Gregory Goldhawk was the Ambassador from Canada to Mongolia from 2010 to 2014. This interview was conducted within the framework of Diplomatic and Consular Relations course, taught by Mrs.Oyunsuren Damdinsuren at SIRPA, National University of Mongolia.
Good morning Mr. Goldhawk. It’s a great honor to talk with you through this web call and hope you and your families are doing well through this horrible pandemic that the earth is facing today. First of all, we highly appreciate you for accepting our invitation for an interview, and most importantly we are extremely thankful for your time here with us today. Let’s start the interview about your childhood life and your family.
Wow, you are asking me to recall quite a long way back. I grew up on a small dairy farm in southwest Ontario, about a one-hour drive from the American city of Detroit. It was not a large farm – only about 60 hectares, but it was enough to make a stable income for the family. In my case, the family included my mother and father of course, and five children. Of the children, I was the oldest; I have two brothers and two sisters.
I lived on the farm until I was 19 years old, at which time I left to attend higher education, at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. I was the first child to go to a university. My first four years at Carleton, I studied political science, graduating in 1977 with a Bachelor’s degree. Following that, I undertook Master’s degree studies in International Relations, also at Carleton University, graduating from that program in 1979. In that year, I moved to a smaller city called London, Ontario, and attended the business administration program at the Richard Ivey School, Western University, emerging in 1981 with a Master’s in Business Administration.
So, I went from a small family farm, in a small town of only about 3000 persons, and ever since have lived in larger cities, including Ottawa, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Bangkok, Sydney, Atlanta, Ulaanbaatar and Johannesburg. But although I have lived in large cities, in many far-flung places, a part of my heart is and always will be that of a farm boy from a small town. I think that when you grow up on a farm, you gain an appreciation for hard work, discipline, and responsibility. You understand that teamwork is important in achieving your goals, whether that is in support of the economic life of your family or anything else, including as a diplomat.
Thank you Mr.Goldhawk. Now, let’s talk more about your profession and about your time in Mongolia. What was the reason or the courage to become a diplomat?
Even as a small boy, I was very interested in other cultures. When I was a young man growing up on the farm, I had to get up at five o’clock in the morning every morning to go with my father and help milk the cows and do other farmyard chores. But many mornings I would get up before five o’clock – before my father, even – in order to read. I had a set of books, an encyclopedia, and I loved to read the stories about other countries and cultures and other languages. I remember thinking that someday I wanted to live in some of these places, live with these peoples, in the same way they did, eating the same foods and speaking their languages. What really set me on the path of international career was the summer – I think I was in grade nine – when I did summer school in Mexico City. And I came back from that experience with my imagination really on fire. The great diversity of the world really fascinated me, and I wanted to experience more of it.
So, throughout my academic career, my goal was to try and build a set of skills, in international relations or business administration that would help me have a career in the international environment. When I graduated from university in 1981 with my MBA, there were at the time not a great many options, as a young Canadian, if you wanted an international career. The choices were working at an international bank or maybe a multinational company. Nowadays, every Canadian firm, even the small and medium ones has an international presence, but it was not like that then. The other way to be involved to be in the international and commercial fields was through Canada’s diplomatic service. I took the exams and interviews for the diplomatic service – which were very selective and difficult – and was lucky to be selected. It felt like a great honor, and when I was formally offered to join the diplomatic service, I jumped at the chance. Looking back on it now, I think it was a good choice. I could have gone with international bank or a company but somehow my career and experiences wouldn’t have been the same. It would have been interesting and exciting but would not have given me the opportunity to contribute to this world in the same ways. Over my career, I have seen and participated in things, and met with people that I would have never experienced, I think, in any other career path. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.
You mentioned that in the encyclopedia you read about a lot of countries. Was Mongolia one of those countries?
