Today there is a real possibility that the 60 year long history of ethno-national insurgencies might actually be resolved peacefully. Following decades of stagnation under one of the world’s longest ruling military juntas, the Burmese Army (which I will refer to hereafter as the Tatmadaw, since it is commonly referred to in the Burmese) oversaw a constitutional referendum in 2008 and an election in 2010. Shortly after taking office, the new President of Myanmar, Thein Sein, ordered that all peace dialogues with the “Ethnic Armed Organizations” (as Myanmar’s insurgency groups are known) should resume immediately.
Since President Thein Sein’s presidency, however, decades of stagnation has shifted in an active process of negotiation. In addition to the country-wide reforms on censorship, lifting of many restrictions on political associations, and the release of hundreds of political prisions, the government has also been able to sign many bilateral ceasefires with most, but not all, ethnic armed organizations. Surprisingly, unlike previous ceasefires, these ones have, to a large extent, actually held a tenuous peace!
Still these bilateral ceasefires are not enough. As we all know, insurgencies have inherently political goals, and in this case Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations are making what amounts to a demand for a fully federal Union of Myanmar, where the Burmese/Bama areas are just another ethnically-delineated state with no more rights that the other ethnic states. Importantly, they are also pushing for reforming the Tatmadaw into a federal army that proportionally represents the entire country’s demographics.
While a political solution will, clearly, take some time given that demands for federalism and a federal army continue to be rejected by the military, the ethnic armed organizations, the Tatmadaw, and the government in Naypyidaw began negotiations in late 2013 for a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, which would not only end hostilities, but also establish a code of conduct, monitoring mechanisms, consultations, and a framework for an eventual political solution. This agreement would go beyond the bilateral ceasefire agreements, but come short of a full political solution. Still, if it is signed (we’ll talk about that a little latter) it stands to set the stage for a permanent end of hostilities in a country plagued by insurgencies since its independence.
The actors in this negotiation process are the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (the NCCT), representing many of the ethnic armed organizations and their respective political wings, and the Union-level Peace Work Committee (the UPWC) representing the government and the Tatmadaw. The NCCT, itself, is…overseen, we might say, by the United Nationalities Federal Council (the UNFC), which is an alliance of 11 (maybe 10, as we’ll see shortly) ethnic armed organizations.
Since Nov. 2013, the NCCT and the UPWC have met 6 times to negotiation the terms of the nationwide ceasefire agreement. And, this past Aug. it really looked like the process would have concluded and the document have been signed by now. The gov. representatives had said that they agreed “in principle” to a federal solution, and the seemingly easier issues of a code of conduct, monitoring, and who would be allowed to witness to the signing of the document were the only things left on the agenda. However, shortly after this meeting, the gov./Tatmadaw withdrew its statement and set hardline positions on the remaining items of discussion.
I have paid particular attention to how the political alliances between the ethnic armed organizations have developed. After a thorough review of the materials available, including over 120 news articles from the Myanmar press from Aug-Dec. of this year, I have noted a total of four puzzling features to how the ethnic armed organizations are and are not cooperating with regards to the NCA drafting process.
The first puzzle has to do with membership discrepancies between the NCCT and the UNFC ethnic alliance. Now, there is really no immediately apparent reason that all ethnic armed organizations would not cooperate in this process. There is no history of substantial conflict between these organizations, there interests are more or less compatible, and certainly working together would give them a stronger position from which to push the gov and Tatmadaw for political concessions. Yet, they don’t.
In fact, the second largest organization in the UNFC, the Karen National Union, temporarily suspended its membership in the ethnic alliance. Furthermore, the most powerful ethnic org., the United Wa State Army, remains outside of the UNFC and the NCCT completely.
The second puzzling development that I have seen is the decision by 3 different Karen ethnic armed organizations to form a united Kawthoolei Armed Force. (The Karen as a large and diverse group of peoples that live in SE Myanmar. One of the founding members of this military alliance, was the Karen National Union (the KNU), the same one I mentioned had suspended its membership in the UNFC. The other two Karen groups had originally split from the KNU, one composed of Buddhist Karen claiming discrimination by the Christian-dominated KNU leadership. The other, an originally pro-government splinter group from the KNU. If this new alliance decided to pursue a common position in the nationwide ceasefire agreement, it could substantially change the position of the other members of the NCCT.
