I recently came across and article in The Atlantic, which reported that Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev had suggested that perhaps the suffix –stan was responsible for Kazakhstan’s low global profile. He mentioned Mongolia, as a country that continues to attract international attention despite its still small economy and population. Perhaps a name change would help Kazakhstan develop a stronger international profile, he mused.
There is really only one good Russian response to this: Здравствуйте! ('hello' or in this case more like a saracastic 'good morning'). On the one hand this could just have been a interesting idea that the President was playing around with, which has no serious implications for the future of the country or his perception of its position in world affairs. On the other hand, it could point to some serious misconceptions on Nazarbayev's part.
Let's start with the statement that Mongolia has somehow benefited as a result of not being called something like Mongolistan. But, for every available economic indicator, Kazakhstan greatly outperforms Mongolia. This is, naturally, to be expected. Kazakhstan is a oil producing state, has a much larger population, and was more developed at the dissolution of the Soviet Union, giving it a greater starting point. Just looking at FDI, Kazakhstan hosts a huge figure at $111.5 billion, while Mongolia stands at just $4.5 billion! Anecdotally, it is more that clear enough that many more businessmen, students, policy makers, and analysts take a direct interest in Kazakhstan than in Mongolia when it comes to current affairs (naturally, I would suspect that Mongolia can command more than its fair share of historians). While it is beyond the scope of this casual blog post to offer a full comparison, I feel confident in saying that Kazakhstan's international profile is significantly more pronounced than Mongolia's.
That said, I would suspect that Nazarbayev was more concerned with a different kind of indicator, namely something more related to soft power. (I detailed Mongolia's «small power» here). In this case, Mongolia is certainly outperforming Kazakhstan, and it has nothing to do with a little Perso-Turkic suffix. Mongolia is a proven democracy, and has consistently shown its committment to engaging with the international community and improving its own democratic credentials. While Mongolia has eshewed further deepening its relationship with the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan is part of the Eurasian Custom's Union and CIS, tieing it to the Russian Federation. While Mongolia has sought to further its relationship with the European Union and North America, Kazakhstan remains a difficult partner because of its authoritarian political system and continued abuses of basic civil/human rights. Even with these limitations, Kazakhstan does enjoy good relations with the E.U. and the United States, but the relationship remains limited, largely as a result of Kazakhstan's own domestic and foreign policy choices. While Mongolia has sought to rise above its own geographical position, Kazakhstan's leadership continues to avoid a more balanced relationship with the Russian Federation, to the direct detriment of its other foreign policy goals. (In fact, Kazakhstan's political system is also a key reason for the underdeveloped nature of Kazakhstan-Mongolian relations, outlined here).
At the end of the day, Kazakhstan's economy is stronger and its economic ties to North America and Europe outperform Mongolia on most indicators. If Kazakhstan has any lessons to learn from Mongolia it is that democracy matters as much as a domestic policy as a lever for diplomatic relations. Democracy matters, names and suffixs don't.
Last week Foreign Policy published an article on how Russia’s energy policy has pushed Europe and Asia to find alternatives to Gazprom. No surprise here. It is the quintessential flaw in all Russian government policies: the strongman approach. Russia continually miscalculates its own strength, offering only the stick with very little carrot. The country is locked in a time when Moscow controlled a huge swath of the globe, including Central Asia and Eastern Europe. It seems that Moscow is unable to accept that countries like Moldova, Georgia, and Tajikistan are not only independent from the Russian Federation, but have options besides Moscow for international partnerships. Sorry Putin, there is no such thing as the “near abroad” (ближнее зарубежье), anymore. Much of Eastern Europe is effectively integrated into NATO and the E.U.; the South Caucasus has cultivated strong relations with Turkey and the “West”; and even Central Asia is starting to loosen its Russian chains with China, India, and the U.S. eager to move in.
The most exciting part of the article is that it shows how small states are actually benefiting from a belligerent Russia. Wouldn’t we assume that small countries neighboring large, aggressive states would suffer as a result, bullied into policy changes and controlled from outside: their de facto autonomy weakened and pulled into “satellite state” status? Indeed, this seems to often have been the case. Historically, it was certainly the case for Russia’s neighbors until just recently. I identify three important takeaways from this article (in the context of post-1990 developments): 1) spheres of influence are dead; 2) even powerful states can over play their hand; 3) small states adapt quickly.
