Monday, May 31, 2010

Indonesia On the World Stage

The visit by US President Barack Obama this month will put Indonesia in the limelight. The 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 she visited after being appointed US secretary of state. Observers have noted Indonesia’s return to regional and international activism after a period of crippling domestic crises.

It is sometimes said Indonesia is the most important country the world knows least about. For the most part this is due to the style of foreign policy implemented throughout former President 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.

Indonesia, supported by the major Western powers during the Cold War as a staunch anticommunist bulwark, was best know for its holiday resorts on Bali and 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 attacks. For many 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 nation with a predominantly moderate brand of Islam has suddenly become an asset. The international community, and especially the West, 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 anticipation and unease. A revitalized 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” that upheld the principle of strict noninterference in each country’s internal affairs. Indonesia has also been basking in international attention, exemplified by the Obama visit and invitations to participate in forums such as the 2007 Annapolis conference on Palestine and, most important of all, membership in the club of world economic powerhouses, the G-20. Indonesia is the only Southeast Asian member of the grouping.

Now calls have become 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 G-20 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 is equally influential. Many have argued that the first priority must be to improve the livelihoods of the people and that foreign policy must, first and foremost, be aimed at achieving economic benefits for Indonesia. It is also argued that the nation 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 prevails is likely to be determined by the dynamics of internal politics as competing actors seek to influence a foreign policy that can no longer be decided behind closed doors.

By Dewi Fortuna Anwar, research fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, was assistant to the vice president for global affairs and assistant minister/state secretary for foreign affairs in the Indonesian government.

East Asia Forum

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