Thirdly, at least 2 ethnic organizations have not signed bilateral ceasefires with the Tatmadaw. As I pointed out earlier, these bilateral ceasefires are useful in that they provide a temporary pause in hostilities that allows the parties to focus on the nationwide agreement. However, the Kachin Independence Organization (in far northern Myanmar) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army have not signed ceasefire agreements and continue to defend themselves from Tatmadaw offensives. This is even more puzzling when we consider that the Kachin Independence Organization is the largest armed organization in the United Nationalities Federal Council.
Last, but not least is the question of why no one is talking about the Rohingya. For those of you who don’t know, the Rohingya are a Muslim group that speak a language related to Bengali living near the border with Bangladesh in center-west Burma. They have a certain level of international visibility as a result of riots against them led by Buddhist-extremists in Rakhine state and Mandalay. The Rohingya are not in large part not considered Myanmar citizens, and are listed as illegal migrants from India/Bangladesh. In recent years, there has been concern that the some Rohingya have cultivated ties with Islamic radical groups. Despite this visibility and the controversy, they are nowhere to be seen in the nationwide ceasefire agreement, and no mention is made of their situation by other non-Bamar ethnic armed or political organizations.
In order to analyze these four puzzles, I decided to combine two theoretical positions that are usually presented as at odds with each other: relative power and ethnic grievance. In the paper, I argue that we can understand the puzzling patterns of cooperation in ethnic political alliances only by combining these two ideas.
In regards to the Karen National Union’s decision to suspend its membership in the UNFC, it is important to note that the org. had cited the Kachin Independence Organization’s overwhelming influence in the organization as its primary reason for leaving. Indeed, in terms of relative power, the Kachin certainly have more troops (20,000 to the Karen 5,000) and resources. The Karen, however, are still much larger than the remaining UNFC members, meaning that it is not in a position where it would have to follow the Kachin lead. Rather, its decision to leave the UNFC would actually give it a larger voice in the NCA process, since it would be an independent actor and the forth largest EAO. The KNUs decision to work with the other Karen org. to form the Kawthoolei Armed Forces further increases its position, and if the KAF choosed to operate a united political group in the NCA it will be the 3rd largest EAO at the table.
The UWSA remains an observer of the NCA process, but is not part of the NCCT, and is, therefore, not able to affect decisions during the draft process. It will, however, have the option to sign the document should it ever be agreed upon. The UWSA is by far the largest EAO at 40,000 troops. That is over twice as much as the KIO’s 20,000, which is the second largest. As the largest EAO, and one with a relatively good relationship with the Union gov. there is little reason for the Wa to work with the other EAOs.
I already covered the KAF before, so lets jump to the 3rd puzzle about bilateral ceasefires. I argue that the KIO, as a leader of the UNFC and the second largest EAO, has decided that it is in its interests are better served by ensuring it maximum leverage to affect the NCA. A bilateral ceasefire might weaken its position; but, the KIO is not strong enough to push its agenda single handedly. Therefore, the UNFC can play the role of a KIO minimum winning coalition.
For the sake of time, I’m going to gloss over the case of Rohingya exclusion. But I will say that at least part of the problem is related to the fact that the Rohingya are too small to be worth the costs that any EAO would incur by bringing them into the picture. It would also entail alienating the Arakan/Rakine EAOs, which represent groups that are largely responsible for the riots agains the Rohingya in the first place.
So, where are we today?
The future of the NCA remains unclear. While reporting in August was largely positive, with many actors expressing confidence that it would be signed by the end of 2014, recent months have seen an almost complete reversal of that position. Not only has the Tatmadaw reversed it conciliatory position, but its most recent offensive against a KIO training facility near Laiza has seriously undermined EAO confidence. Indeed, during a meeting between the NCCT and the Myanmar Peace Commission in Chaing Mai, Thailand, NCCT leaders announced that the 7th NCA negotiation meeting would be postponed following attacks on the KIO; and that it was now impossible for the NCA to be completed in 2014. That said, the NCCT also made clear its continuing commitment negotiations at the same meeting. A Shan State EAO, however, disagreed and began to question the logic of a single-document ceasefire agreement when bilateral agreements seem to working well enough to move directly to a political solution. My feeling, based on extensive news reports, is that the NCA process will continue to proceed in fits and stalls, but will ultimately be signed. However, the resulting text will only be able to set very vague guidelines regarding future political concessions. When political talks do take place, the sticking points of federalism and military structure will remain sticking points, and will likely to be tied to other political developments, such as revising the 2008 constitution.