Yes, it was. I was very fascinated by Mongolia’s ancient story, and its heroes like Chinggis Khaan. It seemed remarkable that this relatively small group of Mongolians in what seemed like me to be a distant part of the world had once had the largest empire of all time. In truth, although I have lived around the world, Asia has always particularly interested me. I felt lucky to be working in Asia at the time that I was, because Asia seemed to be beginning to re-emerge economically and in other ways as a focal point for the world. You could sense a more even re-balancing of the world between Europe and North America to Asia. As a diplomat, there was a sense of “potential” and it was very exciting. If you could dream about it, you could make it happen. I still feel the same about Asia and Mongolia too.
Talking about Mongolia and the fact that you were in Mongolia for four years, what was the most exciting or inspiring thing happened after you came to Mongolia?
I have to say, all four years I was there were remarkable. In many ways, it was the high point of my career. Mongolian culture is extremely unique, and not well appreciated in Canada or many other places. I was continuously impressed by the warmth and hospitability of the Mongolian people. I made – and still have — many friends, both Mongolian and foreign from my time there. So many warm memories. I was also impressed by Mongolians’ resilience and their capacity to take whatever situation they were presented with and make the best out of it, much as I had seen and done as a boy on the farm. I did enjoy going out to the countryside and meeting with herders and farmers, and sharing stories of farm life.
I enjoyed living in Ulaanbaatar. When I first got to Ulaanbaatar in 2010, there were not many tall buildings of the type I was used to in other cities, such as Bangkok which I had just left. But by the time I left in 2014 I could not recognize the Ulaanbaatar that I had seen when I first arrived. The city had become home to numerous tall buildings, and had become much more cosmopolitan, much more sophisticated in character. I remember too that when I first arrived in UB the availability of goods was sometimes sporadic but as time went on the availability and the diversity of consumer products grew unbelievably.
At the time (2010-2012) the Mongolian economy was growing very rapidly. I had the feeling that the country was extremely dynamic, economically and politically – and transforming profoundly. It felt like a great honor to be a witness to that transformation, and to be representing Canada and Canadians in Mongolia, a country with which Canada shares many values. Because of that, I felt that Canada could be a partner in Mongolia’s economic, social and political evolution.
How often did you visit the countryside here in Mongolia?
Not as much as what I would have liked. Somehow, Ulaanbaatar was a magnet that was hard to escape, because that’s where the State Great Khural is, and the finance and businesses are. My American counterpart, Jonathan Addleton, who was the American ambassador when I arrived, traveled to every single aimag, I believe. I was not that lucky. I went to Dornod, Umnugobi and Dundgobi aimags, as well as Khovsgol aimag in the west. Obviously, I visited Oyu Tolgoi, because of the Canadian connections to that project. But if I were ambassador again, I would travel much more than I did. Mongolia has a range of geography –mountains, deserts, lakes, forests and steppes, all in a country that is a size of our province of Quebec. And with a similar diversity of culture — Buriad or Kazak or Khalkh. I really feel like I cheated myself for not seeing more of Mongolia’s beauty.
What was your first impression about Mongolia, when you first came here and what has changed now that you have completed your diplomatic mission?
The answer to that that is a little complex. I can give you the personal impression, and the professional impression, I suppose. From a personal perspective, I arrived in Mongolia after being the number two person at Canada’s embassy in Bangkok, Thailand. Bangkok is a large city, about 6 million persons they say, but I suspect the true number is even larger. Suffice to say it is big, and quite modern. The countryside is not so easy to get to, and apart from “urban” animals such as birds, cats and dogs, not much animal wildlife can be seen. My wife, daughter and I flew to Chingis khaan airport and arrived very early in the morning. As we landed and left the airport and went towards the city, we had to stop and wait for camels to cross the road. My daughter was fascinated because she had never seen a camel before. As we drew into the city, there were a lot of cars, but also carts that were pulled by horses or other animals. So my first impression of the city that was half-way between old and new, ancient and modern. By the time I left in 2014, as I have mentioned, Ulaanbaatar had changed beyond recognition.
