Armenia is living through a crisis of national purpose born of defeat: with the catastrophic ending to the 2020 Artsakh War, its state and society have lost the sense of national accomplishment born from victory in 1994. Old certainties have been swept away; everything appears under question. The current government functions on inertia, wounded by loss, but not quite sufficiently to make way for a clear ideological alternative. Attempts by the ancien régime to fill this void with a restatement of traditional pan-Armenian nationalism appear to be faltering as well: society’s response to its efforts at mobilization has been one of continued, apparently unbreakable, apathy.
And yet, a realist(ic) alternative to both ideological vacuity and rigid dogma is needed now more than ever. Twenty-first century Armenia requires a worldview commensurate with its new-found statehood; instead, it remains stuck in this binary choice between populist nihilism, and a nationalist romanticism, hobbled in its ability to redefine its political culture into one embracing a realpolitik founded on a hard-nosed definition of “reasons of state”.
Armenians like to think of themselves as an ancient people; but they often forget that, in their modern political guise, they remain a young nation. The dream of Armenian statehood was, after all, born under conditions of statelessness, and shaped by genocidal trauma, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Armenian identity was a product of both longing and pain: longing for emancipation, and pain at loss, massacre and attempted extermination at the hands of the empire.
Longing and grievance produced a particular political culture: one founded on utopias situated at the end of never-ending struggles. Its vocabulary was one of “justice” and “perseverance”, not “power” and “interest”; its idols were, and still are, the freedom fighter and the rebel, not so much the statesman or diplomat.
This is the nationalism that re-emerged in an independent Armenia during the 1990s, and rejected any attempts—notably by Levon Ter-Petrosyan—to forge a viable alternative. It still—implicitly or explicitly—aims to bind all Armenians around the world to never-ending moral quests, and often subordinates their statehood to them: it reduces much of geopolitics to a simple matter of commitment to one’s demands – pahanjatirutyun.
The dangers presented by such thinking to Armenia’s precarious statehood are real. Sound policies emerge from a constantly renegotiated marriage between power on the one hand, and interest on the other, from a delicate balance between prudence when conditions command it, and assertiveness when circumstances allow for it. The survival and well-being of the state and its society must always remain the superlative goal; beyond it, everything becomes negotiable – a matter of matching means to ends, with both sides of the equation subject to change.
By contrast, this nationalism of statelessness, having emerged under conditions when there was little to lose, and everything to gain, often does not limit itself with worldly considerations. It often reduces geopolitics to a quest for rights and justice denied, attainable if only one stays the course and perseveres. Anything can happen when one does precisely that: Artsakh’s independence can be recognized if we insist long enough; Shushi can be retaken; Armenia “free, independent, united” can perhaps even be regained at the end of an eternal struggle.
The same nationalism of statelessness then contradicts itself by looking to others for salvation in the absence of habitual statehood. The Russians, French, Americans will give us our right: justice will be delivered, but by others, if only we convince them of the justness of our cause. Armenians’ agency is simultaneously outsized, and puny, concurrently all-determining, and insignificant.
Some have offered solutions to Armenia’s predicament that come tantalizingly close to diagnosing this problem, but never make it all the way towards eradicating it. They talk of a need for a dynamic economy, for powerful armed forces, and for a reversal of demographic decline. Yet they fail to see the elephant in the room: the tensions between these laudable intermediate aims, and the continued adherence to foreign policies based on the pursuit of just, but potentially counterproductive, unattainable, exhausting grand causes.
Can Armenia achieve its full economic potential while blockades weigh down its competitiveness? Can it create a powerful, preponderant military if it does not go outside its dependence on one single, declining power’s military software and hardware? Can it reverse demographic decay if it puts its people at the service of, to quote one of the opposition’s favorite slogans, “struggle, struggle till the end”? People will nod “yes” when asked; but, if the record of the past thirty years suggests anything, it is that many will end up voting with their feet, preferring to observe such struggles from afar.
Realist thinkers from Machiavelli to Morgenthau have made the point that the main—if not the only—form of morality in international affairs should be the survival, and prosperity, of one’s state; others, including Aron and Niebuhr, have lamented the tendency of some states to go on moral crusades. As these thinkers also point out, such moral crusades can be very costly, for everyone involved. Great Powers usually survive them by gist of their girth, although “imperial overstretch” has been known to put an end to them at times. Small, powerless states do not have the luxury of trying, and failing: their dogged adherence to justice without consideration for realties on the ground may endanger their very statehood, not least by limiting a pragmatic politics whose main cause should be the survival, and thriving of that state and its citizens.
These pragmatic policies, this realpolitik is what Armenia needs today, more than ever. Its foreign and security policies should dryly, calculatingly, almost cynically consider the interests of the state as the ultimate goal: the main question, at every turn, should be whether or not an act helps the Republic of Armenia as it exists today; moral “causes” rich in promise, but poor in probability should be strictly subject to that constraint.
What this will require, in coming months and years, will be the systematic separation of the possible from the desirable in the conduct of foreign policy. And this will, inevitably, put questions on the table which very few political actors dare to ask, and much less answer, today. It is not sufficient to state that things ought to be done, even when there is little doubt from a moral or even legal standpoint. You can have all the justice and morality of the world on your side, if you will; to outsiders—who, ultimately, have to be convinced to press your case—it will matter relatively little. The crucial questions, and the only ones that will eventually matter in the conduct of international politics, will revolve around whether either Armenia’s, or larger states’ power and interest may align with that right to bring about a given goal through the pressing or coaxing of unwilling—and as yet much more powerful—adversaries like Azerbaijan and Turkey.
The answer by many appears to be that anything is possible if one resists and waits enough; but the expectation that what had been tried, to disastrous effect, over 22 years, would lead to success tomorrow is, very much, a shot in the dark. Beyond the mistakes made after 2018, the defeat in Artsakh can conceivably be traced back to the moment, in 1998, when subsequent governments started pursuing a strategy based on the idea that, in the long run, we are all dead. Armenia didn’t die, but, relative to its principal opponent—which did have a long-term strategy based on the hard facts of power—it certainly ended up weak. Hardly an argument for repeating the same approach in coming years, from a much less advantageous starting position.
Over thirty years, there has been a constant refrain on the righteousness of Armenia’s national aims; and precious little about the means towards those ends, and the feasibility of those chosen goals. Unless the questions above can be answered, not through platitudes and machismo, but through clearly laid-out roadmaps and strategies, based on an awareness of one’s own, and others’ power and interest, these statements of intent will remain worthless. They will merely subject Armenia and Artsakh to more of the same; and this is a luxury its populations can no longer afford.
Tigran Yegavian’s critical review of Gerard Libaridian’s latest book “Armenia-Turkey: Statehood, History, Politics”, and what it means in Armenian political thinking.Read more