Michael S. Klecheski :This strategic partnership is more than just words on paperThe Mongol Messenger
MONTSAME news agency interviewed U.S. Ambassador
Michael S. Klecheski.
1. Mongolia attaches great importance to its relationship and cooperation with the United States within the framework of its third neighbor policy. Mongolia became the 17th country to establish a strategic partnership with the United States, showing that the United States also attaches importance to its relationship with Mongolia. More than a year has passed since the U.S. – Mongolia strategic partnership was established. What progress and changes do you think have taken place in bilateral relations and cooperation to date?
Our strategic partnership is important not just for our two nations but for the entire region because it represents a shining example of international cooperation between democracies. Our relationship is founded on our shared values of democracy, human rights, free and fair private sector economic growth, and the sovereignty of nations. These are fundamental values in both our countries – they are very real, in that both Americans and, I am convinced, Mongolians, genuinely believe in them in practice - and this is why our partnership is so strong and growing even closer.
We have seen this commitment to democracy in vibrant action this year, with historic national elections in both our countries. Our shared democratic values mean that citizens of both our countries have the freedom to demand that our government protect and guarantee human rights, rule of law, religious freedom, diversity, and inclusion, and that we are free to express our views and concerns when we see these rights being threatened.
This strategic partnership is more than just words on paper. We are delivering real results for real people in both our countries. USAID was close to closing in Mongolia. Under the strategic partnership USAID is coming back in a big way now. We recently welcomed two full-time American USAID officers at the Embassy, including our new Senior Development Advisor Gary Robbins. These are the first American officers to be assigned full-time to Mongolia in several years. They are in the final stages of developing a new strategy to support Mongolia’s development, with particular attention on inclusive, sustainable, private sector economic growth, good governance and various practical aspects of the democratic process, like participation in government.
Over the last year, USAID significantly ramped up its Mongolia programming, including $1.7 million in COVID-19 assistance; a $15 million SME support program we call BEST to help small- and medium-sized businesses survive the pandemic; a $3 million nonpartisan program to provide voter information and support the participation of women and young people in parliamentary, local, and presidential elections; $2.7 million to help Mongolia transition to a private-sector-led energy market; and $6.6 million for Leaders Advancing Democracy (LEAD), which is helping empower a new generation of Mongolian youth leaders.
Also, the numbers of scholarships, exchanges, and English learning opportunities we offer is increasing, and will really flourish once we get beyond the coronavirus pandemic. I know that learning English is a top priority for many Mongolians, since it is in many ways the international language for business, science and technology, and much else, so we’re really focusing on it. And, finally, over the last year, through our Defense Attaché’s Office, we have built four state of the art kindergartens in various regions of Mongolia, totaling about $2 million in U.S. taxpayer dollars. People across Mongolia always tell me they need more English teaching and kindergartens, and we are doing what we can to meet this need.
2. Mongolia and the United States officially established diplomatic relations in 1987, and the relations between the people of the two countries dates back hundreds of years. Evidence shows that American businesspeople and citizens have been coming to Mongolia for over a hundred years with an interest in business, especially in the fields of agriculture and mining. How do you see the future direction of bilateral relations?
You are so right. While on one hand, our relationship became much closer when Mongolia made the courageous, and in my mind correct, decision to embrace democracy, the relationship between the people in Mongolia and the United States and our commercial relationship goes back much further.
I read in the excellent books by Jack Weatherford that the concept of religious freedom, yet another fundamental value our nations share, may have been inspired by Mongolian history. In fact, one of the founding fathers of the United States and our third president, Thomas Jefferson, kept a copy of the Secret History of the Mongols in his library. This book is now a part of the Library of Congress, which the public can visit and see. So, our history together certainly goes back to the foundation of our country.