With Sunni Insurgents capturing Mosul and other parts of Western Iraq, and Kurdish forces taking control of Kirkuk, it may soon become more practical to recognize an independent Kurdistan in Northern Iraq and work to ensure its stability and self-defense capabilities.
“Madness! Insanity! Dystopian/Utopian!” you may say, and the reasons why this will not happen in the foreseeable future are- I admit-rather daunting. Turkish and Iranian opposition, possible Iranian control over Shia-dominated eastern Iraq if the state were to fail, not to mention the almost psychotic obsession with “state stability” that prevents international recognition of even de facto states like Somaliland. Yes, these issues likely mean that unless Iraq emerges as a unified polity that can hold itself together without U.S./ “Western” intervention, the de fact failure of the Iraqi state will be ignored and Iraqi Kurdistan will likely remain unrecognized (although existent, nonetheless). Still, if we move into a logical discussion of the real pro’s and con’s- something I know is not the rule for politics and international affairs- I think the question of Should we recognize an independent Kurdistan practically screams to the less-than-practical observer YES.
Regional Dynamics: A Weak Argument
Regional opposition to an independent Kurdistan becoming a recognized political reality is largely laid at the feet of Turkey and to a lesser extent Iran and to an even less extent Syria. Turkey’s population is around 20% Kurdish, and the country has often sought to integrate the Kurdish population by denying them language and cultural rights as well as refusing to recognize that the Republic of Turkey does indeed have ethnic minorities, rather than peoples of “Kurdish extraction”. Turkey has expressed fears, even before the U.S. invasion of Iraq that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan could be used as a base of operations for the Kurdish insurgency in eastern Turkey, and have indicated that they would take military action if such an entity were to appear.
Fast-forward to the present situation, however, and it appears that perhaps Turkey might be more flexible than they let on. Turkey has been happy to purchase Kurdish oil through a pipeline established by the Kurdish Regional Government independent of Baghdad. In the last year, Turkey has also made some indication that it is ready to offer certain basic rights to its own Kurdish population. What’s more, the KRG has not openly supported the Kurdish insurgent groups in Turkey, likely in recognition that Turkish support will be key to getting regional, international, and especially U.S. recognition of their sovereignty.
Iran is a somewhat different story. Kurds and Persians speak related languages; however Kurdish-Persian relations do not reflect these links. Several Kurdish groups within Iran are fighting for increased autonomy, and the “Kurdish question” is obviously connected to the larger “ethnic question” within Iran. In fact, the newly elected President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani made specific reference to the need to address ethnic rights within Iran.
A couple of issues need to be pointed out. Most importantly, I have not seen any evidence that more rights for minorities actually serves as a stepping-stone to increased calls for independence. In fact, the opposite might be true: Guaranteeing cultural, linguistic, and social rights to indigenous ethnic minorities is essential for national stability. That means that Iran could respond to calls for an independent Kurdistan (in Iraq) in a couple of ways. It could perceive a threat to the stability of its own Kurdish region, or recognize that support for Iraqi Kurds and improving its own ethnic policy might actually protect its stability.
Any Kurdistan formed out of the current Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) would almost certainly have U.S. backing; however, if the Kurds could be persuaded to adopt a more pragmatic foreign policy suitable to the region, they need not be a formal U.S. ally. In fact, an independent Kurdistan could even act as a regional peacemaker, perhaps improving US-Iranian relations. Budding Israeli support to Kurdish independence echoes this possibility. Like Turkey, Iran might be more pragmatic on the Kurdistan issue than it is given credit for. Indeed, if Iranian support to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan is any indication, Tehran would be amiable to more stability on its borders, rather than a struggling failed Iraqi state, no matter how unified.
Syria, it seems to me, is the lynchpin of this whole situation. First, the civil war and dissolution of the Syrian state is directly tied to the instability of Iraq. The Islamic group that has seized control of Mosul, called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), is also in control of large tracts of eastern Syria. As far the Syrian sections of ‘Greater Kurdistan’, the lack of a functioning government in Syria means that there is really no point in discussing Syrian opposition to the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. In fact, it is entirely possible that Syrian Kurdistan could join with Iraqi Kurdistan, but that is a topic for another blog post. Importantly, while ISIS has avoided attacking Kurdish positions in Iraq, the group has waged a bloody fight against Syria’s Kurdish population.
