Alicia Campi: The secret of Mongols existence in the world is...

Journalist A.Odontuya

2017-07-14 12:12 GMT+8

Dr. Alicia Campi has a Ph.D. in Mongolian Studies, was involved in the preliminary negotiations to establish diplomatic relations between the USA and Mongolia in the 1980s, and served as a diplomat in Ulaanbaatar.


-What made you study and research Mongolia in the first place?
-When I was a young person, 12 or 13, I read a book about Chinggis Khaan. Chinggis Khaan, in my opinion, is a special gift to modern contemporary Mongolia. Because I became interested in Asia and then China, and then the other countries that I served in as a Foreign Service Officer– Taiwan and Singapore – because I was first interested in Chinggis Khaan. I chose to study about Mongolia because of him. Now I have moved my area of expertise far beyond Chinggis Khaan and the Mongol empire, but he is the one who attracted me to your country. I know many Europeans, Asians, and even Africans. They have all heard of Chinggis Khaan. Maybe they know that Mongolia is now a mineral-based economy. Maybe they know that there will be construction and education in Mongolia, and none of them actually do any historical research or work in archeology. But that image of this man who is so special in world history attracts them to Mongolia. That is why I chose Asia as a field because I chose Mongolia first.

-What is your main goal now in studying about Mongolia?
-I had a very lucky life. Because I have had the opportunity to originally start out as a researcher and a student of Mongolian history, and then had a chance to serve my country as a diplomat. Then I had an amazing opportunity to conduct preliminary negotiations with my counterpart for diplomatic relationships with the country I cared about. Because of that experience, I became very interested in diplomatic history and then foreign policy and foreign relations. But this also has served me as a growing mechanism to help me understand your country better today. I need to learn more about the economy. I need to learn more about the environmental problems, the domestic politics, the social and mineral issues. I need to grow constantly in my knowledge in order to understand Mongolia as its moving forward in the 21st century. My special contribution has been, instead, that I always knew from the beginning about the nomadic nature of this country. Its heritage, its special culture. The thing that is different about Mongolia, which I teach in Washington, DC, is that you are an Asian people yet you are not a Sinocentric people, meaning neither your social norms nor your thinking is based on Confucian thought. You can see things from an equal point of view – one person as equal to another, one idea equal to another. This is not the Sinocentric tradition that stems from Confucian philosophy.

The thing that is different about Mongolia is that you are an Asian people yet you are not a Sinocentric people, meaning neither your social norms nor your thinking is based on Confucian thought.

But at the same time, you have lived next door for thousands of years to people like the Chinese, the Koreans, the Vietnamese, and the Japanese who think very much like that, because they have societies based on the Confucian tradition. So you know how to work with that, but at the same time you are not like that. You are able to embrace democracy truly. Because in Mongolia one “aravt” was equal to another “aravt” based on the ability to raise the herds to keep the family strong. This is an amazing thing in Asia. It is very different. This is why Mongolia did not disappear from the world. You have a small population, but you are still here because it [seeing things as equal and not adopting Confucianism] has given you flexibility and adaptability. Also, there is something a little mysterious about Mongolians. Foreigners get irritated about this. I know that: you do not follow the pattern. But that is why you still exist. I am very pleased that I have had the opportunity in my lifetime because I really cared about Mongolia, to be able to bridge between my country – which is far away and with completely different traditions – and your country. For me, that has been a very meaningful experience. I like to share the commonalities and help promote, as much as I possibly can, communication between our two societies and peoples.

-What are you working on now?
-I am continuing to write a great deal and I am looking very closely at Mongolia. Its policy towards triliteralism: a new way for it to be active with its two great neighbors. But at the same time, to be an equal part of the triangle and not be manipulated by its two big neighbors. I am also very interested in the issue of Eurasian development, and then that spills into whether or not Mongolia should really be involved in “One Belt, One Road.” What are the pluses and minuses of such integration.

I am also constantly looking at Mongolian society and how it is able to retain the fundamentals of nomadic society while modernizing and integrating more into the Asian region. These kinds of issues are not just single financial, political, and military issues. They are interlinked with each other, and you have to have a broad background and be willing to study new things in order to come up with a better understanding of what Mongolia is doing; and how to predict likely Mongolian behavior in the Parliament or in the policy-making circles.


-You are the author of “The Impact of China and Russia on United States-Mongolian Political Relations in the Twentieth Century.” Could you tell us the impact of Mongolia`s two neighbors on U.S.-Mongolia political relations?
-Mongolia is a landlocked country and its two giant neighbors have historically had a great impact on the politics, economy, and society of Mongolia. That is why I chose that title. One can`t understand the growth of Mongolian independence throughout the 20th century without knowing how China and Russia attempted, and are still attempting to a great degree, to influence Mongolia’s policies and people. Mongolia is not alone in this situation, but it has a distinct situation because of its geographical position. It can`t ignore the impact of its two neighbors.