Last year, before the coronavirus pandemic, our Embassy welcomed a record number of high-level U.S. official visitors to Mongolia, including our secretary of defense and national security advisor. And I had the honor of traveling to Washington, D.C., for President Battulga’s official visit. While the pace may have picked up, these visits are not new. Even before we had a formal diplomatic relationship, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dispatched his Vice President, Henry A. Wallace, to Mongolia in 1944. And Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas visited Mongolia in 1962 with the National Geographic Society. In addition, interest in Mongolia in the U.S. Congress continues to be strong, and we hope to resume robust interparliamentary exchanges as soon as travel becomes possible again.
As for the future, I think that our shared democratic values and the real friendship between our people will continue to drive our countries closer together, despite the distance. One thing that could really accelerate the connections between our countries would be direct flights. We have had a small number of them to repatriate Mongolians and deliver welcome medical supplies to the United States. We stand ready to work with Mongolian authorities to try to make direct commercial and passenger flights a reality. That, together with a new airport, would really be a boon for business, tourism, and education, and it would be fantastic to make it so much easier for Americans to be able to come see Mongolia so much more easily, and vice versa. The recent direct diplomatic flights gave us momentum, but regularizing the direct flights still requires substantial procedural steps that both sides must work on.
3. The U.S. Presidential Election was recently held. When the Republican Party candidate Donald Trump served as president, there were many great improvements in bilateral relations. How has Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden, who won the majority of votes, defined the main line of his foreign policy? What specifically will be the difference of his policy towards Asia and Mongolia from the policy of Trump?
The 2020 presidential election was really remarkable. Despite the pandemic we saw record numbers of Americans exercise their right to vote, many with mail-in ballots. It was inspiring to me to see democracy in action in both Mongolia and the United States this year.
As for the future of our relationship, what I can tell you is that support for a strong partnership with Mongolia has been and will continue to be bipartisan, not just in the White House, but in the U.S. Congress. In the over 30 years since we established diplomatic relations, Mongolia has welcomed high level visits from representatives of the two major American political parties, and both Republican and Democratic presidents, vice presidents, and secretaries of state have met with their Mongolian counterparts here and in Washington. I fully expect that to continue as soon as it is safe to do so.
4. Do you agree that economic cooperation between Mongolia and the United States is insufficient? During Prime Minister U. Khurelsukh's visit to the United States in 2018, a roadmap for an expanded economic partnership between the two countries was approved. At what stage is this roadmap?
Our economic relationship is very good and growing stronger, and we are continuing to work hard with our Mongolian partners to create trade and investment opportunities that benefit people in both our countries. As an example, trade between our countries reached new highs just before the pandemic struck. U.S. exports reached a five-year high in 2019, and Mongolian exports to the U.S. more than doubled from the year before. On the investment side, we also have seen record growth in U.S. foreign direct investment in Mongolia. And the United States is actually the fourth-biggest source of foreign direct investment in Mongolia, I’m proud to say.
We are doing a lot to partner with the government and the business community to make Mongolia’s investment climate even more attractive for foreign investors. Investors really value reliable information and transparency. We are working hard to get full implementation of the U.S.-Mongolia Transparency Agreement, which requires the Mongolian government to post draft rules affecting international commerce for public comment prior to becoming final. A website called Legalinfo.mn that will give the public a chance to comment on regulations affecting business before they are finalized should be live next spring. This will really help bring openness and transparency to business regulations.
Our embassy has worked closely with your government to get Mongolia removed from the FATF gray list and strengthen its anti-money laundering and counter terrorist financing systems. This was crucial for Mongolia’s economic growth, and I am proud our government played an important supportive role. We did so through some very practical steps. In particular, the United States helped Mongolia obtain a sophisticated software package called goAML, which will substantially improve Mongolia’s ability to investigate suspicious money laundering transactions. We also helped fund the World Bank Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative to get back Mongolian money and property that belongs to the people. We brought a full-time U.S. Department of the Treasury technical advisor and anti-money laundering expert to work with the Bank of Mongolia’s Financial Information Unit, and we hope he will be able to return to continue his work here. And we organized a full and intense week of training in financial investigations for Mongolian law enforcement; numerous trainings for Mongolian customs agents; and have worked closely with other diplomatic missions and international financial institutions to coordinate and amplify our efforts. All of our work, and the impressive and serious actions by the Mongolian government, have paid off, I’m happy to say.
