As Barack Obama ends his presidency in early 2017, he would have left a meaningful legacy on US-Indonesia ties. As part of the Obama administration’s strategy of “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific, the US government has been improving its public engagement in the region, including Indonesia. However, compared to its engagement commitment to other Asian countries, US public engagement in Indonesia remains behind. Considering Obama’s own personal popularity in Indonesia, this is an opportunity wasted.
Obama came to power during a period of global discontent with US leadership. The administration of his predecessor, George W. Bush, was deemed aggressive and unilateralist, and left terrible perceptions of the US throughout the world. While Jakarta and Washington made special efforts to improve and expand security ties, many Indonesians were angered by Bush’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the treatment of Islamist militants in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.
When Obama came to power in 2009, his “Hope” campaign invoked enthusiasm that went beyond US borders. Tales of Barry’s childhood in Menteng Dalam were enough to inspire movies and even a statue of Obama in Jakarta. His image and popularity were significant factors that improved public perceptions of the US in Indonesia. According to Pew Global Research, favorable US perceptions in Indonesia jumped from 37% in 2008 to 63% in 2009. Beyond his charisma, many Indonesians admired Obama for his willingness to “reach out” to the Muslim world and reinvigorate the multilateral institutions that the Bush administration ignored.
Public engagement, particularly people-to-people relations, has been a key feature of the 2010 US-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership, which upgraded ties between Washington and Jakarta. In recent years, the Obama administration has increased funding for public diplomacy, with public diplomacy efforts in Indonesia receiving the 11th highest funding.
Indonesia and the US have worked together on a series of initiatives that are pertained to shared values, such as human rights, democracy, and open governance. Through these institutions, both governments have engaged civil society actors to participate. For instance, Indonesian civil society actors have been keen actors in the US-formed multilateral initiative, Open Government Partnership, in which they work together with the US and Indonesian governments, on matters of government transparency and accountability. The Bali Democracy Forum, an initiative founded by the Indonesian government for best-practice sharing of democratic governance, is another avenue in which the two governments engage civil society actors.
Youths have been a key focus of the Obama government, which seeks to provide opportunities to them through scholarship and exchanges. In 2013, Obama launched the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), an initiative that promotes education and civic engagement. The YSEALI embraces 500 exceptional young leaders annually from Indonesia and other ASEAN countries with the aim of not only deepening US collaboration with young leaders, but also fostering community building among youth in ASEAN. Education has also been a focus, with the Obama administration establishing the US-Indonesia Joint Council on Higher Education Partnership in 2010 to foster understanding and collaboration between both countries through various educational, cultural, and youth engagement programs.
Despite increasing US public engagement in Indonesia, there remains considerable limitations.
First, US public engagement has primarily focused in the field of education. But even then, there is an apparent lack of grassroots inclusion.
For instance, since 1998, PT Freeport Indonesia has collaborated with Fulbright to fund graduate study scholarships for eastern Indonesian students. However, this program is only open to two individuals annually. Fulbright also provides some other programs, such as the Fulbright-DIKTI scholarship and the Fulbright-KEMLU scholarship, but they are only eligible for young academics and diplomats, respectively. The expectation is that US-graduated diplomats and scholars would project and disseminate the knowledge they have garnered to society and help create an environment of mutual understanding. This argument was vindicated during the New Order era with the “Berkeley Mafia”, whose members assumed key cabinet posts and leveraged industrial policy as well as tightened US-Indonesia economic relations.
Second, engagement of the Indonesian public remains behind that of many other Asian powers.
The 2015 Joint Statement between the US and Indonesia under President Joko Widodo as the watershed of the Comprehensive Partnership is yet to stipulate a tangible target and strategy for advancing people-to-people engagement. In comparison, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Chinese State Councillor Liu Yandong have signed the “US-China People to People Exchange” in 2012, which launched the “100,000 Strong” Initiative to encourage private sector student exchanges and encourage 100,000 American students to study in China. Similarly, in India, India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development and the US University Grants Commission have launched a project to establish an additional 200 community colleges in India. The goal of the program is to reach 40 million students, especially those studying to enter such professions as healthcare, hospitality, and automotive industry. Considering the seismic importance to maintaining positive perceptions of the US in India and China, it is understandable why US public engagement in these countries is much larger than that in Indonesia. Nonetheless, considering Indonesia’s growing strategic and economic importance, commitment on strengthening public engagement in Indonesia has remained far behind.
US engagement of Indonesia under Obama has overall been lacking, particularly considering the attention that nearby neighbors have received through public engagement projects. Obama’s most important legacy to US perceptions in Indonesia is himself. Through his popularity, charisma, and personal connection to Indonesia, Obama has successfully captured the hearts of many Indonesians—a feat that few foreign leaders can claim to accomplish. Nonetheless, his popularity does not guarantee the longevity of positive US perceptions in Indonesia.
The US and Indonesia should formulate a concrete strategy to enhance people-to-people relations in order to maintain a stable and strong relationship. Only this way can we ensure that strong ties between Jakarta and Washington translate into positive perceptions of the US in Indonesia.
Trissia Wijaya is a MEXT’s scholar at the Graduate School of International Relations at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan. Her research interests primarily lie in international relations in the Asia-Pacific and foreign policy.
Gatra Priyandita is a PhD candidate at the School of Political and Social Change of the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. His research focuses on Indonesian public diplomacy and domestic politics in the post-Suharto era.