The term “sphere of influence” declined in use with the end of colonialism/WWII, but the general idea can still drive policy making on the part of large powers. Russia certainly still finds the term relevant with frequent references to a so-called “near abroad” (the term used for post-Soviet countries, suggesting that they are not fully independent of Moscow, essentially referring to a sphere of influence), and a persisting sense that Russia can and should play a special role in post-Soviet countries. A “sphere of influence”, whereby de jure independent states are under the de facto control of a large power, and that other large powers are not permitted to engage within this sphere no longer exists. Today, as Petersen’s article shows, Russia is not the only country engaging in the post-Soviet space, and in the case of Eastern Europe and some of the South Caucasus, it is not even the main player. True, much of Central Asia (especially Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) does not seem terribly eager to run away from Russia, and are even looking for an expanded role for the CIS and Customs Union. But, even these nations are increasingly able to step away from Moscow for security, economic, and energy needs/sales. Most Eastern European states are now firmly under the NATO security umbrella, and have the resources of the European Union to balance against dependency on Russia. Turkey, the U.S., and some E.U. member states are active in the South Caucasus. The Central Asian states are courted by the E.U. and U.S. for global security concerns, and China and India are moving in for geostrategic and energy-related reasons. Russia no longer has a recognizable exclusive sphere of influence or a “near abroad”, something Russia policymaking appears to be slow to realize.
Russia is laboring under the one of the biggest foreign policy flaws that powerful countries can and often do make: might makes right, or, to use a more classical cliché, the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. The assumption is that since Russia is strong, its neighbors can’t afford to do without it. I am not arguing that Russia’s neighbors can actually ignore it, but since these states no longer exist in an exclusive sphere of influence, they have choices. Had Russia opted for a non-confrontational stance and worked with the newly independent states as opposed to undermining their legitimacy and autonomous decision-making processes, the countries of Eastern Europe might have effectively straddled the space between Europe-proper and Russia, to their own benefit (Finland is a clear example). The South Caucasus and Central Asia have been more willing to cooperate with Russia, because they do not have the security of the E.U. or NATO to cushion the fall, but they have been persuaded to stay closer to Russia if Moscow was a reliable and benevolent ally. As Russia increasingly looses its foothold even in Central Asia, where up until a decade ago its position was entrenched, one can’t help but declare a complete policy failure. Russia overestimated what it could get away with, and now it is looking increasingly isolated.
Finally, this is yet another example of how small states are not only highly adaptable, but also able to make independent policy decisions with whom they do and do not cultivate international partnerships. Small states may lack the ability to make their own rules, but they are more than capable of choosing by whose rules to play. Russia pushed Europe to find energy alternatives, and Europe did just that: forging partnerships with the states along the Caspian Sea and building pipelines through Turkey. Now Gazprom’s profits have fallen 15%, and with it Russia’s control over neighboring energy resources. Small states will seek to cultivate relations with as many players as possible, with a clear preference for extra-regional/non-neighboring countries. Such a strategy is essential for small states to maintain their autonomy and independence. When Europe opens it doors to energy resources from outside the Gazprom monopoly, small states are going to respond. Likewise, when Russia makes unfriendly policies towards its neighbors, they are effectively justifying and encouraging those same countries to further entrench with the “West”. Georgia and Ukraine are two clear examples. Dr. Drezner argued in a recent article that low energy prices might actually promote instability since oil producing states rely on high prices to fund their own stability. This is certainly true in Putin’s Russia, where his popularity is largely based on petroleum-bankrolled development. However, for the smaller states bordering Russia, it appears to be the opposite.
