“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.