russia relations, Armenia must be separated from this Great Power framework and be qualified as an area of separate and specific interest to the United States. The U.S. exercises immense soft power in Armenia, and has organic support and admiration from the Armenian population. Armenia’s intrinsic pro-American culture and overall value system makes Armenia a ripe country through which American interests can be advanced, enhanced and proliferated. In this context, a sovereign, developed and prospering Armenia can serve as a vital hub in the region that not only serves specific American interests, but also a springboard to strengthen America’s regional goals.
In the South Caucasus, and in the Eurasian space in general, the U.S. does not have organic allies; it only has subsidized allies or partners. Azerbaijan’s relationship, for example, is purely transactional, and the values and interests of both countries are diametrically opposed. Only due to specific transactional variables is a working partnership maintained. Similarly, U.S. relations with Ukraine, and much of Central Asia, is defined by the U.S. subsidizing, providing material support or offering direct assistance as the cornerstone of maintaining such relationships. Collectively speaking, these relationships are not organic or based on real shared values; they are based on these countries benefiting off of America’s resources. This is precisely the opposite when it comes to U.S.-Armenia relations. Considering the inherent pro-Americanness of Armenian society, the immense soft power that America enjoys, the shared values that both countries have, and the organic support that Armenian society has for all things American, Armenia may be treated as a separate and specific area of interest for the United States.
U.S. Regional Interests and Balancing Russia
Important components of America’s regional grand strategy include both the containment of Russia, as well as developing areas of cooperation with Russia in order to establish stability and regional functionality. The security of Eastern Europe is extremely important to vital U.S. interests. America’s ability to counter, contain and work with Russia requires a multi-tiered balancing act. America’s competition with Russia, in this context, is not defined by threat of war or brinksmanship, but rather through nuanced geopolitical posturing. Within this broader reconfiguration, Armenia’s continued existence as an independent, sovereign state is of vital interest to the United States, as Armenia serves as both a hub for advancing American values in the region, as well as a sovereign actor that can serve as a platform for regional cooperation.
More specifically, it is in America’s interest that a strong, viable and independent Armenia be positioned in the South Caucasus that can serve as a balancing force in the region, as opposed to a weakened, dependent state whose loss of sovereignty will result in Russia’s absorption of Armenia. In this context, the weaker Armenia’s sovereignty becomes, and the less Armenia flourishes as an independent state, the stronger and more expansive Russia becomes in the region. This, by definition, contradicts America’s interests, for a stronger and expansive Russia negates America’s capacity to balance, contain and cooperate with Russia. The removal of an independent actor from the regional configuration structure weakens American geopolitical posturing and strengthens Russian geopolitical posturing. The nonsensical narrative that Armenia is a satellite of Russia is inherently misleading, as the Velvet Revolution and Armenia’s proliferation of democratic values demonstrates. Further, Armenia’s inherent pro-Americanness, and its America-centric democratic values, will be negated should Armenia’s sovereignty be further eroded. In this framework, a strong and independent Armenia actually curtails and limits Russia’s influence and dominance in Eurasia, as opposed to a weakened Armenia whose sovereignty has been dilapidated. The erosion of Armenia’s sovereignty, the weakening of the Armenian state, and by extension the weakening of a democratic Armenia will not only advance Russian interests, but critically harm American regional interests. To this end, it is in the vital national interests of the U.S. to support, promote and help secure Armenia’s development, growth and sovereignty.
U.S. Strategic Interests in Supporting Democratic Growth
The Biden Administration has prioritized the strengthening of democratic values abroad, putting forth a value-driven foreign policy. Recognizing that democracy is under siege both at home and abroad, President Biden has elevated democratic values to a strategic priority for the U.S. Cognizant of democratic decline globally, Washington recognizes such developments as being detrimental to American interests. The appeal and pull of liberal democracy as a political system has eroded significantly. The strengthening of liberal democracies in the world, in this context, has become an important cornerstone of enhancing and growing America’s global interests.
