A heartbreaking tragedy is unfolding in the Caucasus. On September 27, a decades-long semi-frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan came roaring back to life. A land dispute over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven other Azerbaijani districts—which has sparked occasional clashes along the Azeri-Armenian border over the years—suddenly escalated into heavy fighting with numerous civilian casualties. Without major powers mediating the conflict, there is a high risk it will erupt into a full-blown war with the potential to draw in outside nations. Both Moscow and Washington have tried to work out a ceasefire in the fight but to no avail.
Between cutting U.S. security assistance spending to the country, as America’s large and politically influential Armenian diaspora has been pleading, and providing “more accurate media coverage of the conflict,” there’s much America could do to prevent all-out war in the region. But the U.S. election has brought foreign policy developments to a standstill.
The good news is we can probably expect the United States to address the issue once the election is decided. The bad news is until we know which candidate will occupy the Oval Office on January 20, the region is on its own.
For many Americans, that’s a tough pill to swallow. Several hundred Armenian-Americans held large demonstrations in Washington DC, and New York City, calling for the United States to recognize Azerbaijani aggression. The protesters urged the Trump administration to call on Azerbaijan to cease hostilities. Kim Kardashian, an American media influencer of Armenian descent, joined the call on Twitter.
The American-Azerbaijani community has also urged the Trump administration to act to put an end to Armenia’s occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven adjacent districts, wishing Kim Kardashian to “enjoy [her] bloody 40” with hashtags #StopArmenianAggression and #KardashianSupportsTerror.
For better or for worse, these attempts to draw the president’s attention to the cause were ineffective, and failed to elicit a response from the administration’s hands-off “America first” approach to foreign policy. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has repeatedly made clear the United States’ neutrality on the matter. Even after last week’s separate meetings with Azerbaijani and Armenian foreign ministers—which resulted in another ceasefire agreement that was broken within minutes—Pompeo held the line on neutrality.
Overwhelmed with the upcoming election and the threat of another coronavirus outbreak, Trump has little interest in spending his time maintaining peace in a foreign land. A distant war between two small countries the majority of Americans can’t even spot on a map isn’t going to affect the election, right?
Wrong. The truth is, it will, and Trump appears to be well aware of that. It’s why he’s steering clear of the entire issue. Getting involved in a foreign dispute so close to the election would be like waving a red rag in front of a bull, or in this case, a Republican leaner crowd.
But the conflict will not end before Inauguration Day, and everything could change when the election is decided. Regardless of who wins, there could be an abrupt shift in U.S. foreign policy regarding this conflict.
Even now, a growing number of Democrats in Congress are calling on the Trump administration to stop providing security assistance and arms to Azerbaijan and Turkey. Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, mentioned in a resolution that this security aid only moves the region further and further away from peace. If Joe Biden wins the election, it’s plausible he’d move in that direction.
And if Trump secures his spot in the office, he’ll no longer need to be so cautious. As the conflict worsens, drawing in major regional players, even non-interventionist Republicans will have to respond in some form.
Here’s why: Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan paves the road to a renewed genocidal policy toward Armenians. An Azeri strike on Armenia proper would trigger the Collective Security Treaty Organization, forcing Russia to fight on the Armenian side. As time passes, the possibility of an open confrontation between Turkey, Russia, and Iran grows exponentially. It is highly unlikely the United States will be able to sit out a regional war involving Russia and Turkey, a member of NATO.
Trump or Biden—whoever wins will have to re-examine America’s relationship with Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Armenia. It’s getting harder by the day to sit on two chairs at the same time.
Anastasiia Rusanova is a Communications Associate at the International Center for Law & Economics. Prior to ICLE, Anastasiia worked at the Cato Institute as an intern in the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, and as a research assistant at the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.