-What changes are you expecting to see in the political relations between our two countries during President Donald Trump’s tenure in office
-It is obvious that U.S. relations with Mongolia are greatly influenced by U.S.-China relations and U.S.-Russia relations. The Trump administration is not different from other U.S. administrations. However, at this particular time, there is a special way that Mongolia has come to the attention of the Trump administration as it did for the Obama administration. That is because Mongolia is the one country in Northeast Asia that has a good relationship with North Korea. Since the North Korean situation has become quite sensitive now and it is an important challenge for the Trump administration to try to solve and settle in a peaceful way. Mongolia has an opportunity to play a significant role that will help make the situation in this region more peaceful. For that fact alone, the Trump administration, I believe, is aware of Mongolia’s special connection to North Korea and hopes that Mongolia will be able to participate in a constructive way.

Mongolia is the one country in Northeast Asia that has a good relationship with North Korea. Mongolia has an opportunity to play a significant role that will help make the situation in this region more peaceful.

-Due to the fact that we came through 70 years of socialism, most Mongolians prefer Russians to Chinese. Mongolians tend to hate China or Chinese. Have you ever noticed this attitude? How is it internationally observed?
-As a historian of Mongolia, I am fully aware of the feelings and the emotions between Mongolia and China. It is on both sides. It is not just that Mongolia has a dislike for China. China has a dislike as well, which is based on a fear that goes all the way back to the Mongolian Empire. So it is not just a one-way street. This has a historical basis. It is a situation that exists. Both sides have to be realistic about it. It does not mean that you are going to be enemies, you can still be trade partners and have a good diplomatic relationship with each other. But it is also a question of a historical issue.

In Northeast Asia, we have many long-standing historical issues that disturb the economic and national security relations of the different states in the region. For example, a bad relationship for historical reasons exists between Japan and the Koreans, a bad relationship exists between Japan and China because of World War II. These historical issues at times become very intense and people have nationalistic feelings, and sometimes take it out on the country that they remember from their point of view did them harm. But at the same time, we - especially in contemporary society - know that we have to care for the benefits of all the populations in this region and try to control these emotional feelings; so that we can have at least stable and economically successful relationships.

The second point to understand is that Mongolia is not the only country in the world that is in this situation. You have in Europe many similar situations. Historical problems between Germany and France, historical problems between Poland and Russia. These are always below the surface, sometimes they rise and affect the national security or political relationships between the countries. But at other times, when the sentiments have not been inflamed by politicians, or by a specific incident, the people can have normal economic relations with each other. Mongolia is not that unusual.

The third point to make is that the two neighbors [of Mongolia] are gigantic countries with many other neighbors on their borders. China, for example, is a country that has problems with many other countries besides Mongolia. In some ways, the Mongolian situation has very specific reasons for it.  It is a pattern that exists another place in the world and also in the Asian region.

-What do you think about our foreign policy?
-I think that Mongolia has, in the democratic era, had some great challenges to face. Because when the socialist system was dispensed with, they Mongolia did not find itself in a situation like in Eastern European countries that had industrial and agricultural bases with some elements of a middle class and popular representation by the people in the government. Mongolia did not have any of that. The difficult decision was taken to both promote democratic values at the same time as the private market because if you just promoted like another Asian country, a private market economy, you would not have the basis for decision making. This is because Mongolian society is nomadic, and it is not based originally on agriculture or industry. This is the key unique thing about Mongolia: the nomadic heritage and nomadic psychology. It is you your great asset because it ensures you are flexible and can respond quickly to your neighbors in your region, and to challenges, and also to endure difficult situations better than the sedentary people around you. But at the same time, it has been very economically costly.

I was here in Mongolia during the early 1990s when the communal economy collapsed. Young people today do not appreciate what their parents had to go through. I remember the long lines, the deprivation. Nobody had milk in Ulaanbaatar. When I see and walk outside today in Ulaanbaatar, I marvel and I am so proud of Mongolia that they built this great city and that they have actually promoted development in the countryside and far areas of this country. A representative democracy as well as a market economy. It is not perfect, but compared to your neighbors Mongolia has done this in a very short period of time. And this is really an economic miracle. I believe that in the future people will study the case of Mongolia, not because it is the model for everybody, but because it was such an exceptional thing.


-The presidential election is approaching. How do you see the political culture of Mongolia?
-One of the first things I remind Westerners about, especially Americans, who complain about Mongolian democracy, transparency, and corruption, is how they approach their legal agreements with mining companies. I say, “We were the ones who wanted Mongolia to be a democracy.” We got our wish and you are a democracy. In a democracy people have the right to decide how they want to go forward, to change their minds, to make decisions maybe that are stupid. But the people have the right to decide. You see, right now in my own country, we have a lot of tension and conflict within our society about how the United States will go forward. Again, it is a democracy. Political scientists say democracy is not a clean and neat thing. If it is, then it is not a real democracy.

