The third neighbor
Friday, November 9, 2012
I’ve recently returned from Mongolia where my husband and I were guest lecturers at the National University, and my overriding impression is that the United States has a friend in that part of Asia.
First, a bit of geography. Mongolia is sandwiched between Russia and China, and the location dictates much of what has been Mongolia’s history. After the demise of the great Mongol empire, the one established by Chinggis Khaan in 1206 and continued by his grandson Kublai Khaan, China attempted to, and finally did, dominate Mongolia. After the last Chinese dynasty collapsed in the early 20th century, Russia took its turn in dominating its neighbor. Mongolia was nominally independent, but its communist government was firmly in the Soviet orbit until 1990 when the Soviet Union disintegrated and Mongolia became a democracy. Today, location requires Mongolia to balance relations with both neighbors as carefully as Philippe Petit walked between the twin towers.
The U.S. has invested diplomatic capital in Mongolia. In recent years, both Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have visited, and Mongolia’s President Elbegdorj came to the White House. For this week’s presidential election, the American Ambassador helped Mongolian students track results as polls closed throughout the United States – see http://mongolia.usembassy.gov/en_110712.html.
Everywhere I went, from Ulaan Baatar to the western province of Bayan Olgii to the south Gobi desert, people were pleased to meet Americans. They were solicitous, asking how I liked Mongolia (very much), the food (excellent and varied) and the culture (top notch music, dance and art). In the classroom, students were grateful that two Americans had traveled so far to talk about business law.
Law students know their country faces unique opportunities and challenges. Mongolia sits on rich mineral deposits but has a nascent democratic government and little infrastructure (under 2,000 miles of paved roadway). The traditional economic activity is nomadic animal herding and, until the mining boom hit, the country had few exports (except for high quality cashmere). When they become lawyers, our students will be asked to help answer the many questions facing their country including those about foreign investment, distribution of mineral revenues, and protection of the land on which people have supported themselves for millennia.
Our students at NUM were already knowledgeable about legal systems and corporate law, but they wanted more insight into American business because many of them will deal with U.S. companies in the future, whether they’re working for a Mongolian corporation, law firm or government. Using a hypothetical case study, we discussed corporate governance, financing, intellectual property, regulation and litigation, as well as recent Supreme Court cases that have made the news. When the students asked about corporate governance, protection of indigenous people and sanctions for corporate and public malfeasance, they clearly had their own country’s challenges firmly in mind.
Our trip included many highlights, but none more touching than the last day of class when we shared photos of our family in the U.S. and the students presented us with many gifts.
Now back in Boston, we have a Chinggis Khaan magnet on the frig, a framed model of a horse head fiddle on the wall and plates in the bookcase showing scenes of traditional and modern Mongolia. And we have a scroll with our names in traditional Mongolian script, a gift from a small group of students who went out of their way to welcome us. The students, Mr. Galbaatar (the assistant professor who organized the class) and their fellow Mongols made real the phrase we heard often, that the U.S. is their “third neighbor.”