Professionally, I feel that Mongolia was in many ways the most fascinating moment of my long career. I felt very privileged and humbled to represent Canada and Canadians in such a unique, dynamic place. Trying to build a relationship where there is so much potential, on both the Canadian and Mongolian sides.
Part of my job was to try and communicate that potential to officials, both Canadian and Mongolian. Canadian officials and business persons would ask me “what is Mongolia like”, and I would say “it’s an emerging market economy and a developing democracy” – and then add that this phrase was both good and not-so-good news. Good, because the sort of change and transformation that Mongolia was going through created many opportunities for both Mongolians and their friends, like Canada. Mongolia was and is striving toward a better economy, a better democracy, and a better society, like Canada, and we could support each other in that work. But rapid change also means there is potential for greater risk. I remember that many Canadian companies struggled because they felt that the regulatory and administrative environments of Mongolia did not support the sort of foreign investment for which Mongolia was hoping, in order to grow the economy. Regulations would change, many times with little advance notice. In some ways, that’s how evolution and transformation work. But it means that firms need to adapt to more risk. I spent a lot of my time there speaking with officials about helping them to create an environment in which businesses are able to undertake their roles of creating wealth, creating jobs, paying taxes and contributing to society. During my time, we invested a lot of energy to help Mongolia build a more effective public service that would be responsive to the needs of the citizens and that was appropriate for the kind of political and economic form that Mongolia was striving to reach. We also helped Mongolia in other areas as well. I am proud of Canada’s work with Mongolia on United Nations peacekeeper training, and grateful for Mongolia’s engagement on that topic with us. I am also proud of Canada’s support for Mongolia’s candidacy as a partner nation with NATO /North Atlantic Treaty Organization. We were successful at that and we also helped Mongolia on obtaining status as a participating country at the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe).
Our embassy was not big, probably had about 12 people, most of them Mongolian and the majority women, I would say. But I think that the amount of good work we were doing and achieving between Mongolia and Canada was equivalent to embassies much larger than ours, because everyone was dedicated, professional and worked diligently. I was and am to this day very grateful to and proud of the men and women with whom I worked at the Embassy. None or our achievements could have been obtained without them.
In your opinion, what can Canada and Mongolia do to improve in their relations for further developments for both countries?
Commercial relations between the two countries have really declined quite a bit. In part, this is understandable. The time when I was there, the products and services that were going back and forth were a consequence of the build-out of Oyutolgoi. But once the mine was built and got in a condition to begin operating, there wasn’t so much impulse for some of that trade. But even taking that into account the trade between the countries has declined significantly. I think the trade between Canada and Mongolia is now about $30 million dollars a year. Mostly, Mongolia buying machinery, a lot of mining machinery from Canada and Canada buying a lot of garments, primarily garments of cashmeres from Mongolia. I always feel we could be doing more in the area of commerce.
Another area where we have done much but could be doing more is the field of education. Education will continue to be very critical to building the sophisticated citizenry and sophisticated workforce that will be necessary for the economy and society Mongolia wants in 2020 and beyond. There are very robust and very worthwhile institutions such as National University of Mongolia and Mongolian University of Science and Technology that are doing a commendable job in developing that kind of sophisticated knowledge-based citizenry. But there is much to be gained by educational exchanges between the two countries. I believe that there have some ongoing relations with the University of British Colombia in Canada, among others, on public administration with the NUM, and mining/engineering with the MUST. There is a good number of young Mongolians studying all across Canada. But I believe education is an area where we could see more growth, perhaps with more Canadian students and teachers coming to Mongolia.