Talk of a “new great game” should shift to a “global great game”, not confined to Central Asia, but an emerging trend throughout the international state system in response to new emerging powers and re-engagement by established global leaders. The basic policy considerations presented here are necessary considerations for larger states to effectively interact with smaller countries. As this article has pointed out, small certainly does matter in energy politics, when small states are necessary producers and transit countries for petroleum resources. While the same points hold for the U.S. and China as much as the Russian Federation, the difference is that the U.S. and China have already taken actions in this direction. China reiterates its “peaceful rise”, and the United States promotes itself as a “benign hegemon”. Mistakes are made and small states remain suspicious of China’s rise and America’s pivot, but it seems that China and U.S. have won this soft power battle in the “global great game”. Russia will have to significantly adjust its foreign policy ideology to win the war.
The following is part 2 in the series of posts pulling off of my M.A. thesis, posted here. In this post, I present the second two theoretical contributions: small power. I argued in the previous post that small states do not have hard power options and argue in this post that soft power is an inappropriate tool for understanding small state foreign policy behavior. Rather, small power presents new possibilities.
In the absence of hard power capabilities, we may assume that soft power is the default option. Joseph Nye’s definition is simple enough: “It is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.” He goes on to say that the basic logic is to get others to want what you want. A country with a relatively large population, territory, resources, economy, military force, and social stability might be able to coerce other nations into working with it to achieve its own security objectives. However, a state that has managed to cooperate with other states because of shared interests has proven itself adept at exercising soft power. Generally, international soft power is produced through three different spheres: 1) culture; 2) political values; 3) foreign policy. All three are combined to further a given state’s interests and its attractiveness to other states.
The literature on soft power is primarily concerned with the United States of America, and serves as an oppositional voice to the connection between American military power and the country’s foreign policy. The concern of many articles on soft power is to point out alternatives to hard power as a way to achieve U.S. security goals and foreign policy objectives.
Although soft power is a useful analytical concept, it has some notable limitations in its application to small state foreign policy. First, large and small states will approach power projection in very different ways. For example, Nye observed the connection between soft power and democracy, when he pointed out that “soft power is a staple of daily democratic politics.” It may be that democracies are more adept at utilizing their soft power resources, as a result of their familiarity with political concession making at home. It seems likely that larger powers, such as the U.S. or regional actors such as the E.U. may be more familiar with soft power as a PR-campaign. For smaller states, however, it may actually be the reverse: democracy is a source of soft power, not a teacher of it. In other words, small states might be able to use democracy to attract international partners, not as a way to train themselves for other modes of power projection. Second, while larger states might be able to depend on the attractiveness of their culture, smaller less-well-known countries will have to restrict themselves to the later two options (i.e. political values and foreign policy). Third, the concept of soft power assumes that hard power is an available option, as indicated by Nye’s concept of “smart power” as the ideal combination of the two, which any global power must harness to remain on top. When hard power is not available, the projection of softer resources is not necessarily soft power; rather it is the only power available.
By combining what we know about soft power, with the previously presented two-sided definition of small states, we can begin to refer to some small state-specific power, which I will call small power. Small power is an analytical concept for understanding how small states will make themselves appear more attractive for partnerships with larger, often extra-regional powers as part of an effort to discourage threats from other states, often their neighbors. Working within the modes of asymmetry and behaviors that I have previously laid out to identify small states in today’s international system, the concept that small states will almost invariably engage in some sort of specialized balancing behavior has already been established. Small power is thereby defined as the power to affect the international system by attracting the attention of larger, less-threatening powers in an effort to balance against the role of a threatening state. Small power is tailored for states that have limited economic and/or mineral wealth and without clear geo-strategic advantages. Small oil-producing states, for example, can leverage their natural resources in their foreign relations, and strategically located states can leverage their territory for foreign military installations. What can a state leverage to make itself an attractive partner, when it has neither economic nor strategic incentives?
Small states have utilized a number of strategies to increase their small power resources. A number of states have volunteered a symbolic number of military personnel to peacekeeping operations (ex. Georgia, Mongolia, and Poland are three prominent examples of small states currently contributing troops to U.S. operations in Afghanistan), others have worked to build records of consistent adherence to international norms, and still others have sought to act in line with regional interests to help foster stability (ex. South Korea and Thailand).
This is the kind of illustrations that I pump out when working on my thesis. Guess what I am trying to say? (Note that I still use paintbrush for illustrations!)