Syria might actually be the only country that could loose territory as a result of the creation of the Kurdistan state, but I still think this is entirely unlikely to happen without international backing (i.e. U.S. approval).
In case it has not already become clear, I do not think that the regional dynamics are really the strongest reasons for not recognizing an independent Kurdistan, should the KRG declare itself as such. (And we can be sure that that declaration would not be made without at least some assurance of U.S. backing). What is really at play here is the international community’s obsession with the stability of the international state system, which means that maintaining the borders of the 1990s is seen as more beneficial than efforts to reshape the globe. The price of printing new maps aside, this directly plays into the role of the state internationally and domestically.
De Facto States: The Trouble with Recognition Scares
A casual look around the globe reveals two broad types of unrecognized, but de facto states. On one end, are the breakaway regions from functioning states that have broken off with some sort of great power backing. Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia with Russian backing seems the ideal example. These largely unrecognized states represent a threat to global security as indications of great power meddling in weaker state’s internal affairs. Alternatively, there are those de facto states that emerge out of the ruin of a larger failed state. Somaliland in Somalia falls firmly into this second category, and if Kurdistan were to declare its independence and Iraq does- as signs indicate- fall into disarray, it would also fit into this mold.
Actually, the comparison between Somaliland and Kurdistan is deeper than just my rough attempt at categorization. Somaliland, like Iraqi Kurdistan, is a functioning northern region of a state destroyed by an Islamic insurgency. While Somaliland has been a de facto state since 1991, it is still not recognized as independent of Somalia by the international community, although it does cooperate with several international actors as a “recognized autonomous region of Somalia.” Somaliland may be an example of what Kurdistan de facto statehood would look like on an international level. (I do not know about regional opposition/support to Somaliland’s independence, and so cannot comment on it here).
The reason that the international state system is not eager to accept new states into the fold rests on several reasons. I would argue that in the case of Iraqi Kurdistan, any declaration of independence might go unrecognized for three reasons. First, it would signal the failure of the U.S./U.K. intervention in the country. Second, it would be initially opposed by Turkey and Iran, even if in the long term it may serve their goals. Thirdly, many worry that secessionist movements are like a wildfire, once allowed to burn in one area, more will pop up. The first reason is true: U.S. and U.K. operations in Iraq have failed in some respects. (That is not to say, however, that getting rid of Saddam was a “bad” thing). The second reason is likely also true, but could be handled with some forward thinking policy makers from all involved parties. The last reason is unsubstantiated and, I would venture, false. Nationalist movements often draw upon and inspire each other, but there is no evidence to suggest that the success of one means others will push that much harder. Furthermore, Kurdish independence would be won from internal stability in a crumbling state and cooperation with the international community, not armed insurrection; isn’t that a kind of nationalism that we might want to encourage?
Yes, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan might raise some crucial questions regionally as well as internationally, but these issues are not set in stone. With some creative foreign policy thinking and a long-term outlook, Iran and Turkey could come to see the wisdom of an independent Kurdistan. It is in the interests of the United States to foster a best-case-scenario in the event of a failed Iraq, and recognizing Kurdish rights to independence is a key step in that process.
This piece is based on a series of what-ifs, most importantly, if Iraq were to become a failed state, broadly defined. I am not in the business of telling the future, and while there are some signs that such a situation is eminent, it may never come to pass. It is also based on an assumption that the KRG would declare independence. Once again, while all indications point to the possibility, it may very well not come to pass.
As President Obama declares that the US is preparing to boost its military presence in Europe to the tune of $1 billion, and NATO and the EU move quickly to deepen relations with Georgia and Moldova it is easy to conclude that the crisis in Ukraine and the recent actions of the Russian Federation are a very European issue. However, if we turn our attention to Mongolia, we can see that worsening US/EU relations with Russia are likely to have a far more global effect than may have been initially assumed.
Mongolia, for its part, seeks to simultaneously maintain good relations with its neighbors (Russia and China) while deepening relations with extra-regional powers such as EU member states, the US, Japan, and South Korea. While maintaining this balance and neutrality is difficult enough in a stable international environment, the recent increase in tensions between Russia and NATO/EU members has made playing both sides of the fence an increasingly delicate process.