One more thing. We know how small and medium sized businesses are struggling during the pandemic. Through USAID, we started a $15 million SME support program called BEST, as I mentioned earlier. This program is helping small- and medium-sized businesses improve their operations and governance, and unlock access to bank loans. There are BEST offices across the country available to help businesses with information, training, and grants. If you run a business that needs assistance, please see the Facebook page @BESTprogramMN to learn more. I think you’ll be impressed.
5. Processed wool and cashmere products are Mongolia's most resource-rich export products. What kind of efforts are needed on both sides to cooperate in this area?
Helping to strengthen Mongolia’s private sector and trade and investment ties with the United States is my top priority, as I said during my U.S Senate confirmation hearing. As democratic third neighbors we care about Mongolia’s success and are committed to help.
When consumers better understand the value of Mongolian cashmere as a quality product, as I certainly do, sales and profitability will increase. Which is why we’re excited about our program to help Mongolia brand and market their products, so American and other customers know that when they look for cashmere, they know that Mongolian cashmere is ethically produced and of the highest quality. We are also providing a $5 million loan to help a woman-owned Mongolian cashmere producer build a new factory and buy additional equipment through the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC). This will help provide a good, stable income to their mainly women employees and the rural herders who supply the raw cashmere.
6. Mongolians believe that the approval of the "Third Neighbor Trade Act" by the U.S. Congress will turn a new page in bilateral economic relations. Can you share your views on this?
This act is before the U.S. Congress at the moment, and I am not in a position to forecast how it will fare, or to discuss any pending legislation, really. What I can tell you is that I know this bill was discussed at many senior-level meetings in Washington, D.C. As I just mentioned in talking about our support for branding, this is just one way we are working with Mongolia to develop the cashmere and wool sector. Tariff relief is just one part of our overall package of support.
7. Under the second MCA-Mongolia Compact, Mongolia received non-refundable aid of USD 350 million to implement three major projects to improve Ulaanbaatar's water supply. What is the progress?
Indeed, as I trust that most Mongolians are aware, we are providing a second Millennium Challenge Account Compact. The $350 million grant to the water supply program is one of the largest single commitments the U.S. has made in the Indo-Pacific region. It will bring many new jobs for Mongolians over its five-year lifespan and increase Ulaanbaatar’s water supply by 80 percent. This is really important, because this growing city is about to run out of water if the problem isn’t addressed. It is quite rare for a country to qualify for a second compact, so we commend Mongolia for its good initiatives and transparent management of the compacts. As you can imagine, at the beginning of large projects like this, there is a lot of hiring, contracting, and planning, which is necessary for the success of the program once we start the building phase. Progress is good and we are on track. What makes the MCC unique are strict requirements and measures to ensure transparency, and unlike some other international infrastructure development programs around the region, it is a grant, not a loan with strings attached or a debt trap.
8. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was scheduled to visit Mongolia this month. However, it was postponed indefinitely. When will the visit be rescheduled? What issues are planned to be discussed during this visit?
The Secretary of State was disappointed he could not come to Mongolia, as he told President Battulga in a phone call, because President Trump had just contracted coronavirus. I was touched that so many Mongolians expressed their understanding and wishes for our president to recover. Although we had to postpone the visit, I can assure you that we are maintaining the momentum of our important bilateral discussions on ways to deepen our economic, diplomatic, security, and people to people ties. For example, we recently held our Economic Policy Dialogue with senior interagency representatives of both our countries. We would certainly welcome a high-level visit when it is safe to do so.
9. In 1921, Roy Chapman Andrews, an American explorer, made a sensational announcement to the world that dinosaurs laid eggs after his discoveries were found in Mongolian Gobi. At what stage is cooperation in the field of archeology today?
