April 21, 2010

Our Man in Mongolia

Ambassador Jonathan Addleton, F83, F91, rides the steppes and promotes development in the newly democratic country

By Leslie Macmillan

Two months ago, Jonathan Addleton set out on a 600-mile road trip around the frozen countryside of Mongolia, where daytime temperatures hovered at 30 degrees below zero. But he’s not an extreme adventurer. He’s the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to that large and isolated country sandwiched between northern China and Russia.

Watch a slideshow from Ambassador Jonathan Addleton’s winter trip through Mongolia.

Addleton, F83, F91, wanted to see for himself the effects of a bitter winter on the livestock industry, the country’s economic lifeblood. Traveling by Jeep, he was able to survey the situation first-hand.

“It helps your credibility, whether you’re talking in Washington or Ulaanbaatar [the Mongolian capital], to say you took a 1,000-kilometer trip around the countryside and talked to herders and local officials,” he says.

“You have to love the outdoors,” he adds. “It’s a country where you need a GPS. In the wintertime, sometimes there are no roads, and you have to make your own tracks.”

Addleton has been making his own path as a Foreign Service officer ever since graduating from the Fletcher School. A career diplomat, he says he was “thrilled” to have the opportunity to return to Mongolia, having been the U.S. Agency for International Development mission director there from 2001 to 2004. He has held similar posts for USAID, which helps countries fight poverty and institute democratic reforms, in Pakistan and Cambodia and also served as a USAID program officer in Jordan, Kazakhstan, South Africa and Yemen.

Addleton credits his upbringing in Pakistan, where his parents were Christian missionaries, and also his experience at Fletcher, for his decision to go into the Foreign Service.  “One of the greatest assets of Fletcher has always been that it attracts students from all over the world, and it’s also diverse in the range of academic backgrounds and disciplines that people come from,” he says.

“I think I have the best job in the Foreign Service,” he says of his new role as ambassador. “Mongolia is the only place in the Foreign Service where after I take a trip, my travel voucher might well say, ‘camped by a river’ rather than include a bill from a hotel. It’s that kind of country.”

Land Rich, Cash Poor

At the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Mongolia is a land of windswept steppes and nomadic goat herders. At one time the heart of a conquering nomadic empire ruled by Genghis Khan, more recently it has been a Soviet client state and now a fledgling democracy. Mongolia is one of Asia’s poorest countries and the world’s most sparely populated, but many see great potential in its abundant minerals and vast, untamed wilderness.

“I remember when I had my Senate confirmation hearings, a [Senate Foreign Relations committee] staffer told me, ‘Make sure you get out of Ulaanbaatar,’ ” says Addleton. “Of course I didn’t need to be told that. I enjoy traveling the countryside.”

Addleton begins his three-year posting in Mongolia at a remarkable time. The country is just beginning to pull out of its bitterest winter in three decades, one that killed off millions of livestock. Yet Mongolia is predicted to rank among the world’s fastest-growing economies in the coming decade. This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the country’s “democracy movement,” says Addleton, when it broke away from Soviet domination.

“Events like the fall of the Berlin Wall . . . were felt as far away as Mongolia,” says Addleton. “We had meetings in Washington [earlier this year], and our Mongolian counterparts talked about shared values, including democracy, and things like that. But I think it’s more than just rhetoric for many Mongolians. I think the opening up of the country has been quite remarkable for them. And it’s satisfying and very interesting to be in a country that’s experienced that kind of change.”

In the short term, Addleton and his colleagues are dealing with the humanitarian crisis brought on by what Mongolians call a zhud, a severe winter that left the countryside littered with 5 million animal carcasses. In a country where animals outnumber people 10 to 1, and one-third of the population depends on animal husbandry, this could be catastrophic.

“It’s complicated,” says Addleton. “In the short-term, you have to take care of a humanitarian situation, but in the long-term, it highlights a policy issue, which is how much livestock can this steppe—which seems endless, but is not—reasonably maintain before the range becomes degraded?” He points to the Gobi Desert, which covers a large swath of southern Mongolia. “You don’t want the whole country to become the Gobi Desert.”

Addleton is also taking the long view in other ways. With the 25th anniversary of official U.S.-Mongolian relations coming in 2012, Addleton says he hopes to encourage more foreign investment and trade between the two countries.

“Whether it’s development, security, foreign investment or trade, you engage with the government of Mongolia,” Addleton says. “Then you engage with the people of Mongolia. And that’s the fun part.”

Much of his job is “outreach,” he says, informing Mongolians about the United States—and vice versa.

“I think Mongolia intrigues people,” Addleton says. “I think people have this image of a vast steppe—of this nomadic culture, which still exists and which really is the ethos of Mongolia.” What they might not know, he notes, is that “it’s a country where almost everyone reads and writes, and where development indicators are quite high.”

The fact that the population is well educated bodes well for a mineral-rich country trying to join the global economy without being exploited in the process, says Addleton. “Mongolia can learn from international experience, both positive and negative. Unfortunately, there are too many examples of countries with significant resources and small populations that fail,” he says. “The fact that the Mongolian population isn’t afraid to speak its mind holds out some promise for the future. Mongolians are aware of the fact that mineral wealth doesn’t guarantee anything.”

Addleton doesn’t want the economy to depend on a single commodity, so he is also encouraging tourism—particularly adventure tourism—as a way to diversify. “You have to love the outdoors,” he says. “But I personally enjoy Mongolia in all seasons. You have some tourists who come just to see the night sky.”

Leslie Macmillan can be reached at leslie.macmillan@tufts.edu.

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