The first sign that Mongolia was finding itself in an increasingly sticky situation appeared when the country chose to abstain from the UN resolution condemning the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Everything about Mongolian foreign policy and general international outlook would lead one to believe that Mongolian officials do not welcome Russia’s aggressive actions. Not only would Mongolia not be keen on Russia’s attempts to legitimize its actions by reference to historic rights and “arbitrary decisions” (this having the potential to set a precedent for claims on Mongolia’s territory by China), but this kind of action by a great power against a smaller neighbor more generally underlines Mongolia’s own vulnerability. That said, it is also clear that Mongolia is not in a position to upset its relations with the Russian Federation, given its importance to the Mongolian economy and its role as a neighboring balancer vis-à-vis China. “Abstain” was likely the only decision Mongolia could make.
It would appear that the Russian government is also watching how countries on its eastern borders will respond to the crisis in its relations with Europe and North America. Case in point: Russian President Putin met with Mongolian officials 2 times in just the last 3 weeks. The first time, Mongolian Prime Minister N. Altankhuyag met with Putin to discuss the two countries’ bilateral relationship at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. The second time, Putin met with Mongolian President Elbegdorj at the Confidence Building Measures in Asia meeting in Shanghai. Russia is eager to keep Mongolia from sliding towards the United States and Europe.
While I do not know if the current situation in Ukraine was discussed at these meetings, Ukraine was on the agenda during recent meetings between the Mongolian Minister of Foreign Affairs L. Bold and the British Minister of Foreign Affairs two weeks ago. I would also guess that U.S. Senators Steve Lynch and Steven Shabet mentioned the issue during their visit to Ulaanbaatar as part of an official tour of Asia.
Mongolia and other small states seeking to maintain relations with Russia and the “West” are going to find it increasingly difficult to maintain a favorable balance. As Russia becomes more assertive of its foreign policy and security interests, its relationship with NATO and EU member states is unlikely to improve. While Mongolia has navigated the international arena successfully for the past couple decades, that well thought-out success has a limit. As Mongolia’s international profile rises and relations between real and third neighbors deteriorate, I predict that Mongolia’s goal of an omni-directional foreign policy will become more and more difficult to maintain. Difficult, but by no means impossible.
(Many of the resources and links for the post came directly from my “Foreign Policy Roundup”, which be can found here).
For those of you just tuning in (readership, I have that right?), I also am a regular contributor to "Mongolia Focus", which is run out of UBC and headed by Dr. Julian Dierkes. Besides occasional posts on Mongolian foreign policy issues, I also post a bi-monthly review of Mongolian fopo news stories that I personally translate from the Mongolian press. In addition to showing off my Mongolian language skills, I hope that this will give me and others something of a rough archive on international relations news.
I don't always post them on this blog, but I really should! Please check is below
On invitation of the Mongolia Minister of Law X. Temuujin, the Chinese Minister of Law made an official visit to Ulaanbaatar to exchange ideas of possible cooperation in the sector.
Director of the Mongolian Parliament Z. Enkhbold received the Chinese Ambassador to Mongolia and the Head of the Chinese Investment Corporation. The meeting opened with an expression of gratitude for China’s contributions to the Confidence Building Measures in Asia meeting held in Shanghai. The conversation then moved to discuss the development of coal and natural gas related projects.
Russia’s Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs and Law met with the Mongolian Minister of Law X. Temuujin.
Mongolian Minister of Foreign Affairs L. Bold received the Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs I. V. Morgulov at the Mongolian Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Russia eyes Mongolia as transit country for energy trade in Asia.
Mongolia’s relations with NATO, EU, and Russia effected by situation in Ukraine.
Minister of Foreign Affairs, L. Bold, made an official visit to Sweden and Denmark and with his counterparts in the Swedish and Danish governments. While in Sweden, L. Bold also participated in a meeting of the Mongolia-Sweden Business Forum.
Deputy-Director of the Mongolian Parliament and Director of the Mongolia-Austria Parliamentary Working Group L. Tsog received the Austrian Ambassador to China, the Vice-President of the Austrian Economic Chamber, and economic attaché to the Ambassador.
Mongolia and Vietnam are marking 60 years of diplomatic relations. In honor of this anniversary, an article was released entitled “The First 60 years of Friendship and Cooperation.”
The Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Mongolia and South Korea held their 8th consultative meeting in Seoul.