At a time when democracy is messy, maybe we are going to have a very contested election, or not have a clear winner.

Mongolians are almost too democratic in some ways because every Mongolian has an opinion and every Mongolian wants to be “khaan.” This problem of not being good at teamwork or waiting your turn are problems that Mongolia particularly has to face. In terms of what people generally call corruption even that I say we have to be careful before we criticize. You have a very small population, you only have a small set of talent especially at the beginning of a transition process. When I was here in 1990, working at the U.S. Embassy, and throughout the transition process, you did not have a lot of people that you could go to and say “bid on this” or who you were able to select for this particular project with that particular skill. You just did not have it. It is not China. It is not the United States. So this means, in a small population people know each other, people are related to each other.

But at the same time, that is the nature of a small society, and so we can`t try to pretend that just because we are related to each other, we can never have political or economic connections. It just does not make sense for Mongolia. That is why I think foreign observers have to be cautious in pressuring Mongolia.

At the same time Mongolians themselves know, you see this in the service, they have problems with transparency, corruption. But Mongolians also now know how to speak up. I have every confidence in them that through the press, and through now with the modern internet, we will have a lot of exposure of political and economic activity; and it does not mean that we are not going to continue to see problems. Democracy does not promise that. Democracy instead promises that people will have a just and a fair opportunity. The people themselves have to take that responsibility in their hands. I have a great deal of confidence in Mongolia and I am not negative or pessimistic about this.

At a time when democracy is messy, maybe we are going to have a very contested election, or not have a clear winner. Maybe this will show the differences between the candidates and society. It may signal that there needs to be some kind of constitutional reform. These kinds of situations present new challenges and ask new questions. But I am sure Mongolia will be able to handle it.  

-What things project a bad image of us to the world?
-The first image, even for people who were negatively affected by the Mongolian empire, is the image of Chinggis Khaan and wide open spaces. That is a historical image and it has been taught to children in Western countries and far away societies like Indonesia.

Right now the situation has changed because Mongolia has a mining economy, and there is a very negative perception that is especially strong in mining and financial circles. The negativity comes from a lack of a clear-cut, stable legal system and a lack of predictability of behavior. As a historian and specialist on Mongolia, Mongolia is never going to be stable and predictable. Nomads are not stable and predictable. That is why they survive. I also consider right now in my country that we have a government led by a president who is not predictable, and it is causing lots of anguish and criticism. This is why I see actually something again here a similarity at this particular moment.

Mongolians have to understand that you are an example and inspiration for some countries and for some people. 

-What are some specific impressions about Mongolia among Asian countries?
- One is a very interesting impression that I see, because I do consult work, is that there is a lot of confusion in Asian countries, particularly Northeast Asian countries, towards Mongolia. Because, as I said, this is where you talking about traditional cultures. These are countries that have developed their own versions of  Western-style economies like Japan, South Korea, and China. These are based on a Confucian class tradition of superior-inferior, where respect for one’s elders exists, but that also means older people have all the power. Now Mongolians have respect for their elders, but the older people do not have always have the power. This is very confusing for your neighbors because they look at you and say you are Asian. But you do not act like an “Asians.” But sometimes you do act like “Asians.” I find that for your region, Mongolia is considered as a big question mark.

I was in China and talked to some Chinese who said they are totally confused about the upcoming presidential election. But that is okay. It is good to be confused and good to have an election where you do not already know who is going to be the winner. In China, we do not have these kinds of elections. We would say it is not an open election. These kinds of difference are not just because of policies that your government has today. These are caused by historical experience. Now Mongolia has to change the way it does some things.  You have flexibility, which allows you to quickly turn and change your policy, which is good but can be considered disloyal when you break contracts for instance.  You will have to find a way to navigate and find ways to move forward while maintaining your nomadic heritage. Because it is so important that as a people you keep this. What kind of things will have to be modified by law, by society, and education so that you can integrate better to cooperate and make your voice heard and respected in the world? This is a challenge for your generation and it will always be a challenge. It is not because you are a different kind of Asian country, and instead of worrying about that – embrace it! Because that is an excellent thing to be. That is why you are a bridge in talks with North Korea, and talk with the Turks, and talk with the Iranians. Because of your flexibility, because of the way you see the world.

I am a person who sees the glass as half-full. Lots of people in the world complain about Mongolia because they see it is a half-empty. But the very fact that Mongolia exists in the world today is a great testament to Mongolia. I had a professor when I was at university and he looked at me when I was 25 years old and said, “If you look at it ‘on paper,’ Mongolia should not exist in history, but it does.” Instead of thinking about all the wrong things, people should look and say, “How could Mongolia do that when so many other people around China and Russia got lost and disappeared?” That is what we should study about you. When I was in Tibet, I met young Tibetian people who said, “We want to know what Mongolia did right.” Mongolians have to understand that you are an example and inspiration for some countries and for some people. 

-Thank you for the interview. 

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