44-Day War and Gradual Decline of “America First” Diplomacy

  • by

The U.S. Embassy in Armenia urges “U.S. citizens to maintain vigilance and exercise caution due to heightened tensions along portions of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border…and to avoid travel near the line of contact and the border.”

The statement came two days before fighting broke out in Artsakh on 27 September. Such statements are usually issued when there is an extreme tension on the border, mass shootings or casualties. Therefore, the statement left space to posit that the US may have inferred from the movement of troops or other information that there is a high risk of coming hostilities.

Fair to mention that for almost a quarter of a century, the United States had invested a great deal in peace and stability of the South Caucasus region, promoted good governance in countries of the region, supported their integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions. The sizeable Armenian diaspora in the US, regional energy projects and the expanding political ties with Georgia have been pushing the U.S. to have an active engagement in this region.

Since 1997, Washington has been involved in the process of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement as a Minsk Group Co-Chair, along with France and Russia. In 2001, during more assertive times, the U.S. invited the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to Key West, Florida, for a major U.S.-mediated meeting that seemed to offer a solution to the conflict. Nevertheless, the talks failed to generate an agreement. 

The resumption of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict came to prove that the United States has important but not vital interests in the South Caucasus”. The lack of engagement was also part of a Trump-style “America first” diplomacy which posits that the United States’ interests are best served by a stance of isolation that keeps it from playing a role in regional confrontations beyond its shores. The Trump administration took a step back on a number of international issues, compared to previous administrations, particularly regarding the issues under the Russian sphere of influence. America’s lack of interest in Nagorno-Karabakh was first manifested in August 2017 when the US appointed its new representativeto the Minsk Group, Andrew Schofer, but did not grant him the status of ambassador, putting him at a lower rank than his French and Russian counterparts.

From little personal to growing diplomatic involvement

After violence broke out on 27 September 2020, Washington was the last major international actor to issue a statement. The coming presidential elections, the resurgence of the coronavirus, and President Trump’s own COVID-19 infection have sucked Americans’ attention away from anything else in the world. Unlike the leaders of the two other co-chairing countries, Trump has not got personally involved in the conflict. The only telephone conversation has been between Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and President Trump’s National Security Adviser, Robert O’Brien, which took place on the 5th day of the war. In an interview with the New York Times, PM Pashinyan said that O’Brien promised to set up a phone conversation between the Armenian leader and President Trump. However, it was put off when the American leader came down with COVID-19. Moreover, when Trump was asked about the conflict during the press briefing, it seemed that he had only a dim notion of the Caucasus, “We’re looking at it very strongly… We have a lot of good relationships in that area. We’ll see if we can stop it.” 

Initially, there has been a little high-level diplomatic engagement from Washington. However, along with growing tensions on the border, strong condemnation from Armenian-American community, and active involvement of third parties, the US response became more assertive. In majority of its statements, the US called the parties to seize the hostilities and condemned the interference of outside actors calling them to stay out. 

On September 27, Department of State’s spokesperson Morgan Ortagus in her press statement said: “The United States believes participation in the escalating violence by external parties would be deeply unhelpful and only exacerbate regional tensions…” Likewise, the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an interview with Fox News urged to discourage the internationalization of the conflict and claimed that  “outsiders ought to stay out” as “ having third parties – other nations – join in that only exacerbates the problem.” Later on, on October 15, talking about Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Pompeo mentioned: “We now have the Turks, who have stepped in and provided resources to Azerbaijan, increasing the risk, increasing the firepower that’s taking place in this historic fight over this place called Nagorno-Karabakh… We’re hopeful that the Armenians will be able to defend against what the Azerbaijanis are doing, and that they will all, before that takes place, get the ceasefire right…”

Early to this, on October 1, Congressional lawmakers introduced a bipartisan resolution  (H.Res. 1165) condemning Azerbaijan for an outbreak of violence against Nagorno-Karabakh, and calling out Turkey for interfering in the conflict. The resolution was introduced by bipartisan members of the Congressional Armenian Caucus, including Reps. Jackie SpeierAdam Schiff, Frank Pallone, Gus Bilirakis and 32 other members.

In Pompeo’s absence, the U.S. role has been designated to lesser figures like National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, who have been talking to Armenian and Azerbaijani officials as the conflict has continued. Following his meetings in Washington with the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan on October 23, the National Security Adviser stated that he rules out a military solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and that the “U.S. will continue its strongest diplomatic efforts at all levels until the conflict is resolved”. O’Brien underlined that during the conversation, he “pressed for an immediate ceasefire then a return to Minsk Group-facilitated negotiations” and a “rejection of outside actors further destabilizing the situation.” 