B. Tsogoo made an official visit to Laos on invitation of the Laotian government.
Mongolia’s General Consul in Istanbul met with representatives from the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs to express Mongolia’s condolences following the mining accident in Soma, Turkey.
Turkey and Mongolia are celebrating 45 years of diplomatic relations.
On the invitation of L. Bold, the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs is making an official visit to Ulaanbaatar.
Mongolia is hosting a UN forum on trade and development in landlocked countries.
For previous postings, please CLICK HERE.
After a years’ worth of flip-flopping on how best to develop my research interests, I have finally come to a couple of conclusions. While I would normally leave my “scholar-soul searching” outside of the Small Matters @Miliatematters.com world, it is my hope that these new directions will influence the nature of the pieces I post here and elsewhere, so consider this the official announcement and warning of the changes to come.
In contrast to the pure area studies scholar, I never had any intention of studying Mongolia to the exclusion of other countries. While I am grateful for the amazing depth of knowledge that Mongolists make available, I also think that comparative work can broaden not only the applicability of my research and expand my ability to find general patterns, but can also contribute to development of a more…personal nature. To that end, and to avoid entering into a larger methodology-centric post (which is forthcoming), I am happy to announce that I will begin studying Burmese this summer at UW-Madison and will likely start Bengali the coming academic year.
The Mongolia-Myanmar connection has been noted by a number of scholars of contemporary Mongolia. Last year, my article on Mongolian-Myanmar relations was posted in The Diplomat. Dr. Julian Dierkes posted a short comparative chart on our blog, Mongolia Focus. The Mongolist author Brain White also visited Myanmar with an eye to looking at possible points of commonality. Dr. Daniel Lynch has been encouraging this move since I casually mentioned it several years ago. My own interests are clear to any follower of the website: small state foreign policy and indigenous self-determination.
I think that this move into inter-regional, comparative work will make a huge difference in my professional opportunities. Not only does it mean that I will likely have the opportunity to study at Australia National University with Dr. Nicholas Farrelly after comps, it will also put me at a critical intersection between South-Southeast Asia, meaning that I will be able to approach Myanmar through India and ASEAN, adding two crucial regions in addition to my already well-developed expertise in Mongolia.
Over the next couple of years, I will be shifting tracks to begin developing some substantive knowledge on the region. While this might mean a little less emphasis on Mongolia, I will still be working on the Foreign Policy Roundup and following developments as I can. Furthermore, the move is explicitly comparative; Mongolia is going to be part of my general area of expertise for a long time to come.
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.
The last two weeks have shown Mongolia’s commitment to furthering its relationship with the European Union, and its ability to use past Soviet-era relationships to fulfill that goal.
President Elbegdorj arrived in Sochi on February 7, to attend the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The president of the Mongolian Organization for Peace presented a medal to the Consul-General of the Russian Federation in Darhan-Uul for his role in Mongolian-Russian relations over the past 30 years.
Upon returning to Ulaanbaatar, Minister L. Bold met with the Korean and Japanese Ambassadors to Mongolia.
Two Mongolian citizens have been transferred from South Korea to Mongolian custody to stand trial under the “Treaty on the Exchange of Criminals” between the two states.
Minister of Foreign Affairs, L. Bold, made his first official visit to Latvia, to discuss the expansion of trade relations between the two countries. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mongolian-Latvian relations were stronger, with many Mongolians studying in Riga.
Following his visit to Latvia, Minister L. Bold traveled to Lithuania. With his Lithuanian counterparts, he discussed how Lithuania could be a key country for Mongolia’s evolving partnership with the EU, and that Mongolia could serve as a gateway for Lithuania into the Northeast Asian economy.
After his tour of the Baltics, Minister L. Bold made an official visit to Poland, where he met with the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs. In recent years, Mongolian-Polish diplomatic and economic relations have expanded rapidly.
The 2014 Mongolian-Hungarian Business Council was held in Veszprém, Hungary to discuss the facilitation of investment, economic, and trade relations.
Mongolia’s newly appointed Ambassador to the Malta, Sh. Odonbaatar, presented his credentials to the Maltese President.
The newly appointed Mongolian Ambassador to Lebanon, B. Odonjil presented his credentials to the Lebanese President.
Mongolia’s Permanent Representative to the UN made a speech at the recent small assembly meeting in Geneva, in which he focused on the danger of the spread of nuclear weapons.