“Mongolia is important and Mongolian politics matter” is a phrase we don’t hear very often, neither from policy makers, politicians, nor academics. Still, with increased interest in Mongolia on the international stage, and several new Mongolian Studies projects being pursued by world-class universities, perhaps it is time to start asserting that SMALL MATTERS.
This website starts with a simple, although potentially groundbreaking, presumption: small states matter in international politics and security. In this post, I want to focus on why Mongolia matters, and some preliminary ideas on what international actors are looking for from Mongolia as related to the most recent elections. While Mongolia is by no means a world power, a sophisticated foreign policy coupled with a booming mining sector and proven democratic stability has allowed the country to attract international attention on a scale usually reserved for larger actors. I propose that the 2012 Parliamentary election was important for two interrelated reasons: 1) a show of democratic strength and commitment to democratic development; 2) a test of stability for the economic/investment climate.
As I have stated in previous posts, Mongolian democracy matters not only as a domestic regime, but also as a type of international PR. For example, Mongolia’s democratic system has streamlined its relations with the United States. Mongolia has enjoyed US military assistance in training and technology in exchange for its support of the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Mongolia has contributed hundreds of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, and has stationed peacekeepers around the world as part of various UN missions. In fact, much of Mongolia’s defense forces have been converted into a well-trained international peacekeeping force, with plans to increase the number to 2,500. The US has carried out much of this training out in the annual Khaan Quest military exercises.
The US-Mongolian relationship is greatly strengthened by shared democratic values. The US and Mongolia are both committed to the rule of law and both governments gain their legitimacy as a result of the democratic process. Unlike the CCP in China, the Mongolian state’s legitimacy is not solely based on the ability to provide economic returns (although that is certainly a very important factor). Rather, Mongolian elections must also be seen as legitimately reflecting the voters’ decisions. Concerns over electoral fraud and corruption add an extra complication to the state’s legitimacy. However, to date there has been no proof of any fraudulent activity large enough to suggest that the whole election was bought, and as a result the in-coming MPs will be at least largely legitimate, even if not necessarily viewed as such by all their constituents.
This election is yet another brick in the wall of proof that Mongolia has implemented a largely successful democracy. As a democracy, it is better able to cooperate with other democratic players: nations that would otherwise have little interest in Mongolia. Turning to Mongolia’s larger foreign policy goals, we can see that relations with other democratic nations are a key factor in the country’s efforts to extend itself beyond its immediate neighborhood. Mongolia is surrounded by two huge, distinctly non-democratic countries- Russia and China- both of which have exercised varying amounts of control over its domestic policies in the past. Mongolia is distinctly aware of the fact that as a small country between giants its sovereignty and general ability to control its own domestic policies are anything but a given. In response to this potential complication/threat, Mongolia has implemented a policy of cultivating relations with other world actors outside of its immediate geography through what is widely referred to as the “Third Neighbor Policy”. Notably many of Mongolia’s “third neighbors” are stable democracies with good human rights records. These include Japan, South Korea, India, the US, and various EU countries (i.e. Germany, France, the Czech Republic, and several others). Investors in Mongolia do not have to justify the morality of their investments to the same extent that they might when investing in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, for example.
Shared democratic values, as demonstrated by successful elections such as the one this June, provide Mongolia with a way to deepen relations with other actors and address its larger foreign policy, security, and economic interests.
Mongolia’s economy grew over 17% in real terms this past year, making it the fastest growing economy in the world! This little fact is often shocking to people, who write of the country as part of an undefined “third world”. Of course, this is up 17% from a rather low starting point, but still this remains a sign of development and is perhaps indicative that international investment in the mining sector is paying off for the country in general. Without judging prematurely, it is clear that international investors were watching this election closely for two things: signs of instability and signs of populism-influenced protectionism in the Mongolian market.
