Tired of being the “nice guy” with little results

First let me apologize for the gender slant in this week’s column. It is not intended to limit the scope of the article, but I am still searching for a substitute phrase. I am not sure about all of you, but I am tired of proclamations, Armenian “days” and empty statements of support from politicians in the diaspora. After each successive tragedy, two things consistently occur: we receive a plethora of empathetic statements, all of which are as useful as Confederate currency, and we prepare for yet another anniversary remembrance for our losses. This process went on for decades relative to Western Armenia and Cilicia after the Genocide. After the failed Treaty of Sevres, we mourned what should have been with the Wilsonian Grant. After the disastrous and humiliating Treaty of Kars, we began the remembrance slogans for Kars, Ardahan and Javakhli. After Stalin’s vengeful “awards,” the Nakhichevan and Artsakh dilemma began. With hardly a whimper from the outside world, 400,000 Armenians were banished from their homes in Azerbaijan from 1989-91, with the survivors forced into a new reality. There seemed to be more empathy in the media concerning Azeris displaced during the first Artsakh War. The spirit and sacrifice of our heroic brethren in Artsakh from 1988-2023 changed the paradigm, but it has reverted back to mourning and remembrance. 

These losses feed our victim mentality. We feel sorry for ourselves and incorrectly assume that the world, specifically the free world, owes us something. The sooner we internalize the notion that no one owes us anything, the quicker we will move into survival and revival mode (to borrow a phrase from Dr. Noubar Afeyan). Even as we build alliances with other nations such as France, India and perhaps others, they will support us only to the extent that it serves their interests. Politics, particularly geopolitics, is the coldest example of duplicity and selfishness. We need to develop a harder edge with less emotion in our arguments.

In the diaspora, there are three dimensions to the use of our resources: sustaining the diaspora, advocating to our host countries to support Armenian rights and investing in the homeland. My concern with the diaspora’s approach to advocacy is that we need to develop a bit of an “edge” in our campaigns. It is a false assumption that we need to tread lightly with host countries to secure support. The United States will support Armenian rights when it serves the interests of the United States. It has little to do with the morality of the cause (a frequent argument) or how many votes we can generate. That may impact local elections in Congress, but foreign policy is made in the State Department and is not an elected position. We seem to believe that the outrageous list of atrocities should create not only empathy but also tangible support. Ask the Kurds, who suffered great losses while ridding the region on the ground of ISIS, or the Palestinians, who have been in an oppressed state for over half a century. Their respective human rights histories of unspeakable suffering have had little impact on support in their current state. Ukraine is presented as a valiant democracy fighting to preserve freedoms, because this narrative serves the larger issue of weakening Russia. We ignore the pre-war policies of the Zelenskyy government. 

It was infuriating to listen to comments like “unacceptable,” “will not tolerate” and “there will be ramifications” describing Azerbaijan’s deliberate starvation and assault on Artsakh. After the atrocities were complete, the world quickly applied its rhetoric to the next humanitarian debacle.

Armenians relish in obligatory statements from our elected officials, who may be sincere but are first and foremost politicians. It is an example of our political naivety that we collectively respond with enthusiasm and gratitude after receiving non-binding and patronizing statements of “support.” It was infuriating to listen to comments like “unacceptable,” “will not tolerate” and “there will be ramifications” describing Azerbaijan’s deliberate starvation and assault on Artsakh. After the atrocities were complete, the world quickly applied its rhetoric to the next humanitarian debacle. Our approach has been defensive and far too compliant. Most of our meetings are with friendly non-decision makers. While we commit much of our resources to whether the U.S. allocates $45 or $70 million to Armenia, there is no resulting change in policy. We celebrated U.S. “recognition” of the Armenian Genocide, which was essentially a historical footnote that exonerated the Turkish government from its denial policies. Why are we so cooperative and appreciative of such duplicity? Our government can allocate money to influence perception in the short term without altering its policy. 

The United States has a substantial relationship with corrupt Azerbaijan based on fossil fuel reliance and continues to tolerate the deadly partnership between Israel and Armenia’s enemies. All of this has nothing to do with Armenia, but rather the obsessive conflict with Iran and Israel’s influence of U.S. foreign policy. The interests of the United States regarding Armenia and Armenian rights have everything to do with weakening Russian and Iranian presence in the region. The void created by Russia’s distraction in Ukraine is an opportunity to gain a foothold in Russia’s backyard. The U.S. will also use Turkey to counter any Iranian moves, given the regional rivalry between Turkey and Iran. While U.S. moves to weaken Russia are helpful to the Armenian government, given its methodical attempts to withdraw from Russian hegemony, neutralizing Iran limits a friendly border nation. The Iranian conflict has reached new heights with the Israeli-Palestinian war and Iran’s support of groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Armenia resides in the neighborhood. It has fewer options. Despite our knowledge of the larger political forces at play that are driving western support of the homeland, our public arguments in the diaspora are still overly reliant on emotion, morality and “doing the right thing.” In this country, those themes appeal to Armenians or other like-minded people, but they do not penetrate the thick walls of the State Department and executive branch of our government. Appealing for support as a politically active Armenian minority in America has little impact. While we diligently pound the pavement and halls of Congress to “save” Armenians or support “democracy,” America collaborates with poor excuses for nations, such as rogue Azerbaijan and duplicitous NATO ally Turkey. 

