Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Debating Indonesia’s global role

Last week, I left Wilton Park, West Sussex, England, with mixed feelings after attending an international conference on Indonesia there. The conference, well attended by prominent Indonesians and friends from all over the world, discussed recent political and economic developments in Indonesia and how the country, due to the relative domestic successes, could play a role as a global actor.

The theme reminded me of the debate within Indonesia on the same subject a few years ago. There are those who maintained that Indonesia should not play a global role. Indonesia, according to this view, was still fraught with domestic problems.

Therefore, it should concentrate on addressing those problems and put its house in order first before embarking on any global role in international affairs.

The debate at the Wilton Park conference, however, was different. Whether Indonesia should or should not play a global role is no longer a matter of choice for Indonesia. Given its membership of the G20, and its recent involvement in addressing issues of global concern, such as climate change and energy security, Indonesia is already there. What Indonesia should think about is how it could play its global role in a meaningful and effective way, for the benefit of both Indonesia and others.

Indeed, while most participants agreed that Indonesia should play a global role, it was not immediately clear how that role could be carried out, in what ways and through what means. In other words, participants differed with regard to the nature of the global role that Indonesia should take.

One common suggestion, especially from the international community, is for Indonesia to play a role as a global Islamic voice. It is often argued that Indonesia, as the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, should demonstrate to the world that Islam can be a “positive” force in world affairs.

Indonesia, according to this view, should demonstrate that Islam can go hand in hand with democracy.

This suggestion, however, is unattainable for two fundamental reasons.

First, Indonesia, like many other countries, could not base its foreign policy on religious considerations. Despite the fact that Islam constitutes the religion of the majority of Indonesia’s population, its national identity is not exclusively defined in terms of Islam. More importantly, Indonesia itself is not a theocratic state.

Second, Indonesia has no intention to perpetuate the view that there is indeed “good Islam” and “bad Islam”. For example, Indonesia cannot argue that it became a democracy because its Islam is “good”. Nor could it argue that if other Muslim countries want to be a democracy, then they should copy “the Indonesian model”. For Indonesia, its democracy is unique in the sense that it is a democracy within which Islam is forced to play an important role, both in initiating the democratization process and in ensuring that Indonesia’s democracy remains “the only game in town”.

Indonesia cannot play a global role in the conventional sense; as a power that contributes to the global public good in a comprehensive manner. Indonesians are clearly aware that the world expects a lot from it. At the same time, Indonesians are aware of the limits within which such expectations could be fulfilled.

One important factor that limits Indonesia’s sense of global entitlement is its domestic capacity.

Domestically, Indonesia is still confronting a host of national challenges, especially on the economic front. Its economic recovery and growth remain precarious, and its military power is one of the weakest in the region. Soft power alone, if any, is not sufficient for Indonesia to play a global role in a conventional sense.

Despite the limits, however, Indonesia should not miss the opportunity. In the words of Indonesian Ambassador to the United Kingdom Yuri Thamrin, “Indonesia should seize the opportunity to make itself useful to the world”. Therefore, the key challenge for Indonesia now is how it can make itself useful to the world. For that, Indonesians should start a national conversation on what kind of global role is feasible and desirable for Indonesia.

Indonesia should listen to what the world expects from it. Ultimately, however, it is the Indonesians themselves that should decide how they could best respond to the expectations. Rizal Sukma for The Jakarta Post (Insight)

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