Khurelksukh’s (First Presidential) Visit to the UN General Assembly

By Julian Dierkes

U Khurelsukh attended the annual UN General Assembly in New York for the first time since his election as president.

His participation and the speech he gave was notable for a number of things:

  • His personal involvement and meetings held on the sidelines suggest a greater interest in the UN and in international relations more generally than we saw from his predecessor, Kh Battulga
  • In his speech, Khurelsukh did not mention Mongolia’s candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council strongly suggesting that Mongolia will not actively campaign in the election and will thus leave Japan to win that seat
  • Of course, Chinggis Khaan was mentioned
  • 1 billion trees? Okay then!

This was not Khurelsukh’s first visit to the UN, of course. He spoke to the General Assembly as Prime Minister in 2018.

But, it was his first visit as president and with an MPP government in place leaving him free to design a foreign policy for his six-year term in collaboration with PM Oyun-Erdene and FM Battsetseg.

In the discussion below, I draw on the officially published English version of his speech.

UN Security Council

Ahead of the speech, I was most curious to see what would become of Mongolia’s candidacy for a non-permanent seat  on the UN Security Council. Pres Elbegdorj had declared this candidacy in 2014, eight years ahead of the 2022 election. To me, this step would have had a certain logic to it with Mongolia’s increasing involvement in UN matters.

And, indeed, Khurelsukh in his speech seemed to be leading up to some announcement like that. He pointed to the 60th anniversary of Mongolia’s UN membership and various other contributions. But then, to my surprise and disappointment, he did not end that section with a call for support, i.e. “And that’s why you should vote for Mongolia in next year’s election”. Together with the Univ of Gothenburg’s U Möller, I’ve speculated about what might have led to that decision. In this review of the speech here, I would say that the overview of UN activities led up to

Mongolia will host an international conference on participation of female peacekeepers in the UN PKOs next year in Ulaanbaatar. We call on the Department of Peace Operations and Member States to support and cooperate in organizing this conference. (p. 5)

COVID

Khurelsukh spoke A LOT about COVID.

This is an area where I am just not sure what the conventional wisdom is on what heads of state can do with these speeches. Sure, for Brazil (who traditionally goes first) or for big powers, the world is listening and announcements of unilateral initiatives or international relations will find a ready audience, though perhaps generally not a popular audience.

But what about Khurelsukh who is in the first group of speakers (heads of state) but not early on. Who is listening to this speech (other than me)? UN ambassadors? Is that the audience? The Mongolian public? Foreign governments? International publics?

Whatever the intended audience might be, do they all not know about COVID?

Khurelsukh’s first substantive paragraph was thus,

In the past two years, countries around the world have been plagued by the unforeseen pandemic and going through arduous times together. On behalf of the people of Mongolia, I would like to express my deepest condolences for the loss of 4.6 million lives worldwide due to the coronavirus. Taking this opportunity, I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to doctors, medical personnel and frontline workers, who are tirelessly serving to safeguard precious lives and health of people in every corner of our planet. (p. 1)

And he continued on in a similar vein, i.e. general statements, a little bit of detail about Mongolia and COVAX. No news in this, no domestic policy announcements, no international initiatives.

Transit Mongolia

At the end of the UN history discussion, there is a short paragraph about a vision of Mongolia as a transit hub in connection to the work of the Think Tank for Landlocked Developing Countries:

As we continue the work to ensure the special needs and interests of landlocked developing countries, based upon the advantage of our geographical location, we strive to develop into “Transit Mongolia”, a transit, trade and service hub connecting Asia and Europe. (p. 4)

I do not recall the terminology of “Transit Mongolia” before, but the likelihood of Mongolia establishing itself as a logistics hub between Europe and Asia has always struck me as low, even though this has been advanced in regard to the new airport, various railroad projects and even Belt & Road.

Chinggis and Nomadic Wisdom, Really?

Readers of this blog will know by now that I have a bit of a Chinggis-as-contemporary-political-reference or research-on-Chinggis allergy. But, of course, Chinggis Khaan is definitely a Mongolian trademark and recognizable around the globe, so perhaps not surprising that 800-year-ago-history also gets a mention in the UNGA speech.

There is a widespread misconception that our ancestor Chinggis Khan was a vicious man who conquered many nations. However, world history and studies show that he was adherent of diplomacy, and he was a peacemaker with true desire to set borders without hostilities.

Congratulations, Jack Weatherford, you’ve been cited by the Mongolian president in his address to the UN General Assembly.

His dream was realized through a solid peace that lasted for almost 200 years on the great chessboard of Eurasia and world scholars call this period “Pax Mongolica” which made a noteworthy contribution to the development of humankind. We, Mongolians, have inherited this spirit of cherishing peace from our ancestors, and today, Mongolia is internationally recognized as a peace-loving democratic nation. (p. 4)

And then, some nomadic wisdom thrown in for good measure.

The natural self-recovery reminds me of the nomadic know-how of leaving the pastureland “fallow” or “leaving the pastureland for rest”. This is a Mongolian herders’ wisdom to offer to the motherland an opportunity to rest a while and to recover and revive itself. In our fight against climate change, let us draw lessons from the Mongolian traditional “nomadic civilization” to treat and regard the nature respectfully and combine it with achievements of modern science and technology as well as best practices and traditional experiences from all over the world. (p. 7)

Hm…

There we re also two short mentions of two areas that the current MPP government is prioritizing, i.e. e-Mongolia and Vision 2050.

Trees

The part of the speech that seems to have received the most attention from Mongolians is the mention of a tree-planting campaign.

In the section on climate change, Khurelsukh said,

The most efficient way to reverse desertification is planting trees. We, Mongolians, ponder that planting trees, writing books and raising children are the three superior deeds. Hence, we have launched a campaign to plant billions of trees by 2030 from this podium of the General Assembly in order to contribute to the global fight against climate change. (p. 7)

“Billions of trees” is a lot of trees, but it seems that Khurelsukh saw this as a global commitment rather than a tree planting program focused on Mongolia per se. Most Mongolians seem to have interpreted this as specific to Mongolia. But perhaps he actually did mean Mongolia. The Canadian government has committed to planting 2b trees over ten years. Canada has more than six times Mongolia’s total area, but perhaps more significantly, a much greater share of Canada’s territory is forested. Efforts at reforestation of Mongolia would certainly seem to be worthwhile, so perhaps this announcement was welcome news to many Mongolians.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He tweets @jdierkes
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