Mongolian Foreign Policy: Rapid Growth, Third Neighbours and Moral Authority

Mongolia’s foreign policy has received some attention over the past several years. Most of this attention, especially recently, seems to derive from Mongolia’s current status as the fastest growing economy in the world.

Jean-Frédéric Légaré-Tremblay has provided a very cogent assessment of Mongolia’s place in the world for the Canadian International Council.

In this article, Légaré-Tremblay lists the following aspects:

  • military vulnerability
  • “third neighbour policy”
  • peace-keeping operations
  • North Korea

He ends his overview with the puzzle of Pres. Elbegdorj’ recent visit to Iran.

There are some further elements that make Mongolian foreign policy interesting. Légaré-Tremblay rightly highlights Mongolia’s exceptional status as Asia’s only post-socialist democracy. This status gives the country not only access to some of the high-powered third neighbours it has pursued (note U.S. Sec of State Hilary Clinton’s visit to Mongolia this summer), but also gives it some moral authority. [Note that discussions with Brandon Miliate have shaped many of my views on this moral authority and I have learned from Mendee Jargalsaikhan about foreign policy more generally.] Institutionally, this moral authority is visible in Mongolia’s presidency of the “Community of Democracies“, but it is also associated with the country’s increasing status in other organizational spheres like the UN Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States or the Non-Aligned Movement.

This moral authority surely also in the end made the recognition of Mongolia as a nuclear-weapon free state by the UN Security Council possible in September 2012, a step that the country had been pursuing since its declaration of nuclear-weapon free status in 1992, but that the UN SC had been reluctant to grant due to perceptions of the complications associated with a single-country nuclear weapons-free zone (given that Mongolia’s two neighbours, Russia and China, are both declared nuclear powers). In this forum as well as so many others, Mongolia clearly punches above its weight and its democratic status is a strong factor in this relative visibility.

It is perhaps not surprising that the status of Mongolia’s democracy has been chosen as the avenue of attack of former Mongolian president Enkhbayar especially in the ever-more bizarre writings of a certain blogger. If these writings were to succeed in tainting Mongolia’s democratic reputation (without any particular factual basis, see my article “Mongolian Democracy Crawls, But Moves Ahead” in the Wall Street Journal Asia in July 2012,) this would be a serious blow to Mongolia’s foreign policy. Yet, reasonable and cooler heads will hopefully prevail to reinforce Mongolia’s status in this regard and confirm the Freedom House classification of Mongolia as “free”.

Finally, the matter of Pres. Elbegdorj’ visit to Iran and his “inspection” of the Natanz uranium enrichment plant.  I was initially quite puzzled myself about this visit in the context of the 16th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement. Why would the Mongolian president – whom no one suspects of harbouring ambitions for nuclear weapons, as confirmed by the recent UN SC recognition of nuclear weapons-free status – visit a facility that is at the root of one of the burning geopolitical challenges at the moment.

There are no particular resource links with Iran, i.e. Mongolia does not appear to be importing any significant quantity of oil from Iran. While there is an ancient Mongolian diaspora in Iran historically associated with the Ilkhanate and the Hazaras, this has been the focus of some initiatives from Mongolia (such as the Mongol Heritage Foundation or the Organization for the Study of Diaspora Mongols), but the fate of diaspora Mongols remains a fringe topic of interest and pan-Mongolism a fringe political movement.

In the end, Pres. Elbegdorj has offered a persuasive explanation that draws on Mongolia’s moral authority as I have also outlined it above. In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour Pres. Elbegdorj said, “Iran’s nuclear activities should not endanger any independent country’s security. Second, Iran should comply with the UN Security Council’s resolutions. Also, […] Mongolia has nuclear weapon-free zone status. That is a status that is not only important in our region, but it is a status that is important for the rest of the world.”

While the world’s attention to Mongolia over the coming years will be rooted in its economic development and natural resources, its moral authority has been growing on the basis of democratic reforms and an active and openly-engaged foreign policy.

From a Canadian perspective, it is Mongolia’s moral authority that is of great interest in addition to its attempts to lift itself up by its natural resources bootstraps. These twin aspects will surely be something to celebrate in the coming year of the 40th anniversary of Canadian-Mongolian diplomatic relations (2013).

Mongolia Today authors on Mongolia’s foreign policy

Julian Dierkes

Expanding Canada-Mongolia Relations: Resource-Based Democracies in Collaboration“, Canada-Asia Agenda, 7 (April 2010), Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

Mongolia’s ‘third neighbour’ policy and its impact on foreign investment” East Asia Forum, February 15, 2011

Mongolian Democracy Crawls, But Moves Ahead“. Wall Street Journal Asia. July 9, 2012: 15.

蒙古 寻求外商投资的多元化” [Mongolia to Seek Foreign Investment Diversification]. 21世纪经济报道 [21st Century Business Herald]. August 28, 2012: 19.

Mendee Jargalsaikhan

Mongolia–Australia relations: a Mongolian perspective” Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Sept 14 2012.

Factoring Mongolia’s Non-Membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Voices From Central Asia, no. 4, July 2012.

Finally a New Era in NATO-Mongolia RelationsVoices From Central Asia, no. 1, June 2012.

Mongolia’s Quest for Third Neighbours: Why the European Union?EUCAM Policy Brief, No.25, July 2012.

Why is Russia Favored by Mongolia and North Korea?PacNet, August 21, 2012.

Brandon Miliate

Sec. Hilary Clinton has finally arrived … in UBMongolia Today July 9 2012.


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 toots
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