Obviously, the pandemic has slowed research progress, but it was really moving along incredibly well, and I’m so proud that the embassy is a strong partner in this field. Whether it is providing Fulbright scholarships for top American archeologists like Dr. Will Taylor, or helping preserve ancient Mongolian textiles found by Dr. Julia Clark and the American Center for Mongolian Studies through the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, we are doing all we can to help. Speaking of cultural preservation, I’m very happy that through this same fund, the embassy is helping to restore and preserve the majestic Choijin Lama Temple in Ulaanbaatar, which is a beautiful symbol of the resilience of faith and religious freedom in Mongolia. As some of my social followers may know, the field of archeology fascinates me, so that I read a lot about it, go to museums every chance I get, and listen to the lectures of the American Center for Mongolian Studies and other institutions on this and other subjects.
10. President of Mongolia Kh.Battulga visited NASA during his visit to the United States. During the meeting, he touched upon cooperation with NASA, and the head of the organization was invited to visit Mongolia. Is there any potential cooperation possibilities between the countries in the field of space science?
That was one of the highlights of President Battulga’s visit to the United States and I was glad to accompany him. The United States cooperates with many countries on science, technology, innovation, and space exploration. We welcome Mongolia’s continued development of its STEM fields including as it relates to satellites and space exploration. Working with allies and partners to enhance cooperation in civil, commercial, and national security space activities is one of the United States’ highest space policy priorities.
11. According to Mark Tasse, Director of the Mongolian Studies Center in the United States, Mongolian studies were established in the United States more than 100 years ago. How are Mongol studies developing in the United States lately?
American interest in Mongolian studies, history, culture, and society is growing in so many ways. We can see that in the record numbers of Americans who visited Mongolia, before coronavirus affected international tourism. I’m really proud that during last year’s “Year of Youth” program, we added new Fulbright opportunities for Mongolian professors and scholars to teach and research in the United States, which will help meet this increased interest in Mongolian studies. Every year we also send a Mongolian English teacher to teach the Mongolian language at American universities, while studying English teaching methodologies.
I already mentioned the very successful and fascinating books by Jack Weatherford. The HU had an incredibly successful tour in the United States, even topping the U.S. rock music charts – my own son attended one of their concerts in New York City, and loved it - and the artist Magnolian performed at the highly prestigious South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas and has an American record deal. I’m also really looking forward to wide distribution of an upcoming film about Mongolia by Robert Lieberman called “Echoes of the Empire” – I’ve already seen it and found it absolutely wonderful and really moving. I think there is a genuine cultural renaissance in Mongolia today, and interest in all things Mongolian in the United States has never been higher.
12. Finally, Mr. Ambassador, can you share your impressions of Mongolia and Mongolians?
My wife Eloisa and I came to love your country and its people almost as soon as we arrived, but our feelings have grown stronger and stronger the longer we’ve been here. We have many Mongolian friends, and we find Mongolians to be warm and hospitable. We also are struck by the importance they attach to traditions, in ways that are sometimes obvious, sometimes very subtle. And those traditions both celebrate and reinforce qualities like hospitality and respect, as well as awareness of their country’s history.
There is so much else that we love and find fascinating about Mongolia, and of course I can’t even begin to describe it all, though I have a feeling that what I put on social media may capture some of the range of it all. One of the things we love in every country where we live is the cultural scene, and as I said earlier, Mongolia’s is lively and fascinating, including in the ways it brings together the traditional and the modern. As for me, I enjoy walking around Ulaanbaatar, discovering new things I hadn’t noticed before that shed light on aspects of your country. It’s funny that my walks have even led me, kind of randomly sometimes, to wander into the Wrestling Palace to watch one of Mongolian wrestling, which also led me to think about the centuries-long history of that sport and of Naadam. And I’ve loved watching Mongolian basketball games at the Sports Palace. But I better stop here – this interview could go on and on and I don’t want to bore people.