Against this backdrop, Armenia’s democratic breakthrough in 2018 and its persistent democratization, despite heightened regional insecurity, is an important development that aligns with U.S. interests in Eurasia. More specifically, it is a model for the West in managing and supporting democratic breakthroughs in otherwise authoritarian and inhospitable environments. The Armenian model of undertaking a democratic breakthrough in an authoritarian orbit, and one that was done under Russia’s sphere of influence, is a development that bolsters U.S. interests, yet one that has not required U.S. resources. In this context, it is in the vital interests of the U.S. to support Armenia’s democratic growth, which is inherently tied to its sovereignty and security. Further, Washington’s robust and rigorous support for Armenia’s democratization can also influence the proliferation of America-centric values in the Eurasian continent. Supporting pro-democratic processes and movements, rather than anti-Russian elites and political actors, is essential for U.S. foreign policy moving forward. An important part of this assessment are the long-term trajectories of U.S. interests in Eurasia: whereas dictatorships and authoritarian regimes are unstable, unreliable and require resources from partner states, democracies remain stable, reliable and engage in mutual advancement of interests. In this context, by supporting Armenia, the U.S. is in fact investing in advancing U.S. regional interests for the long-term. A strong and democratic Armenia, and one that is within Russia’s orbit, will serve as an important regional hub in promoting American values.
Developing a Regional Democratic Dyad
Building democracy in authoritarian neighborhoods holds strategic promise for the U.S. Democratic breakthroughs in authoritarian regions create the conditions for democratic spillovers regionally, a finding supported by substantial social science research. Instead of attempting to contain Russia from the top of the shifting global security order, supporting democratic breakthroughs from the bottom-up, and doing so with regionally-devised policies, is strategically significant for the U.S. An important example of this, aside from Armenia, is Georgia. Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, and subsequent developments that gave way to much U.S. investment in Georgia’s democracy, have been crucial to advancing American interests in the region. However, the Georgian model remains limited and the extent to which U.S. interests in the region could be advanced have not been sufficiently met. The Velvet Revolution of 2018 in Armenia changed this dynamic, for it created a democratic dyad in the South Caucasus. In this context, by supporting and growing Armenia’s democracy, the U.S. will also be supporting the region’s democratic dyad, further strengthening Georgia’s democratization. Whereas Georgia found itself a lonely democracy in a neighborhood of non-democracies, the post-2018 developments have immensely changed the dynamics. A U.S.-supported democratic dyad led by Georgia and Armenia could enhance the spillover effect of democratization, while further growing and enhancing American regional interests. Instead of viewing Georgia’s democratization separately from that of Armenia’s, it is in America’s strategic interest to view the democratization of the two states in a dyadic fashion, where the enhancement of one can contribute to and support the enhancement of the other. U.S. regional interests, in this context, will not only be advanced separately by Georgia and Armenia, but rather, by strengthening the dyad, the advancement of U.S. interests may be done in a coordinated and regionally-devised strategy. Just as importantly, the immense U.S. investments in Georgia’s democracy have undergone many challenges in the last five years, and there are concerns of democratic backsliding. However, if the dyad is strengthened, cross-national support between the civic societies, democracy promotion groups and grassroots movements may develop safeguards in not only stopping democratic backsliding, but also providing cross-national support in democracy promotion. Support for Armenia’s growth and development, in this context, may be qualified as support for the growth and development of a regional democratic dyad, where the U.S. supports the strengthening of both Armenia and Georgia. This mutual adjustment and advancement of dyadic interests can be profoundly important to U.S. regional objectives.
These five policy areas and strategic initiatives are merely a start, but they provide a framework through which U.S.-Armenia interests may be enhanced by alleviating the problem of Armenian “beggary” and American “charitableness.” The strategic limitations of the last 30 years are no longer tenable, and there is an acute need for innovation, creativity and sophistication in creating a new chapter in U.S.-Armenia relations. The ball, unequivocally, is in Armenia’s court, and it must act vociferously, or suffer the continuity of stagnation and stasis. Azerbaijan has been quite successful in implementing the former, while the Armenian nation has been asleep on the pillow of its givenness.
The author would like to acknowledge the contributions of Arman Grigoryan (Lehigh University) and Anna Ohanyan (Stonehill College) for sharing their ideas, which have been incorporated into sections of this article.