“Do you expect a repeat of the events of 2008?” many people, foreigners and Mongolians alike, asked me during the build up to the election. For those of you unfamiliar with Mongolian politics, let me briefly explain. Following the announcement of an MPRP (now MPP) victory in the 2008 Parliamentary elections, the DP called a protest, saying that the elections were fraudulent and corrupt. Things quickly got out of control and what started as a peaceful protest outside the MPRP headquarters turned violent, resulting in 5 deaths, the complete destruction of the MPRP building, and the partial destruction of the Cultural Palace (located unfortunately close to the party building). I did not expect a repeat of these events this year, and I am very happy to have been proven correct. Even though the events of 2008 where contained by the morning, such riots are by their very nature unpredictable and international investors and observers were notably anxious that any such repeat might have the potential to spiral out of control.
Perhaps more importantly, investors want to ensure that their investments are protected and that their contracts with the Mongolian government will be honored. When Mongolia implemented a windfall tax overnight on mining profits in 2006, investors became acutely aware that the rules of the game could change at the drop of a hat. While the windfall profits tax legislation was eventually repealed in 2009, it remains something of a scandal, and worried many investors, while simultaneously scaring off others (presumably). While some Mongolian political players are more or less predictable and open to international investment, one party in particular had a particularly populist slant: the MPRP-MNDP “Justice” Coalition. Dr. Julian Dierkes previously identified the MRPR-MNDP vote as a sign of populism, citing the fact that supporters are often drawn to the message of standing up to international market forces as well as resource nationalism. After winning 11 seats in the Parliament and quite likely becoming part of a coalition with the DP, we might conclude that some elements of populism remain popular in the Mongolian political and social sphere. Indeed with rising xenophobia, this seems hardly surprising. (See my previous post on Fears of Survival). Whether this will will translate into harder times for international businesses in uncertain, but I would venture to guess not, seeing as the DP will the be leading figure in any coalition and it clearly pro-business.
Considering increased economic interest in Mongolia following a record year of growth as well as the PR potential of democracy and adherence to human rights norms, I conclude that this election had at least some level of importance to Mongolia’s international partners. Although, let me admit that while from Ulaanbaatar everything Mongolian seems significant, the likelihood that any international players were loosing sleep over this election is not likely. What is also interesting is the fact that, from what I could tell, none of the parties had any explicit foreign policy message in their action plans/policies. While I maintain that Mongolia exercises notable agency in its foreign policy decisions, as a small country a domestic political change cannot upset foreign policy to the same extent that Presidential elections in the USA can. (More on Mongolian agency and choices later).
Note: A version of this article was published in the July 23rd edition of the UB Post, Mongolia’s leading English-language newspaper. Hopefully, a link to follow.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, visited Ulaanbaatar today (July 9th) as part of her Asia tour. Her statements as reported in the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times, present an interesting picture of the visit and point to some important points in the relationship between Mongolia and the United States.
Firstly, China matters. Sec. Clinton made strong statements supporting democracy and political freedoms as steps just as important to economic growth. The news reporters are very much on the right track with pointing out that this is a clear message to China that the US continues to expect political reforms in addition to liberal economic policies. This was explored at length in both articles.
Secondly, Mongolia matters. What was just barely touched on in these articles is that Mongolia’s democratic system is important not just for Mongolian domestic concerns, but also on the international stage. Mongolian democracy stands out in stark contract to it neighbors, Russia and China, as well as when compared across the larger post-communist world. Central Asian authoritarian states, such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan stand out in clear contract to Mongolia. Despite all its “robustness/rowdiness” (as terms used in other publications), the Mongolian political system is clearly democratic, though with notable problems that have been explored in this blog already.
Mongolian democracy and continuing commitment to improving its human rights situation is not only a domestic issue, but it also serves as one factor in Mongolia’s foreign policy. Looking at Mongolia’s “Third Neighbors” (India, Japan, South Korea, and the United States- to name the larger players), all are thriving democracies. While much of the attention Mongolia enjoys on the international stage relative to its small economy, is tied to the growth of the mining sector, we should not be too quick to avoid factoring in the good press that Mongolia enjoys as a result of its developing democratic system. Not only is it one country that can prove that democracy is suitable for Asian nations, but it also means that the US and other countries can interact with Mongolia as one democracy to another.
Human rights concerns and pushes for democratic reform complicate US relations with many other countries. This is one complication that Mongolia has managed to avoid, and perhaps this plays a role in US and international interest in the small country.
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.