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Jokowi, the foreign policy president

Publication Date : 26-05-2014


All-encompassing, yet more pointed. That is how to best envision foreign policy under a Joko “Jokowi” Widodo presidency.

We are slowly getting a more substantial idea of the leading presidential candidate’s views in an area perceived to be his weak point.

Jokowi is not a well-versed connoisseur of international relations, the way the incumbent, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, portrays himself. Nor does he harbor a desire for the global limelight.

But there are two things he has done right in drafting his foreign policy vision. First, he is unpretentious in a complex discipline where history, theory and hegemonic paradigms intersect.

A remark from his closest foreign policy advisor aptly describes why many have faith in the man: “He knows what he doesn’t know, and isn’t afraid to ask. But he also knows what he wants, and is firm in a Javanese sort of way”.

Nor is he an intellectual bookworm. Not one to scour bookstores for the latest highbrow hardcover, those vetting Jokowi have recognised him as a quick learner through focused personal interaction.

While Yudhoyono’s foreign policy was an exercise in verbosity, Jokowi is a “meat and potatoes” man — or rice and tempeh, as local customs necessitate — who shuns jargon.

These strengths of character led Jokowi to his second decisive act in drafting a foreign policy outline: He had the luxury of picking the best foreign policy brain in the country.

As John F. Kennedy said, “you can’t beat brains.”

Not surprisingly, Jokowi’s foreign policy vision contained conceptual depth and practicality, governed by a predictive understanding of realism from behind-the-scenes advisors who have already helped to shape Indonesian and regional politics over the past decade.

Analysing the foreign policy outline, it is clear that it is designed to realise a goal of economic and political independence — an objective faithful to the tenet of an “active and independent” foreign policy.

To achieve that, a rearrangement of priorities and organisational structure is required, primarily at the Foreign Ministry.

Reorganisation need not be a massive transformation, and should be seen as ongoing modifications that address new challenges, in the context of the ministry’s internal reform that began in 2001.

Chief among the challenges is how to better emphasise international development cooperation, such as South-South Cooperation, under a single directorate — perhaps similar to the International Economic Relations directorate general during the 1990s, which played such a significant role in the formative years of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) and the Asean Free Trade Area (Afta).

This restructure should also reflect the more discriminatory approach of the new administration toward results-oriented foreign policy.

Indonesia is a regional power with a global outlook, but it also needs to be pragmatic through selective global engagement. Despite its ambitions, Jakarta simply lacks the diplomatic wherewithal to engage in the many global initiatives that, at times, end in mere ceremony or even worse, folly.

With over 130 missions abroad, there may have to be a rethink in resource allocation.

The Foreign Ministry hardly runs on a shoestring budget. Yet its funding is far from adequate. Its 2014 budget of 5.237 trillion rupiah (US$454 million) — less than 0.3 percent of the state budget — is even less than last year’s allocation. In comparison, the Supreme Court was allotted 7.225 trillion rupiah in the 2014 state budget.

The challenge for the new administration is to commit resources to the Foreign Ministry that befit an institution tasked with the protection of citizens abroad — with a constituency equal to the populations of the provinces of Maluku, North Maluku, West Papua and Papua combined.

The emphasis on diplomacy that reflects Indonesia’s archipelagic nature is also well-represented in Jokowi’s vision of maritime diplomacy, and will likely be high on the administration’s agenda.

This focus recognises that Indonesia’s future will be increasingly reliant on maritime resources and its significance on the geopolitical map.

The target of resolving 10 outstanding border issues may be unrealistic, but at least three to four are soluble within the presidential term. The delineation of borders with Australia and Timor Leste are two cases where negotiated resolutions can be expedited.

Highlighting the Indian Ocean Rim marks a continuity in thinking in terms of integrating the two oceans — the Pacific and Indian oceans — flanking the archipelago. It aims to immerse a wider variety of players as maritime issues become the main quandary of regional rivalry.

More importantly, linking these two oceans augments Indonesia’s geostrategic role at the center of development architecture.

After setting out such an impressive vision, it will be up to the new president to find the right people to realise these goals.


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