What can Obama learn from Genghis Khan?

As president of Mongolia, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, is the heir to what was once an empire covering almost a quarter of the Earth’s landmass. In other words, he’s got some thoughts on the topic of global hegemony: “It is tough, but Mongolia was the biggest power in the world, and we had the same responsibility,” said ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
552683_110620_portrait_GenghisKhan2.jpg
552683_110620_portrait_GenghisKhan2.jpg

As president of Mongolia, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, is the heir to what was once an empire covering almost a quarter of the Earth's landmass. In other words, he's got some thoughts on the topic of global hegemony:

“It is tough, but Mongolia was the biggest power in the world, and we had the same responsibility,” said Elbegdorj, who is to meet with President Obama at the White House on Thursday to pitch his country as a stable, pro-American democracy deserving of more attention.

Sandwiched between a rising, authoritarian China and an often pugnacious and, in these parts, still very powerful Russia, Mongolia is the only nation in the vast expanse of territory conquered by Genghis Khan in the 13th century that holds regular elections and lets power pass peacefully between rival parties.

As president of Mongolia, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, is the heir to what was once an empire covering almost a quarter of the Earth’s landmass. In other words, he’s got some thoughts on the topic of global hegemony:

“It is tough, but Mongolia was the biggest power in the world, and we had the same responsibility,” said Elbegdorj, who is to meet with President Obama at the White House on Thursday to pitch his country as a stable, pro-American democracy deserving of more attention.

Sandwiched between a rising, authoritarian China and an often pugnacious and, in these parts, still very powerful Russia, Mongolia is the only nation in the vast expanse of territory conquered by Genghis Khan in the 13th century that holds regular elections and lets power pass peacefully between rival parties.

The United States, like Mongolia in its heyday, “has a responsibility to help those who are trying to follow in its steps,” Elbegdorj said in an interview in a felt-lined tent outside his official residence in the Mongolian capital.

Genghis Khan’s warriors killed lots of people, to be sure, but according to the president, a Soviet-trained former military journalist who helped lead Mongolia’s democratic revolution in 1990, it was done in a good cause.

“Do you think we just went to places and killed?” Elbegdorj said. “No.”

Mongolia, he said, used its muscle to keep trade along the Silk Road flowing and to enforce a written law. And “when there was a killer, or in today’s expression, a terrorist nation,” he said, “we were God’s will to make them peaceful. .?.?. When there was a poor nation, we helped them.”

Today, too, Elbegdorj said, “sometimes you have to pay attention to your friends.”

But there are cautionary lessons as well:

Serdaram Damdin, a professor of Mongolian history in Ulaanbaatar, said the United States, too, needs to avoid pulling back and becoming paralyzed by domestic quarrels. Otherwise, he said, Pax Americana will go the way of Genghis Khan’s Pax Mongolica, which, consumed by infighting after centuries of supremacy, shriveled to insignificance.

“Genghis Khan waged war to bring peace. America is doing the same thing now,” Damdin said. “If there is no involvement by America, the world would be back where it was in the Middle Ages.”

Elbegdorj wrote a piece for FP back in April, suggesting some lessons revolutionary countries in the Middle East might take from Mongolia’s more recent history. Elbegdorj is coming to town to discuss several commercial ventures, including coal-mining rights and aircraft sales. It will also be interesting to see whether anything comes of reports from earlier this year that Mongolia was considering opening a nuclear-waste storage facility for its East Asian neighbors.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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