Editor’s note: This commentary piece is written by former U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia Jonathan Addleton. The author’s views are his own and don’t necessarily represent those of the Global Atlanta staff.
Washington is increasingly seen as a toxic place, providing few opportunities for politicians on opposite sides of the aisle to talk and work with each other. Even foreign policy, an area once offering considerable scope for consensus and cooperation, has become fractured and controversial.
Against this backdrop, there is one unlikely area of international interest and concern which offers unexpected opportunities for Congressional bi-partisanship: Mongolia.
During the early 1990s, when Mongolia emerged from the shadow of the Soviet Union to transform itself into a democracy as well as a free-market economy, Democrats and Republicans joined hands to offer Mongolia encouragement and support.
At the time, it was thought that a democratic and economically successful Mongolia would offer hope to other countries in Asia and beyond. Remarkably, Mongolia actively participated in and later chaired the Community of Democracies. At the same time, it registered a tenfold increase in GDP between 2001 (when I first served as a foreign service officer in Mongolia) and 2013 (when I completed my final diplomatic assignment as U.S. ambassador to Mongolia), dramatic economic growth that was mostly fueled by its mineral wealth.
Congress actively supported Mongolia’s early success. However, as this interest abated, the Congressional Mongolian Caucus also began to languish — though there are signs that this is beginning to change, as evidenced by the Mongolia Third Neighbor Trade Act, recently introduced into the House by Rep. Ted Yoho, a Republican from Gainesville, Fla.
This new bill offers an especially positive way forward, explicitly acknowledging as it does that fact that the United States is one of the “pillars” of Mongolia’s “Third Neighbor” foreign policy.
Among other things, this policy recognizes that Mongolia as a land-locked country must maintain correct relations with its two powerful immediate neighbors — Russia and China — while also seeking to “balance” these challenging relationships by forging positive ties with third countries.
The fact that cashmere — a luxury product combed from the soft underbelly of cashmere goats after harsh winters such as those experienced in Mongolia where temperatures routinely plunge to 40 degrees below zero — serves as an economic lifeline to tens of thousands of rural Mongolian herders adds to its importance.
Indeed, given that livestock outnumbers Mongolia’s human population by 20 to one, cashmere and other animal fibers make an especially valuable contribution to Mongolia’s economic success in terms of both employment and income at a time when it desperately needs a boost.
While Mongolia trails only China as a global source of raw cashmere, it loses out economically because of its inability to turn that raw cashmere into finished products such as high quality sweaters and suits before exporting it.
As currently written, the Third Neighbor Trade Act provides a five year window for the duty-free entry of Mongolian wool products into the United States, setting the stage for a revival and expansion of the Mongolian wool industry — yak wool, camel wool and cashmere wool.
Successful passage of the Third Neighbor Trade Act would provide a huge incentive for Mongolia to diversify its economy and develop its domestic industry based on a variety of animal fibers, none of which compete directly with American products.
Pioneering new American firms such as the Naadam Co., founded by two young American entrepreneurs who vacationed in Mongolia and returned to the United States hugely impressed with what they saw, are well positioned to spearhead this effort.
Bypassing China, it could export finished products directly to the United States, strengthening the US partnership with a country that has also chosen the path of democracy. Moreover, it ensures that the United States can be supportive in ways that neither threaten U.S. jobs nor involve taxpayer dollars for foreign aid.
Other elements of Congress have endorsed the wisdom of this approach. Indeed, while the Mongolia Third Neighbor bill was formally introduced by a conservative Republican from Florida, it has also garnered support from an unlikely and eclectic range of other congressional groupings including the Black Caucus, Freedom Caucus and Progressive Caucus.
Not surprisingly, the bi-partisan Mongolian Caucus — co-chaired by Rep. Dina Titus (a Democrat from Nevada) and Rep. Don Young (a Republican from Alaska) — also strongly supports this bill.
Hopefully, the Congressional delegation from Georgia will also see merit in this pioneering initiative that benefits both Mongolia and the United States. In particular, Georgia’s two senators are well positioned to assist in this effort once it moves to the Senate — Sen. Johnny Isakson is a leader within the Foreign Relations Committee and Sen. David Perdue plays a key role in the Armed Services Committee.
Both committees and both houses of Congress should welcome and support this legislation which reflects bi-partisanship at its best while also advancing U.S. interests in a seemingly remote yet important part of the world, one which helps diversify Mongolia’s economy, strengthens Mongolian independence and advances U.S. diplomatic partnerships in a part of the world that strategically truly matters.
Jonathan Addleton served as US Ambassador to Mongolia during 2009-2012. A retired Foreign Service Officer, he teaches at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.; serves as Executive Director of the American Center for Mongolian Studies; and authored Mongolia and the United States: A Diplomatic History (Hong Kong University Press, 2013).