National Security Adviser further suggested deploying Scandinavian peacekeepers in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. According to him, any armed peacekeeping force in the conflict zone must not include representatives of the co-chairing countries of the Minsk Group and neighboring countries. “Any sort of Turkish mediation or peacekeeping role is a non-starter for the United States, as well as for Armenia..,”, he said during his meeting with Armenian community representatives in LA. However, the idea got no much support and was largely perceived as unrealistic. In response to a question on whether the Russian side is aware of this idea, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko told journalists that “the Americans ought to be asked where they got these proposals and ideas from. All the essential parameters of potential mechanisms should be coordinated in consultations with the conflicting parties.” In its turn, the then advisor to the Armenian PM, Vagharshak Harutyunyan noted, “The key issue is the size and composition of the peacekeeping forces, as the interests of different states are being implemented through those peacekeeping forces.” He also reminded that Azerbaijan rejected the idea of deploying Russian peacekeepers in 1994 when Armenia was in favor of the plan, and said the story is repeating.

US engagement on an institutional level

The US presence was much stronger on an institutional level, as a Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, which probably remains the only area of the US–Russia cooperation, in spite of existing controversies.

The first joint statement was released on the first day of war, in which the Co-Chairs appealed “to the sides to cease hostilities immediately and to resume negotiations to find a sustainable resolution of the conflict.” Two days later on 29th of September a special meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council was held in Vienna, where the representatives of the Co-Chair countries reiterated the same statement. 

On October 1, the leaders of the three countries, representing the Co-Chair countries of the OSCE Minsk Group released a joint statement, where they called on to resume “substantive negotiations, in good faith and without preconditions.” On October 2, in addition to their previous statements, the Co-Chairs called “urgently for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire to enable the repatriation of remains of fallen servicemen in coordination with the OSCE and ICRC.” 

From the perspective of comprehensive settlement of the conflict, of particular importance is November 5 joint statement in which Ambassador James S. Gilmore III, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the OSCE highlighted that “only an agreement between the parties based on the Helsinki Final Act principles of non-use or threat of force, territorial sovereignty, and self-determination will end the conflict.” These three principles are on the core of the latest document (“Madrid Principles”) on the comprehensive settlement of the conflict.

On November 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin, RA Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev issued a joint statement on the cessation of hostilities of September 27. On the same day, Armenia’s Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan held phone conversations with Foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov, Foreign Minister of France Jean-Yves Le Drian and the US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun. Mnatsakanyan underlinedthat the above-mentioned statement is aimed at the establishment of a ceasefire and the deployment of peacekeepers in Artsakh; it cannot be considered a comprehensive settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Foreign Minister emphasized the status of Artsakh and ensuring the comprehensive security of the population of Artsakh as a priority.

The effect of pre-election campaign on the US stance

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh overlapped with the US pre-election campaign. In the light of Trump’s initial silence, his challenger, democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, has been manifesting himself as a strong-on-Karabakh candidate. Two days after fighting erupted, Biden issued a statement, saying Trump should call the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to insist on a ceasefire and condemn Turkey’s interference. He also called on the administration to enforce Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act that bans direct aid to Azerbaijan, including military aid. 

Later on, after the collapse of the October 10 ceasefire, again referring to Trump’s passive stance, Biden noted that “The Trump Administration must tell Azerbaijan that it will not tolerate its efforts to impose a military solution to this conflict. It must make clear to Armenia that regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be occupied indefinitely… Turkey’s provision of arms to Azerbaijan and bellicose rhetoric encouraging a military solution are irresponsible. A diplomatic resolution will not be easy to achieve, but the Trump Administration has an obligation to try…” Biden went on stressing that “…neither President Trump nor Secretary of State Pompeo has placed a single phone call to the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, even as the region goes up in flames. Rather than delegating the diplomacy to Moscow, the administration must get more involved, at the highest levels…”

Many Armenian-Americans expressed outrage over a lack of action by Trump’s administration. But while Armenian-Americans have political influence in certain parts of the country, they are concentrated in areas that are guaranteed Democratic wins in national elections, like California, Massachusetts, and New York. That gave national candidates little reason to pander.

