Thursday, July 5, 2012

An Indonesian Tribute to American Enterprise

America’s foreign policy is shifting its gaze. From former President George W. Bush’s overture to India to President Barack Obama’s “Pacific pivot,” the vast machinery of Washington is slowly fixing its eye on this part of the world.

Indonesia has been a grateful beneficiary of this twist, as Obama’s landmark trip here in late 2010 demonstrated. It has the beginnings of a long, productive engagement, one that has to date been characterized by mutual understanding and interest.

While our present trade relationship is still small — Indonesia is the United States’ 28th-largest two-way goods trading partner, with the products exchanged being of low strategic importance — this relationship is poised for growth. The renewed importance of Indonesia and the outward orientation of the United States means it is in the interest of businesses in both countries to engage each other. As Southeast Asia finally sheds the vestiges of the 1990s crisis, there are many opportunities left unexplored.

What needs to happen to expand this relationship is not complicated. Indonesia must continue reforming and building production capacity. US companies will continue to engage with local ventures in productive ways.

But more than any practical program, it is moral influence that the United States has traditionally excelled at. Its greatest role in the world has been as a beacon of free enterprise, innovation and restrained government — all features that traditionally attracted outsiders to it.

Nearly 30 years ago, when English journalist Henry Fairlie celebrated the Fourth of July in The New Republic, he praised his adopted country’s “bewitching power” of invention and improvisation.

“If houses are insufferably cold, you invent a stove, and then you invent central heating. … Ben Franklin invented a prefabricated stove which could be produced for the common man; such a stove in Europe at the time would have been produced by craftsmen for the few. But then it has always been the American way as well … to say that ‘it ain’t necessarily so’ and to do something about it.”

“It ain’t necessarily so” — it is precisely this can-do attitude, the sense of boundlessness and ambition, that is for many of us the great strength of America. Recently, as a result of a financial crisis, optimism has somewhat diminished, a fact that has not escaped notice here. Even some protectionist ideas have gained currency, justified by the sentiment that “even the United States does it.” I am hopeful these do not become a permanent fixture on the policy circuit, because they would leave everyone worse off.

America has always been a kind of North Star for the rest of the world, a fixed signpost of policy rectitude. On this year’s Fourth of July, I was happy to pay tribute to the values that have made America great.

It is in the interests of Indonesia for the luster of this bright star to remain undiminished.

John Riady is the chairman of Kikas-Kadin, the US-Indonesia Bilateral Committee within the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and editor at large for BeritaSatu Media Holdings.

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