The past several weeks have seen an unprecedented Turkish public relations blitz in the United States making the case that what happened 101 years ago in Turkey was not a genocide. To judge by media reports, Americans have been baffled and angered by this campaign, but few seem sold. In fact, the details of this campaign suggest it is as much show of Turkish national strength as it is a serious effort to convince people of Turkey’s view on the subject. As such, it fits with a trend of more muscular and confrontational nationalism adopted by Ankara over the course of the last year.
Ads declaring “Truth = Peace” have appeared everywhere from the pages of The Wall Street Journal to bus stops in Houston, with giant billboards carrying the message to New York’s Times Square, downtown Washington, D.C., and an “Armenian Heritage Park” in a heavily Armenian part of Boston. These ads feature three hands, one making a peace sign and painted to resemble the Turkish flag, two others with their fingers crossed and painted in Russian and Armenian colors. The ads refer viewers to factcheckarmenia.com, a site which emerged just over a year ago with slickly produced graphics promoting Turkey’s “truth” about the “events of 1915.” To top it off, skywriters flew over New York City with the messages “Truth=Peace,” ”101 years of Geno-lie,” “Russia+Armenia,” “NATO’s Ally: Turkey,” “factcheckarmenia.com” and, in Turkish, “Ne Mutlu Turkum Diyene” which translates to “how happy is he who calls himself a Turk.”
So besides angering Armenians, and confusing the majority of New Yorkers who don’t speak Turkish, what exactly is this campaign supposed to accomplish? To date, the Turkish government’s full role in funding and directing the effort, officially sponsored by the Washington-based Turkish Institute for Progress, has not been disclosed. But whoever’s behind it, the campaign appears motivated by a pugnacious approach to symbolic politics aimed at aggressively flaunting Turkey’s position rather than winning sympathy among ordinary Americans.
Putting up an ad in the middle of an Armenian neighborhood, for example, or commissioning skywriting in Turkish certainly suggests that making a show of Turkish feeling and financial muscle has taken precedence over persuasion. Coming several weeks after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s guards roughed up protesters outside of an event at the Brookings Institution, this campaign seems to reflect a similar approach to public relations. The logic behind paying to put “Ne Mutlu Turkum Diyene” in the sky above Manhattan is not completely unrelated to the logic that for decades has led the Turkish army to write this same slogan on mountainsides above Kurdish villages. That is to say a logic in which the display of a message, and the ability to display it, becomes as important as the message itself. Increasingly, for Erdogan, that message is one of unrepentant nationalism meant to demonstrate Turkey’s determination to remain unbowed in the face of a growing list of perceived enemies, domestic and foreign.
In past years, Turkish lobbying efforts were more narrowly targeted at U.S. lawmakers in order to prevent an official U.S. government genocide declaration, either through a congressional resolution or a presidential statement. By emphasizing Turkey’s strategic importance, and the damage that Turkey’s reaction to such official acknowledgment would do to U.S.-Turkish cooperation, these efforts proved remarkably successful. President Barack Obama was only the latest in a long line of presidents to promise genocide recognition on the campaign trail, then reconsider when faced with the possible cost to U.S. interests in the Middle East. Indeed, following Obama’s refusal to use the term “genocide” on the 100th anniversary last year, there is now little reason for Turkey to fear any form of official recognition this year.
In the realm of more public diplomacy, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had initially moved away from the angry and aggressive tone that often marked previous Turkish lobbying efforts on this issue. When the AKP began trying to improve relations with Armenia, for example, it made the argument that questions of history should be left to historians and not allowed to undermine this contemporary effort at rapprochement. In 2014, President Erdogan offered a public acknowledgement of the Armenian people’s suffering, which, while far short of being an apology, much less an acknowledgement of genocide, was nonetheless unprecedented for a Turkish leader. To the extent these efforts were effective in winning Turkey sympathy in the U.S., it was precisely because they sidestepped the question of historic truth to focus on contemporary political issues where people could admire Turkey’s progress. By returning to the language of “truth,” “lies” and “fact-checks” the recent public relations campaign is shifting the debate back to question whether a genocide in fact occurred, grounds on which Turkey will encounter far less support in the United States.
Emphasizing Armenia’s relationship with Russia, meanwhile, represents a new geopolitical angle on the debate. After being widely attacked in Washington for its role in facilitating the rise of ISIS, the Turkish government has responded by trying to emphasize its role as an ally against U.S. rivals Iran and Russia—another ad which ran in The Washington Post read bluntly “Armenia Stands With Putin’s Russia.” The legitimacy of this line of argument is certainly up for debate. As for its effectiveness, it seems to have won Turkey some support in Washington, but it is unclear how it will resonate with commuters in Houston or sunbathers in Central Park.
Many Americans view modern Turkey quite positively, and most are convinced the Armenian genocide happened. Moreover, Americans are often understandably more inclined to blame contemporary Turkey for its ongoing policy of denial than for events that happened a century ago. The irony is that the current public relations campaign involves spending a lot of money to quite likely remind Americans of what they like least about Turkey. Putting up nationalist slogans over New York may feel good for some, but this ham-handed campaign could do completely unnecessary damage to Turkey’s image in the United States.