The Mongols base their relations with the US on what they call their "Third Neighbor" policy.
Today, the leader of that "Third Neighbor," US President George W. Bush, is scheduled to make a brief but symbolic visit to Mongolia, the first sitting US president ever to travel to the Inner Asian nation. Last month, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was the first in his office to go there.
The president's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said at a press briefing that Bush would "commend Mongolia on the progress it has made in becoming a more mature and stable democracy, which observes human rights and civil liberties and a private-sector led free market economy."
Hadley said the president would thank Mongolia for sending troops to Iraq, where it has deployed 100 soldiers from its armed forces of 9,000. Hadley contended Mongolia showed that every nation "has something at stake and something to contribute in the war on terror."
Under their fabled leader, Genghis Khan, the Mongols flashed across Eurasia from the Pacific to the Danube in the 13th century, then were driven back to their homeland. They were loosely ruled by China until 1921 when they fell under the influence of the Soviet Union. Mongolia slipped out of that orbit after the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991.
Today, geography governs Mongolia's compass. This landlocked nation of 2.8 million people is situated between two giants with powerful armed forces. First Neighbor China, with 1.3 billion people, is to the west, south and east, while Second Neighbor Russia, with 143 million people, is to the north.
At the East-West Center, a research institute in Honolulu, Mongol, American, Russian, Chinese, Japanese and South Korean specialists examined modern Mongolia. Under conference rules, the discussion was not for attribution, but several speakers agreed to be quoted.
An advisor to his government, Batbayar Bat-Erdene, said Mongolia has sought "friendly relations with our two great neighbors" but has given priority to reaching out to the Third Neighbor to "maintain the balance of forces."
The Third Neighbor policy is not a firm concept, Batbayar said, "but it is clearly understood as the Western world headed by the United States." Even though China and Russia have exerted continuous pressure on Mongolia, he said, Mongols are adept enough "to be persistent."
Mongolia's former ambassador to the UN, Jargalsaikhany Enkhsaikhan, drew parallels between Mongol and American democracy after his nation shed communism and adopted a democratic constitution in 1992.
Since then, he asserted, "Mongolia has been regularly holding fair parliamentary, presidential and local elections and can be rightfully considered as an electoral democracy. Today, all the requisite institutions of a democratic state have already been set up."
Enkhsaikhan, however, pointed to several flaws. Many Mongols, he said, believed that "civil society, the judiciary, political parties or the mass media are not functioning as they are supposed to." He feared they were being used "to promote narrow group interests."
"The general support for democracy in the country now badly needs a concrete road map that could lead Mongolia to a more developed democracy," he said.
An asset on that road, he said, is that "the overwhelming majority of the population is literate." Some 98 percent of Mongols over the age of 15 can read and write.
On the international scene, a colonel in the Mongol army, Adiya Tuvshintugs, said his nation's military forces took part in UN peacekeeping operations that it "perceived as a duty of a sovereign member of that organization."
He applauded a "US pledge to offer training and technical assistance in this task."
The colonel, who is also a scholar, noted that Mongolia had declared it would not permit nuclear weapons on its territory as part of a policy "of safeguarding the nation's security by political and diplomatic means."
A US scholar who has taught in Mongolia, Stephen Noerper, urged Washington to adopt a comprehensive Mongolian action plan.
There should be more high-level exchanges, including delegations from the Congress. In the State Department, Mongolian affairs should be removed from supervision by China specialists, he said.
Noerper proposed US aid in educational exchanges and support for building democratic institutions.
"Mongolia needs friends to help address its security realities," he said, particularly against Chinese migration and terrorist infiltration. Mongolia should be invited into more Northeast Asian multilateral dialogues.
Economically, he suggested that a "Northeast Asia Free Trade Association with the US, Japan and Korea would further enhance Mongolia's Third Neighbor options and reinforce the Mongolia-Korea-Japan natural economic territory."
Richard Halloran is a writer based in Hawaii.
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