Finally, I think the there is an ongoing potential for very strong collaboration between Mongolia and Canada in the promotion of democracy and good governance throughout the world. Particularly in the era of Covid-19, a lot of the academic studies that track the strength of democracy globally have shown that democratic practice is arguably under some threat. For Canada, we look at Mongolia as a likeminded democratic partner in north central Asia. A lot of Mongolians might say that they feel their democracy is imperfect. As a Canadian I can tell you that our democracy is also imperfect. In my mind, democratic practice is something toward which we must continually strive. Perfection is a destination that you never reach, but strength comes from walking the path. Mongolia is having elections relatively soon, I believe. I must say that I am very encouraged to see the number of new parties, new faces, and new independents who are running for parliament on June 24th. Because, to me, enthusiasm to participate in the democratic process is a sign of the strength of Mongolia’s commitment to democracy, and something that Canadians admire about this country. Canada wants and supports democratic partners in Asia and elsewhere. Mongolia is therefore important to Canada not just because of the economics. It’s also because of our shared ideals.
Wow, that was a beautiful answer you gave us. So, thank you so much for that.
Well, thank you for saying that. It was easy to say what I did because I said it from my heart – I genuinely believe it. I am retired now, so I guess I don’t have to be as gentle or “measured” with my language as I once was when I was an ambassador. That said, it is what I believed as an ambassador when I was in Mongolia, and I still do very much believe it now.
Can you give a few advices to the future diplomats and the ones who are studying international relations?
The career path in Mongolia and Canada would be different in many ways I think. But if I were to give some general advice, it would be to develop a broad range of interests and capabilities. I think what is really most critical for diplomats in the coming years is mental agility, the ability to see the parts of the picture but to integrate them into a whole. The world is much more interconnected, and on so many levels these days. You cannot be an economic diplomat and ignore the political and social dimensions of your work. You cannot be a political relations diplomat and ignore the economic dimensions of your work. They inter-link, so having knowledge of how politics works and how economics work is equally important. Keep a wide lens on your camera, so to speak. There is always room for “specialists” in diplomacy and having a “core” area of interest and capability is useful, but I would say develop broad skills. Some of my most successful colleagues did not come from business or international relations studies, but came from areas as diverse as music, geology and the like.
The other thing I would say by looking back on my career now is, I wish I had taken more big risks. There were a lot of times when I had opinions on issues but didn’t give them voice because I thought it might create a negative impression or not be heard. I think that there is value in today’s diplomacy to be “disruptive” – to maybe advocate for approaches and views that a first may seem unorthodox – because what seems unorthodox now might actually end up being the correct path tomorrow! I would say this is particularly so in today’s world, which is dynamic and turbulent. Dynamic times demand dynamic and innovative thinking. So be a smart and fearless disruptor!
I think each country has its own features. What is the identity of Canada in a few simple words?
When other people think of Canada, I hope they see a country that has a strong democracy, robust institutions, a stable economy, and a population that values diversity, human rights and the rule of law. A country with good governance – a well-run public service that efficiently and effectively deliver services to the population. Are we perfect? No, absolutely not. But we are working to improve continuously, and work with countries that share our commitment to democracy, diversity and fairness.
Let’s end our questions with corona virus outbreak, which is a big issue around the world today. What advice would you give to the Mongolian citizens who are in Canada at the moment?
Personally, my impression is that Mongolia has responded very well to the corona virus. My understanding is that there has been no “community transmission” of corona virus. In Canada, we are still struggling with the pandemic. Canada is a very international country in the sense we are very connected to the rest of the world. As an example, in Toronto, half of the citizens not only came there from outside Toronto, they came from outside Canada – from all over the world. Our population is extremely diverse. Our diversity is considered by most Canadians to be a strength of which we are proud. But the downside of that cultural diversity is that when the coronavirus first appeared, it migrated fairly quickly to Canada as persons moved back and forth between countries. Most people believe the government is doing a credible job to preserve the health of citizens and residents, and is trying to reduce the impact on the economy. We need to act responsibly as citizens to support the health care community’s recommendations and the government’s interventions. I do think that the coronavirus is going to cause many changes that Canadians and Mongolians both are going to have to accept, in how we mingle, travel and work.
Thank you Mr.Goldhawk for accepting our interview invitation. Wish you best of luck to you and your family. Hope you and your family will be safe during this Covid-19 pandemic and againwe are extremely thankful for your time to have interview with us today.