For last year’s 2013 Foreign Policy Roundup postings, please CLICK HERE.
I was recently unfortunate enough to watch a ridiculous youtube video on the worst college majors. I had hoped that it would be balanced and perhaps offer ideas on how less employable disciplines might be combined thoughtfully with more “practical” majors/minors. Rather, it quickly became a rant about the danger of Gender Studies, how such a course of study is biased (see my thoughts on “bias” here) and encourages “wasteful entitlement programs”. While I don’t want to diverge into my policy positions (although clearly me and youtube advisor-man are not in agreement), I did want to take the opportunity to jump into another part of my autobiographical series of posts. As I become increasingly skeptical of “disciplines” and the logic of studying political science divorced from the other social sciences, I have also realized that my approach to scholarship, analysis, and even my personal choices have been largely shaped by the skills developed in USC’s Gender Studies Department.
My first Gender Studies class was taught by Louis Banner and dealt with gender and sexuality in American history- pretty much your typical broadly organized freshman seminar, paired with am introductory writing class. Pairing a Gender Studies class with a course on basic writing really combines the best of both worlds. Gender Studies, more than other majors, is largely structured around the development of critical thinking skills: questioning deeply held social norms on how things “are”, “are supposed to be”, and “should be” but in a context that every person is intimately familiar with. More than that though, I was forced to start articulating my own ideas and spelling out the logic of critical thought in a more or less coherent manner. Needless to say, after the class I was the most annoying student in every other class I took, constantly questioning the logic of IR theory, liberal feminism, and so on. At family gatherings I would go on ad nauseam on “social constructions”, queer theory, LGBT rights, heterocentric norms, and so on (and on and on and on).
The problem with casual students of Gender Studies, and perhaps with the way the discipline in taught at an undergraduate level, is that we seem to stop at the basics. It does not take any real brilliance to pick up the vocabulary of oppression, privilege, or social justice. I remember feeling that I had learned the secrets of the universe. After all, when you can theorize your own disadvantage and the privilege of others, what could you possibly learn from continued reading, or (dare I say it) real life experience?
The good thing about Gender Studies classes, is that in the end you can count on someone even more out-of-sync/hyper-theoretical to challenge your own stances. I remember hearing a student use the idea of internalized oppression to deny the agency of non-European peoples. It was argued that all sexual relationships between white and non-white peoples are based on oppressive power relations that effectively deny non-white choice. The argument eventually took a turn for the worse when in addition to denying agency and the continually victimizing the non-European person, the student took the argument further by suggesting that only Europeans can “other” people. Clearly, if this is the culmination of a Gender Studies education than Mr. Youtube-Guru above might have a leg to stand on.
Luckily for the rest of us, Gender Studies doesn’t stop at the ridiculous musings of some insight-lacking undergraduate. Indeed, my example is clearly dramatized and exaggerated to prove a point. The problem with Gender Studies is that students might stop taking on new ideas too early, missing the crucial insight to find the nuance in the writings they read as freshman. For me the biggest take ways from Gender Studies were the issues of agency, victimization, voice, gendering the other, and questioning current conditions and the limits of the possible.
The skills, vocabulary, the thinking skills imparted by Gender Studies continue to inform my approach and engagement with my areas of interest, even though I don’t characterize myself as a Gender Studies student. It is also this background that makes me question the logic of disciplinary political science, and –without any atmosphere of superiority- sets me apart from many other people in the discipline.
Gender Studies as a system of critical thought trains students to look at issues from multiple vantage points. How and by whom have women been historically constructed? How have these views changed? What can we learn from the nature of the changing discourse on the feminine versus the masculine? Does this change imply a socially constructed world that is far more flexible than we assume? It doesn’t take too much thought to push this kind of thinking into an analysis of political phenomenon, even if gender and sexuality are not the center of one’s interest. (Although, I am given to believe that gender, sex, and sexuality, ultimately inform far more than we are aware of, even when we take on questions of foreign policy, war, etc.).
As I continue my reading of critical International Relations, indigenous policy, and asymmetric foreign relations, I am increasingly referred/referring back to ideas crucial to the study of gender, including voice, agency, and hegemony. For example: How has the international state system been historically conceptualized? How have these views and the system itself changed? Doesn’t this inherently unstable system require analysts to look outside of state structures and look for new ways of more ethical international organization? Who is in charge of defining “ethical” in the first place?
