Canada, Mongolia, and the Diplomacy of Knowledge

Julian Dierkes on why sending the Governor General on an official state visit to Mongolia was a smart move by the Canadian government that should lead to benefits for both countries.
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October 30, 2013

This past weekend, Governor General David Johnston made the first ever Canadian state visit to Mongolia. His two days in Ulaanbaatar received little attention in Canada, but the visit represents an important step in the ongoing definition of the Harper government's foreign and development policy. It also exemplified the personal stamp that Johnston is putting on his office. The integration of development aid into broader foreign policy, as well as collaboration with the private sector – most notably in the extractive sector – may emerge as one of the hallmarks of international relations under Harper. Both of these initiatives have been derided for their blatant instrumentalism and concomitant failure to uphold the internationalist instincts that have traditionally defined Canadian foreign policy. Questions about any instrumentalism and too-close collaboration with the private sector will best be answered through actions rather than on the basis of ideology.

One might have expected a state visit to Mongolia to be conducted entirely under the star of resource-related investment. Discussions during the visit however revolved around a more sophisticated understanding of Canada’s strength in the resource sector, one that acknowledges it as the basis for a particularly Canadian contribution to Mongolia’s economic development.

A formal state visit was an appropriate commemoration for 40 years of diplomatic relations between Canada and Mongolia. Prior to his appointment as Governor General by Stephen Harper in 2010, David Johnston pursued a career as an academic. It is perhaps no surprise then that he made education a theme during his visit to Mongolia. This is an example of an esteemed government official using the moral suasion of a privileged pulpit. In Mongolia, the Governor General engaged in a ‘diplomacy of knowledge’ in an effort to counter perceptions of Canada solely as the source of mining investments.  

While few would claim that the Canadian resource sector has developed processes that guarantee equitable interactions between all stakeholders, it is equally clear that such processes have been making progress for decades. Corporate strategies that emphasize prior and free informed consent, ongoing interactions with affected communities, as well as an acknowledgement of the need for mine plans that can evolve continuously, and which include a focus on closure and on social and community impacts, are now the norm.

The extent to which Canadians are grappling with these challenges is certainly worth bringing to the attention of policy-makers and communities in a country like Mongolia, where the mining sector is taking on the same importance it has in many Canadian jurisdictions.

This is where a Canadian ‘diplomacy of knowledge’ may have a real impact on Mongolia, especially as the country moves into a more advanced phase of development where its essential survival is no longer in question. Emphasizing not only the growing commitment to corporate social responsibility found in many Canadian companies, but also Canada’s focus on civil service governance is smart policy. Mongolian policy-making is not only limited by a severe lack of policy-analysis capacity, but also by on-going political interference in regulatory decisions and structures, particular through frequent turnover in leadership ranks of ministries and other public institutions. It is right to point out the positive examples Canada can provide in this regard.

Former Prime Minister S Batbold’s visit to Canada in September 2010 led to a particular interest in Mongolia among policy-makers in Ottawa. A bilateral development program has been initiated, though it remains – curiously and unfortunately – unannounced. Mongolia’s attractiveness is based on two of its characteristics: it is that rare state in Asia that combines post-state socialist democracy with economic development almost entirely driven by natural resources. The former aspect makes it attractive on normative grounds while the latter offers a fit with Conservative aspirations for a foreign policy and foreign aid strategy that leverages Canada’s resource sector strengths.

The Governor General’s diplomacy of knowledge sets the stage for an intensification of non-governmental contacts and relations between Canada and Mongolia, an area that both he and Mongolian President Ts Elbegdorj, emphasized in their public and private statements during the state visit. Whether this be through the continuation of already-existing people-to-people links or through new initiatives, perhaps under the leadership of the newly-established Canadian and International Institute for Extractive Industries and Development, supporting emerging resource nations through an offering of Canadian expertise and access to Canadian experience is a worthwhile policy aim, particularly now, and should help counter one dimensional understandings of Canada among Mongolians. Here, David Johnston’s state visit to Mongolia certainly struck a very constructive note, and one that hopefully sets the scene for continued and exemplary engagement with that country.