In Mongolia, lessons for Obama from Genghis Khan


Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj, right, reviews an honor guard upon his arrival during a welcoming ceremony at Sheremetyevo airport, in Moscow, Russia, May 30, 2011. (Misha Japaridze/AP)
June 15, 2011

As the leader of a diminished land that was once an invincible superpower, President Tsakhia Elbegdorj of Mongolia has some advice for Americans fatigued by the burdens of global power: Remember Genghis Khan, and stick with your friends.

“It is tough, but Mongolia was the biggest power in the world, and we had the same responsibility,” said Elbegdorj, who is to meet with President Obama at the White House on Thursday to pitch his country as a stable, pro-American democracy deserving of more attention.

Sandwiched between a rising, authoritarian China and an often pugnacious and, in these parts, still very powerful Russia, Mongolia is the only nation in the vast expanse of territory conquered by Genghis Khan in the 13th century that holds regular elections and lets power pass peacefully between rival parties.

The United States, like Mongolia in its heyday, “has a responsibility to help those who are trying to follow in its steps,” Elbegdorj said in an interview in a felt-lined tent outside his official residence in the Mongolian capital.

Genghis Khan’s warriors killed lots of people, to be sure, but according to the president, a Soviet-trained former military journalist who helped lead Mongolia’s democratic revolution in 1990, it was done in a good cause.

“Do you think we just went to places and killed?” Elbegdorj said. “No.”

Mongolia, he said, used its muscle to keep trade along the Silk Road flowing and to enforce a written law. And “when there was a killer, or in today’s expression, a terrorist nation,” he said, “we were God’s will to make them peaceful. . . . When there was a poor nation, we helped them.”

Today, too, Elbegdorj said, “sometimes you have to pay attention to your friends.”

Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said that the Obama administration is “committed to developing a broader, deeper and more strategic relationship with Mongolia, including expanded commercial, political and cultural ties.” Thursday’s meeting in the Oval Office, he said, speaking from Washington, “is testament to that, as will be other high-level American visits and engagements in the months to come.”

Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are both due to visit Mongolia.

So far, however, only one U.S. leader has trekked to Ulaanbaatar, the world’s coldest capital city in winter: President George W. Bush stopped off for a few hours in 2005. Efforts to secure a free-trade agreement have gone nowhere, and U.S. investment in Mongolia is tiny, despite the country’s bountiful natural resources and a big push by other countries, particularly China and Canada, to join what looks set to be a minerals-driven economic boom. The World Bank in a recent report described Mongolia’s prospects for growth as “excellent.”

Mongolia has sent troops to support U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and unlike China, Russia and the former Soviet lands of Central Asia, it has a vibrant free press, allows street protests and does not routinely harass critics. Some local leaders are bullies, and the national parliament is heavily influenced by Mongolia’s version of Russian oligarchs, but Mongolia is far freer than its neighbors.

“Maybe if we caused problems, if we hid bin Laden or atom bombs, America would pay more attention,” joked Elbegdorj, sipping from a coffee mug decorated with an American flag and the words “Washington, D.C.”

Over the past 20 years, U.S. assistance to Mongolia, which has only 2.8 million people, has averaged $10 million a year. That is a substantial amount on a per-capita basis — roughly equivalent to that given Pakistan — but a drop in the ocean in a country the size of Western and Central Europe combined and one struggling to shake off the legacy of 70 years as an effective colony of the Soviet Union.

Jonathan S. Addleton, the U.S. ambassador in Ulaanbaatar, said U.S. assistance has been highly effective “dollar for dollar” but added that “Mongolia will be in a better place when it moves from an aid relationship to commercial relationships, as it is doing now.”

American companies, however, have so far mostly stayed on the sidelines, though General Electric recently opened an office here, and Peabody Energy, a big coal company, is in the running to develop an enormous Mongolian coal deposit in the Gobi Desert. The United States accounts for only 2.4 percent of foreign investment in Mongolia, compared with China’s 51 percent, according to official Mongolian statistics.

Elbegdorj said Mongolia has to balance competing interests in deciding who should develop Tavan Tolgoi, the world’s largest untapped coal reserve, and suggested that instead of choosing a single bidder, it will probably select companies from China and Russia as well as St. Louis-based Peabody.

The United States is faring better selling aircraft: Mongolia wants to buy only Boeing, the president said. A three-plane deal will be announced soon.

Mongolia may be small and long past its global prime, but “people who believe in democracy in China and Russia look to us as an example,” said the president, who added that he “could give a great lecture” in the Middle East to help people there understand that once they topple a dictatorship, “they will suffer for at least 10 years” but should still avoid the temptation to go back.

A recent opinion poll showed that while most Mongolians admire the United States, only 3.5 percent of respondents chose it as the country with which Mongolia has the best cooperation and communication. Ten times as many chose Russia.

“America is too far away,” sniffed Battulga Khaltmaa, a former champion wrestler and now the minister of transport, construction and urban development.

Elbegdorj, who studied at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, still thinks a shared commitment to democracy can shrink that distance. “The values connection is very important,” he said. “We have to strengthen that connection. If America invests in that, America will have many friends who live on their own, not with bombs or American troops.”

Serdaram Damdin, a professor of Mongolian history in Ulaanbaatar, said the United States, too, needs to avoid pulling back and becoming paralyzed by domestic quarrels. Otherwise, he said, Pax Americana will go the way of Genghis Khan’s Pax Mongolica, which, consumed by infighting after centuries of supremacy, shriveled to insignificance.

“Genghis Khan waged war to bring peace. America is doing the same thing now,” Damdin said. “If there is no involvement by America, the world would be back where it was in the Middle Ages.”

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