Our colleague Michael Rubin makes a good case for why we should care about Mongolia as well as why we should reject the realpolitik that would have the United States eschew friendship with small states that border on larger, dangerous countries. The instinct to abandon such states led the first President Bush to send dangerous signals to Russia as the Soviet Union was breaking up. Fortunately, the Baltic nations that spent a generation in Communist bondage won their freedom despite the mistakes made by the leader of the free world. The same lesson could apply to our on-again, off-again friendship for the Republic of Georgia, a fledgling democracy which lives in the shadow of a resurgent and aggressive Russian empire.
But even as we embrace the freedom of small nations, we must still remember just as history didn’t end with the fall of the Berlin Wall, it didn’t begin with the Treaty of Versailles either. The worm has turned several times since today’s victims were yesterday’s bad guys, but historical memory sometimes is longer than we think.
Though we in the West find it absurd that Russia, which has spent most of the last three centuries seeking hegemony over the small nations on its borders in the Baltic, Eastern Europe as well as in Asia, might fear these countries, that sentiment is deeply embedded in their culture. Anyone who has seen the opera or read Pushkin’s classic Russian play “Boris Godunov” knows there was once a time when it was the Poles who invaded Russia, not the other way around. To note, this is not to excuse Russian paranoia and imperialism, but ignoring the roots of the problem doesn’t help us understand it.
If you look to the East, Michael rightly says that contemporary Mongolia has “lost the lottery on neighbors” as it is sandwiched between large bullies in Russia and China. Yet several centuries ago, it was the Russians and the Chinese who had good reason to lament their borders with the Mongol Empire. While we can sympathize with Mongolia’s troubles in the last century, any country that accords Genghis Khan–one of history’s great mass-murdering conquerors–the status of founding father, undermines its stance as a lonely democracy fighting for independence against authoritarian bullies.