Given these complex dynamics that are exerting significant influence on Armenia, the diaspora would be wise to focus less on our internal dynamics and more on why it is in the interests of the United States to support Armenia. With strong Russian influence on Armenia in the past, the timing was not right for diaspora advocacy for U.S. support. The war in Ukraine has altered those dynamics and created an opportunity. Diaspora advocacy should always be aligned with Armenia’s policies and interests. This is sometimes difficult for the diaspora to understand, as it straddles the line of criticism and advocacy. Accepting, at a minimum, a collaborative role is essential. Are we Armenian Americans when we lobby the U.S. government and American Armenians in our relationship with the homeland? The simple placement of the noun and adjective can impact behavior. I call it bi-directional hyphenating. While U.S. policy supports dictatorships and corrupt regimes, arguing on the basis of morality has little chance of success, unless it is coupled with a self-interest perspective.

Our approach must embrace that no country or alliance owes us anything as an Armenian nation and that, in turn, the reverse is true. All collaboration is about self-interest, and we know that can be a moving target. I am suggesting a colder, more focused and results-oriented approach. A significant amount of our efforts in the advocacy domain are feel-good, patronizing and no-impact activities. They comfort our damaged psyche after monumental losses. We need to be more about results and less about our comfort level. I am not suggesting the elimination of our current approach but rather a balance and blending with more pragmatism. We need to understand American foreign policy as it changes and identify the nuances that align it with Armenian interests. Each of us must understand the needs and interests of those we seek to influence if we are to succeed. At the foundation of this approach is maintaining an informed and educated grassroots. A simple and often overlooked ingredient is to be well read. With the availability of digital resources internationally, there is ample opportunity to maintain a well-informed support base. 

One of the lawn signs the author mentions as seen in Indian Orchard, Massachusetts

Many of us grew up in an era in this country when there was no independent Armenia and Armenian identity was less visible in American society. Thankfully, those problems have been solved through the sacrifices of many. We should always respect our history, but it should not prevent revisions to our thinking. This generation will scale new peaks with the benefits of Armenian identity and a democratic Armenia. If we are to remain resolute, unapologetic and assertive, then we must be aware, educated and informed. That is on each of us. This past year, a friend in Indian Orchard took it upon herself to create a quantity of lawn signs advocating for Armenia. They say simply, “Stand with Armenia…a world free of genocide.” I found meaning in these few words. The signs have no dates — no April 24 or particular year. They call for supporting Armenia unconditionally and creating a world free of atrocities, a powerful message that reflects our work every day of every year. We have no right to show up in April and go back to political activism hibernation after that. If we truly are committed to the goal, then we must be a people of substance who are willing to make adjustments that serve the mission. Stand with Armenia, and accept nothing less than success.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Columnist
Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.

6 Comments

  1. Exactly right. Armenians are often in a perpetual state of victimhood and emotional turmoil over past events. And when things get rough in the present, we revert back to old ways of thinking. This cycle needs to end. We need to come together and bring modern and intelligent solutions for the future of our nation. We need to focus on defense. We cannot rely on others, only ourselves.

  2. Dear Stepan,
    I have enjoyed reading your articles for a very very long time and God bless you. So please keep writting non-stop untill the day Armenia sees the light and becomes a secure and peaceful country!

  3. Thanks, Stepan.

    Speaking of our so-called “friends” in Congress, they have said little to nothing about:

    Israel’s being Azerbaijan’s main supplier of weapons (used against Armenians).

    Turkey’s use of American F-16s in the 2020 war against Armenians.

    Turkey & Azerbaijan’s support of ISIS/international terrorist organizations, including
    against Armenians in 2020.

    Yet, they’ll talk endlessly about Hamas as a terrorist organization.

    Shall I go on and on?

    These people are not our “friends.” They’re scaredy cats.

    They should be called out explicitly & constantly.

    And no, these are not just Armenian issues. They’re American ones.

  4. Prof. J. Mearsheimer(https://www.mearsheimer.com/) clearly explains in his many Youtube videos and books what is the realist view of the world order. There is no arbiter of moral right or wrong. There is no such thing as being a nice guy. The closest thing that the UN developed after world war 2 was the ICJ, but no one pays attention to its rulings. The ICJ ruled that Azerbaijan was at fault for blockading Karabakh but it went ahead anyway with Russian approval. The bottom line is that military, economic and intellectual ( technology) power determine the relative ranking of countries and people. Armenians should know what Mearsheimer is talking about because they have felt it on their skin, through genocide and dispossession. The answer to the Armenian dilemma is fairly clear based on the long history of exile:
    1- Organize the diaspora on regional, country and international levels- organizations must agree on a minimum set of basic principles
    2- Develop a plan to generate at least one billion dollars a year to fund projects in Armenia and diaspora( schools, sports, think tanks, lobbying)
    3- Encourage families and youth to attend Armenian schools, and for college students to spend some time in Armenia
    4- Encourage the development of intellectual and community leaders by attending top universities. The Western elites are a meritocracy and there is only room for first and maybe second. That is why only a few people like Nubar Afeyan or David Ignatius are heard in the public square to influence political discourse.
    5- There has to be a common understanding with the government and people of Armenia about the shared destiny of Armenians. This issue is now equally or more important than genocide recognition. While the Pashinyan government is being short sighted and reckless about Armenian history and identity, they are nevertheless raising an important issue. 1915 genocide was a cataclysmic explosion which scattered Armenians to the four corners of the world, and there has to be a renewed effort to bring the Armenian nation back together again. There is a symbiotic relationship between Armenia and diaspora.

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