Over the past 30 years, Mongolia and the US have expanded ties from the cultural to the military spheres.
By Bolor Lkhaajav
On January 27, 2017, Mongolia and the United States celebrated the 30th anniversary of their diplomatic relations at the Embassy of Mongolia in Washington DC. At the 11th Annual International Mongolian Studies Conference, titled “Mongolia-U.S. Relations: Past, Present, and Future,” Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of State Susan Thornton, Mongolian Ambassador Extraordinary to the United States B. Altangerel, and the president of the Mongolian Cultural Center, M. Saruul-Erdene, exchanged celebratory speeches on the two countries’ history, bilateralism, and Mongolia’s third neighbor foreign policy. While the two countries have gone through different phases of development, reform, and economic booms and crises in their domestic environments, the achievements in their bilateral ties were rooted in shared principles and values. During the past 30 years, Mongolia and the United States have augmented relations through diplomatic means in the political, economic, social, and military spheres.
Mongolia made a few attempts to engage the United States even while still under the heavy influence of Russia and China. According to Monk L. Luvsanjamts, of the Mongolian Gandantegchling Monastery, religious doctrines from the Mongolian National Archives indicate that Mongolia-U.S. links date back to 1855, in the form of religious teachings. In 1913 and 1914, during the Bogd Khan monarchy, Bogd sent his foreign deputies to the United States for a diplomatic dialogue. This was shortly after the overthrow of the Manchu Qing Dynasty in China, when Mongolia had declared independence was but still claimed by the new Republic of China government. Interestingly, in 1899, future U.S. president Herbert Hoover visited what was then called Urga (today known as Ulaanbaatar).
Although Mongolia’s request for diplomatic ties was rejected multiple times, each attempt illustrated Mongolia’s reach beyond Chinese ruling. In a way, then, Mongolia’s third neighbor policy emerged during the Bogd Khaan Monarchy, as Bogd purposefully sought diplomatic relations beyond China and Russia. The Mongolian government has thus shown remarkable consistency in its foreign policy ambitions. In 1961, thanks to a tremendous effort made by Prime Minister Tsedenbal, Mongolia joined the United Nations. With that move, Mongolia’s foreign policy direction was becoming clear to Western powers.
On January 27, 1987, during Ronald Reagan’s administration, Mongolia and the United States signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which declared diplomatic relations. One year later, in 1988, the first American embassy in Ulaanbaatar was established, with Steven Mann as the first ambassador. For the past 30 years, Mongolia-U.S. relations have involved spreading democratic values and human rights; advocating and implementing policies to enable a market-based economy; advancing people-to-people and military-to-military cooperation; promoting international peace and security; thwarting regional threats; and preserving wildlife and ecosystems. The U.S. supports and funds important sectors, such as education, health, and development.
Such cooperation is based on solid foundation of shared values. According to the 2016 Freedom House report, Mongolia scored an 86 (with 100 being the best possible score) in the annual evaluation of political rights, civil liberties, and freedom ratings. The United States scored 90 on the same report, illustrating the similar principles and values both countries abide by.
After September 11, 2001, U.S.-Mongolia relations expanded from political, economic, and social ties to boost military relations. The U.S. supports the modernization of Mongolia’s military and its personnel by providing education and training in international peacekeeping and combat tactics both at home and abroad. After 9/11, American military activities increased, both bilaterally and via the alliance system. In 2003, a new military exercise, “Khan Quest,” was conducted at Five Hills Training Camp. As U.S. Pacific Command Commander Admiral Harry Harris put it in 2016, “In 2003, Khan Quest began as a joint training endeavor between Mongolia and the U.S., and now, it’s a premier peacekeeping exercise involving dozens of nations from around the world. This is a testament to the power of partnership.” By conducting such multinational forces training, Mongolia’s international recognition and accountability increases. Mongolian peacekeepers are becoming an important part of global peace and security.
In 2016, U.S. to Mongolia amounted to $28.4 million. These funds were used for education, development, and the health sector. Under the Trump administration, Mongolia does not expect any negative changes in foreign policy or bilateral affairs. In fact, the expected warming relations of U.S.-Russia relations may create opportunities for Mongolia to expand joint operations and economic ties in addition to its already existing participation in China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative.
Under Mongolia’s constitution and 2011 foreign policy concept, Mongolia will keep equal partnerships with its two neighbors, Russia and China, but will seek other diplomatic relations as well. These “third neighbor” partners include the United States, Japan, European Union, India, South Korea, Turkey, and other developing democratic countries. Mongolia’s “third neighbor foreign policy” allows for the expansion of partnerships via bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral agreements between regional and global actors; the 2011 foreign policy concept highlights such opportunities.
As Mongolia and the United States celebrate the 30th anniversary of their diplomatic relations, both countries seek to continue good relations to promote peace and security regionally and globally. With global politics changing so quickly, strong bilateral relations and mutual respect for law-based principles are crucial.
Bolor Lkhaajav is pursuing a Master of Arts in Asia-Pacific Studies at the University of San Francisco. Previously, Lkhaajav worked as a Security Analyst with Horizon Intelligence