Commentary Magazine


Why Mongolia Matters

As I mentioned yesterday, my wife and I spent our summer vacation this year in Mongolia, a trip I’d recommend to anyone. The Mongols are friendly, the air is clean, and there is much to see for anyone interested in history, religion, or nature. (The only thing Mongolia lacks is a good beach.) If ever there was a country that lost the lottery on neighbors, it was Mongolia, sandwiched between a sometimes hostile, bullying Russia and an even more bullying China. I am reminded of that apt headline in The Onion in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Georgia: “U.S. Advises Allies not to Border Russia.”

Indeed, while we were there, people were complaining about Russia playing hardball with fuel sales, sending the price of gasoline skyrocketing, and the price of food and all other goods along with it. While Mongolia has some gas deposits of its own (nothing compared to its coal resources), it has trouble developing it as neither China nor Russia wish Mongolia to be energy independent.

The Mongolian government is actively reaching out for friends who might respect its independence as both its neighbors play hardball. It has courted both Australia and South Korea. Alas, while Mongolians are friendly and pro-American, they recognize they cannot rely on the United States as a friend. President Obama does not treat allies well, and so many realists find it sophisticated to bash allies in order to cultivate enemies.

Such attitudes represent strategic blindness. In 1911, Mongolia declared itself independent from China, a move the Chinese did not recognize. Mongolia turned to the outside, including to the United States, for help. Despite all of Woodrow Wilson’s talk of self-determination, he refused to provide much in the way of even moral support for Mongolia, and so the Chinese tried to reoccupy the country in 1919. With friendship spurned with the West, the Mongols turned to the only friend who would have them: Bolshevik Russia. Mongolia hence became only the second communist republic. It was, like the others, a brutal dictatorship and provided the Soviet Union with a forward airfield abandoned only in 1992.

What realists fail to realize when they make dispassionate cost and benefit calculations, is that there is an intrinsic benefit to friendship and alliance, but that such a benefit cannot be realized if the United States fails to embrace friendship for friendship’s sake. What may appear inconvenient now may become a critical asset down the road, if only the American foreign policy elite would be farsighted.