Still, in a discourse level, the Armenian-American’s discontent somehow shifted Trump’s passive stance to a more assertive one. This was manifested during a pre-election campaign in New Hampshire, October 25 rally, where he promised to easily solve Nagorno-Karabakh conflict ”So now we have Armenia. Look at Armenia, they are incredible people, they are fighting like hell, and you know what we’re going to get something done because you know the Armenians have had a tough go…And the problems that they have, and death and the fighting and everything else. That’s going to be okay. I call it an easy one. Go and tell this to the people. Armenia. It’s easy to solve if you know what to do”. Following the collapse of the two previous ceasefires brokered by Russia, the US-brokered ceasefire was to take effect on October 26 after the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held separate meetings with the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Washington. “Congratulations to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who just agreed to adhere to a cease fire effective at midnight. Many lives will be saved,” U.S. President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter.

Post-election policy: gradual withdrawal from “America first” diplomacy

“The reality is that the world doesn’t organize itself. When we’re nor engaged, when we aren’t leading, then one of two things will probably happen: Either some other countries to take our place, but not in a way that advances our interests or values, or, maybe just as bad, no one does, and then you get chaos. Either way, that does not serve the American people…”.

The above assertion made by Secretary of State Antony Blinken best illustrates the initial determination of Biden’s administration to deviate from “America first” diplomacy. Biden has long been one of Washington’s most prominent foreign policy figures, and he has a history with the South Caucasus dating back to the 1970s. He was vice president under Barack Obama, and personally knows many of the leading political figures of the region. Biden was believed to forge a new policy toward the region and reorient it towards democracy and human rights. Beyond to this, for Biden the engagement in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a good opportunity to reconsider its relations with Moscow based on shared interests. 

On April 24, Biden recognized the 1915 mass killings and deportation of an estimated one million Armenians in Turkey as genocide. In a press statement issued on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, the president righted a historical wrong — failure by past US presidents to recognize the crimes perpetrated against the Armenians as a genocide — and underscored the US commitment to preventing future instances of genocide and mass atrocities. The US Congress already expressed its position in late 2019. The House of Representatives and the Senate then successively adopted, unanimously, a resolution calling to “commemorate the Armenian genocide” and to “reject attempts to associate the US government with the denial of the Armenian genocide”. The text had previously been blocked several times in the Senate by Trump’s Republican allies, including in November of that year, just after a visit by Erdogan. Thus, this sharp break with the past came to prove that the US-Turkey relations are going through a period of great turbulence.

Nevertheless, the attempt to balance US policy towards the conflicting parties was made in a month. Biden’s decision to recognize the Armenian genocide was followed by the notification to the Congress that the administration is extending a waiver allowing U.S. assistance to Azerbaijan that was originally restricted over Baku’s conflict with its neighbor Armenia and tension over Nagorno-Karabakh. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly told lawmakers that its resumption will not “undermine or hamper ongoing efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan or be used for offensive purposes against Armenia.” The decision drew condemnation from the Armenian American community as a betrayal following Biden’s historic decision to recognize last month the Armenian Genocide.

The US Ambassador to Armenia, Lynne Tracy’s latest interview on Nagorno-Karabakh’s status reaffirmed Biden’s new policy line toward the regional conflict. Interesting enough, even during the pre-election campaign the status of Nagorno-Karabakh has not been mentioned in Biden’s discourse in any way. “We don’t see the status of Nagorno-Karabakh as having been resolved. We see the need for a comprehensive settlement that requires negotiations, and that is one very important way to try to address the various tensions that we have been seeing particularly in the border areas”, the US Ambassador said during her visit to Syunik region. In her interview to Public TV of Armenia, the US Ambassador underlined that the three basic principles of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process remain relevant and applicable. The Ambassador highlighted the US belief that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has yet to be settled and that the status of Artsakh is to be clarified.

It seems that unlike its predecessor Biden attempts to strengthen America’s influence in the region. The latest announcements sent clear message from the US that the new administration is more determined to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and it remains committed to the process of conflict settlement based on “Madrid principles”, among which self-determination of peoples. On September 21, in his message to Prime Minister of Armenia on the occasion of 30th anniversary of Armenia’s Independence, Biden highlighted the importance of bilateral ties, spoke about the challenges faced by the Armenian people in the fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and underlined that the “US will work hand in hand with Armenia’s government, including through the OSCE Minsk Group and other regional formats, to promote regional stability and conflict resolution…” President Biden’s accent on other regional initiatives leaves room to think that in the future the role of the US in conflict settlement will not be limited to the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair. 

Marine Kirakosyan

Armenian Center for American Studies