By: Prof. Dr. Dewi Fortuna Anwar, Kyoto University
The visit by United States President Barack Obama to Indonesia later in 2010 will undoubtedly put Indonesia in the limelight. Obama’s visit is seen by many as recognition of Indonesia’s international standing as the largest country in Southeast Asia, the largest Muslim majority nation, the world’s third largest democracy, and one of the world’s 20 largest economies. Much was also made of Hillary Clinton’s visit, which made Indonesia the second country that she visited after being appointed as the US Secretary of State in early 2009. Recently, a number of Indonesian and foreign observers have noted Indonesia’s return to regional and international activism after a period of crippling domestic crises.
It is sometimes said that Indonesia is the most important country that the world knows least about. For the most part this is due to the style of foreign policy implemented throughout Suharto’s more than 30 year rule. In response to President Sukarno’s ‘lighthouse’ foreign policy in which Indonesia strutted as the global spokesman for newly independent nations, and confronted the western colonialist-imperialist powers, Suharto pursued the opposite course. Indonesian foreign policy under Suharto was deliberately low profile, narrowly focused on peace and stability in Southeast Asia, and designed to bring direct economic benefits to Indonesia though trade and investment. While mostly successful in its immediate development objectives, Indonesia lost its profile in the international arena, even though it was still recognised as first among equals within ASEAN.
Indonesia, supported by the major western powers during the Cold War as a staunch anti-communist bulwark, was mostly known to the wider international community for its holiday resorts in Bali, and for its military occupation of East Timor. The end of Suharto’s rule was followed by incessant news of riots, communal conflicts, regional insurgencies, religious extremism and terrorist bomb attacks. For many people not familiar with the country these events summed up Indonesia: an unfamiliar and dangerous place.
Today a successful democracy has replaced Suharto’s authoritarian regime. The economy is recovering from the global crisis, and Indonesia’s status as the world’s largest Muslim majority nation with a predominantly moderate brand of Islam has suddenly become an asset. The international community, and especially the West, now has a higher expectation of the country. In a global climate marred by Islamic religious extremism and threats of terrorism, Indonesia, with its claim as a country in which Islam, democracy and modernity go hand-in-hand, is seen as a credible force of moderation.
Within ASEAN, Indonesia’s resurgence has been welcomed with both anticipation and unease. A revitalised Indonesia clearly helps to reinvigorate ASEAN, but an Indonesia that is strident about democracy and human rights is very different from the familiar champion of the ‘ASEAN Way’ which upheld the principle of strict non-interference in each country’s internal affairs. Indonesia has also been basking in international attention, exemplified by the forthcoming visit of President Barack Obama and invitations to participate in various prestigious forums, such as the 2007 Annapolis conference on Palestine and, most important of all, membership in the new grouping of the world economic powerhouses, the G20. Indonesia is currently the only Southeast Asian member of the G20.
Now calls have become much louder for Indonesia to once again walk tall on the world stage, to play a role as a peace-broker in various international conflicts, to act as an interlocutor in the dialogue between the Muslim world and the West, to be a spokesman for developing countries in the G20, and to drive ASEAN to respect democracy and human rights.
At the same time, Suharto’s legacy of a more narrowly focused foreign policy aimed at obtaining concrete outcomes for Indonesia’s economic development, given that Indonesia is still a relatively poor country, is equally influential. many have argued that Indonesia’s first priority must be to improve the livelihoods of the people and its foreign policy must, first and foremost, be aimed at achieving economic benefits for Indonesia. It is also argued that Indonesia should get its house in order first, including improving its own democracy and governance, before it tries to promote democracy and human rights elsewhere.
The push and pull between a Sukarno-style ‘lighthouse’ international stance and a more pragmatic, economically-focused effort will likely mark the course of Indonesia’s foreign policy in the years ahead. Which trend will prevail is likely to be determined by the dynamics of internal politics as competing actors seek to influence formulation and implementation of a foreign policy which can no longer be decided behind closed doors.
Dewi Fortuna Anwar is a Research Fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, and was previously Assistant to the Vice President for Global Affairs and Assistant Minister/State Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the Indonesian government.