Gender Studies might lend itself to bad analysis and lazy thought by allowing students to stop too early with cheap terms such as “oppression”, “inequality”, and “privilege”. At the same time, I find it doubtful that most people are able to stop at this irresponsible logic for very long. Most people will be pushed forward by counter arguments and the reality of the world they will have engage with. For most of us Gender Studies is a very approachable way to develop key critical thinking skills that can inform how we see and engage with the world far longer than our formal education.
Gender Studies, far from being useless, can be incredibly rewarding for many students. While I wouldn’t recommend it is a stand alone major, I would highly encourage all students to take at least one class in the discipline, and would even argue that it should be made a mandatory part of general education requirements.
My article in the The Diplomat has recently been released in the ASEAN Beat section of the website.
Check it out
In this article, I discuss the potential of Mongolia and Myanmar's future relations, arguing that the countries are likely to cooperate in the following three sectors:
1. Democratic development
2. Natural Resource Development
3. Foreign Policy
I wrap up with a look at the differences between the two countries, but conclude on the positive note.
Take a look and let me know what you think!
…or rather how biased do you have to be in order to expect a balanced reporting of the issues to always result in a conclusion that makes neither side out to be the bad guy?
I have long been disturbed by what I perceive as a spreading idea that unbiased reporting (I am taking reporting in the broadest definition) on an issue will yield a result that is “balanced and fair.” I’ve recently heard this in relation to the Circassian genocide in 1864, the Russo-Chechen War in the 1990s, and in reference to Uighur history in Chinese Xinjiang.
The argument usually goes something like this: “So and So’s book/think-tank, etc. is so unbalanced and incredibly biased, because they only show one side to the conflict”. This really just comes down to an inherently biased expectation that readers seem to be infected with from high school: unbiased and fair reporting always means that both sides are wrong/both sides are in the right. We expect unbiased reporting to mean that there is no clear bad guy, no villain, no unjust, rather both sides have a justified and credible story to tell.
This is so far off point it is just plain stupid. I am sympathetic to the fact that every problem of substantive impact is complicated with overlapping concerns, histories, and motivations. I am also sympathetic to the fact that it is sometimes too simple to just cry wolf and run away from the complexity of problems (I do it myself for short blog postings!). What I am not sympathetic to are those that find it even simpler to assume that there is no one in the wrong in the first place. This, as far as I am concerned, is academic escapism, designed to perpetuate the status quo and inherently coercive in that is denies rights to victims by avoiding identifying a victim and perpetrator in the first place.
The Chechen War in the 1990s is a good example, where people will often accuse a number of writers of being unbalanced in their assessment of the conflict because they point the war crimes of the Russian side more often than those of the Chechen side. More often than not this will come from students of contemporary Russia, who seem to feel that anything that paints the Russian government and Russian military as the perpetrators of mass killings and war crimes is somehow biased. If a recent facebook argument involving myself and a Russian acquaintance is any indication, it is as if such people feel that accusing a Russian institution of criminal activity and actions comparable to genocide is the same as accusing the whole of the Russian people of this action. Well, lets just be clear that I do not blame the entirety or even the majority of Russian people for tragedies in Chechnya. But lets also be clear that all the evidence I have come across shows pretty clearly that in Russo-Chechen relations, it is more often the Russian side that has taken the more deplorable approach first.
The logic will then invariably turn into something like this: Yeah, well let’s talk about the American crimes against its own indigenous peoples. This statement is not meant to lead to any debate, but is rather meant to silence the so-called biased party. Let me be clear (again) that this is a major question that needs to be addressed in US society, but also lets point out that the US has admitted to these crimes, rather than shy away by shifting guilt to someone else. It is a rare and ultimately inconsequential psychopath that would try and justify American actions against indigenous peoples.
This brings me to my point: We have to stop assuming that a balanced and fair reporting of a story will always look a certain way, and leave the reader with the idea that there is no clear guilty party. The truth is that we are more comfortable without a guilty party, because it means we can write off an incident as just too complicated to take on. In reality, there do exist real cases where real crimes are committed against peoples. Americans have no problem with admitting our own country’s guilty in the genocides against Native Americans, and for good reason: we are clearly the guilty party. Lets not assume that incidents abroad will always be more “balanced” and “fair”, and lets not assume the balanced and fair reporting will always look a certain way.
At the end of the day, that is the worst bias of all.
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.