Mongolia provides a more attractive and sustainable model of Asian prosperity than its authoritarian neighbors, a major conference heard today.
“We need to make the 21st century a time in which people across Asia don’t only become more wealthy,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a Community of Democracies forum in Ulaanbaatar. “They must also become more free.”
“This is the right time to talk about democracy in Asia, as many countries in this region grapple with the question of which model of governance best suits their society and circumstances,” she said. “The path they choose will shape the lives of billions of people and the future of this region.”
In comments described as “an unmistakable dig at China,” she implicitly critiqued its model of developmental authoritarianism by insisting that economic prosperity without political reform was unsustainable.
“You can’t have economic liberalization without political liberalization eventually,” she said. “It’s true that clamping down on political expression or maintaining a tight grip on what people read, say or see can create an illusion of security. But illusions fade — because people’s yearnings for liberty don’t.”
“Countries that want to be open for business but closed to free expression will find that this approach comes at cost: it kills innovation and discourages entrepreneurship, which are vital for sustainable growth,” she added.
Mongolia has held six successful rounds of parliamentary elections in its transition to democracy since the 1990s, she noted.
“Against long odds, surrounded by powerful neighbors who had their own ideas for Mongolia’s future, the Mongolian people came together with great courage to transform a one-party communist dictatorship into a pluralistic political system,” she said.
Clinton’s uncompromising defense of democracy “reflects the battle of values between Washington and Beijing as they jostle for strategic and economic advantages across the continent,” one observer suggests. Her message also reflects an appreciation of the need to highlight the nexus between democracy and prosperity at a time when neo-authoritarian regimes are increasingly confident and assertive.
“My trip reflects a strategic priority of American foreign policy,” Clinton said. “After 10 years in which we focused a great deal of attention on the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States is making substantially increased investments — diplomatic, economic, strategic and otherwise — in this part of the world. It’s what we call our pivot toward Asia.”
Clinton, who will visit the notably non-democratic states of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia over the next few days, held up Mongolia as a positive model of democratic development. She also cited Thailand, Taiwan and the tentative reform process in Burma to reject the claim that democracy is antithetical to Asian values, and disputed the notion suggestions that democracy generates instability and inequality.
The depth and quality of Mongolia’s democracy has come under scrutiny following the arrest of former president Nambar Enkhbayar on corruption charges in the run-up to the June 28 parliamentary elections.
“Clinton did not mention Enkhbayar’s prosecution in public,” reports suggest, “though an aide said she was likely to discuss it in her private talks, which included sitting down in a ger, or traditional circular tent, with President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj.”
A person familiar with the case said Clinton raised the case of Nambar “who had hoped to run for a parliamentary seat but was deemed ineligible” due to his arrest.
“The secretary is going to be very clear that we celebrate a succession of successful elections in Mongolia and that in the aftermath of this recent election that the international community is watching … how the rule of law is applied,” a senior U.S. official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
The meeting also witnessed the formal launch of the LEND Network (Leaders Engaged in New Democracies), a joint initiative of the US and Estonia designed to provide leaders of new democracies through the exchange of best practices in democratic governance. The event served as “a virtual ribbon-cutting for the online platform and demonstrate the 21st century technologies that will be used to connect leaders who have successfully navigated the challenges of democratization with leaders in emerging democracies.”
The LEND Network “employs the latest communications technology, including tablet computers and video conferencing, to create an online forum where leaders can exchange information on building their own democracies,” Clinton told the meeting.
“First, new democracies can and should learn from those that have already made the transition, overcome some of the obstacles, and have matured. Over the past two decades, more than 40 countries became democracies, and that represents a wealth of hard-won knowledge that we need to capture and share,” she said, paying tribute to the work of Tomicah Tillemann, her Senior Advisor for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies, and Maria Leissner, the new Secretary General of the revamped and revitalized Community of Democracies.
“Second, the pace of political change is accelerating and we have to try to keep up. That’s why we think leaders in emerging democracies can benefit from having access to immediate, on-demand information,” said Clinton. “And third, this task is too big for governments alone. We believe we should tap into the expertise and resources of the private sector and civil society.”