Fixing Foreign Policy Problems: Indonesia’s Multilateral Ambition

Last month, Indonesia celebrated the 77th anniversary of its independence. During the annual state of the nation address on August 16, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo spoke briefly yet strongly on Indonesia’s position in the global constellation. Jokowi listed out Indonesia’s current high-profile global engagements, such as it being a “champion” of the United Nations’ Global Crisis Response Group as well as the G20 presidency. Jokowi stated that for these reasons, Indonesia “…top the global leadership…”. A strong conclusion indeed.

The government of Indonesia has portrayed the G20 processes so far as being highly successful. Should the “success” be narrowly defined as amicable event-organizing and delegates coming home with a good impression of Bali, then it is. Despite the confidential nature, it cannot be denied that tension prevailed in the meetings. Various vital meetings failed to reach any consensus, which include formations tasked with mitigating the current looming crises. For instance, the Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors meeting in July fell short of achieving any agreement despite Indonesia’s efforts to push for unity.

The tension peaked during the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (FMM) in the same month. G7 member-states are pushing for the forum to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while Russia fired back by stating that the development-oriented group has no business in tackling security matters. The stress peaked with reports of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov walking out of the meeting, while G7 members chose to stay away from a prior dinner. The Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs tried to dilute public opinion, but was contradicted by media reports. The FMM did not conclude with any agreement. While some tracks, such as education and gender equality, started to find their frequencies by staying away from the war discussion, there is still the lingering question of what will happen in the November summit. It would not be surprising to learn that the G7 member-states are coordinating with each other to determine their stand in the Bali summit.

Indonesia’s vanity over its G20 presidency is a reflection of the fundamental problem in its foreign policy. There is a basic gap in how Indonesia perceives itself among the global community vis-à-vis how others perceive Indonesia. In the language of role theorists, there is an incongruence between Indonesia’s ego and alter disposition, which has resulted in a problematic role conception in the global multilateral system.

Indonesia’s Foreign Policy Pietism

The face of Jokowi’s foreign policy has revolved around two priorities: economic diplomacy for development and increasing multilateral fora participation. Unfortunately, the latter is not done in the right spirit, and is only a complement to the first priority. The administration’s diplomats have worked tirelessly to shape Indonesia’s international image around three core identities: Indonesia as a democratic and human-rights-upholding country; Indonesia as a tolerant multi-cultural country; and Indonesia as a promoter of international law and multilateralism.

Unfortunately, Indonesian piety in foreign policy has been found to have feet of clay. While Indonesia scored in its inclusion in various multilateral bodies, such as the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) and the Security Council, the international community feel uneasy about Indonesia’s domestic condition and the contrast it presents. The currently deliberated Criminal Code Bill, for instance, have raised concerns over whether the aforementioned identities are nothing more than national branding. An Indonesian role theory scholar Moch Faisal Karim explains that this could be due to an inter-role conflict between Indonesia’s many role aspirations.

A similar pattern is seen in Indonesia’s effort to promote international law and multilateralism. There are two main faults in Indonesia’s strategy of multilateral engagement: Jakarta seems to glorify multilateral fora membership, without actually bringing an innovative breakthrough to the table. On this matter, I echo the arguments of Indonesian researcher from CSIS Shafia Muhibat, that Indonesia stepped ‘innocently’ onto the international stage with only domestic considerations in mind, and that Indonesia needs an innovative foreign policy.

Indonesia’s strategy in multilateral engagement can be best summed-up as “building a bridge without bridging”: Indonesia talks to all stakeholders of an agenda, or hosts a related meeting, then comes out with no concrete breakthrough. Yet after it all, Indonesia claims the image of a “bridge-builder”, or even “peace-broker”.

This was indeed the case with Jokowi’s recent “peace mission” to Kyiv and Moscow, where he met with both President Zelensky and President Putin. Jakarta flagged his visit as a first for any Asian leader. After raising public expectation, Jokowi himself conceded that he “finds it difficult” to deliver peace. Even on the item of food security, which was central to his talk with both leaders and the G7 leaders prior to the mission, Indonesia fell far from the contribution of Turkiye and the UN. This case once again clarifies that Indonesia only cared for two things: domestic interest (to secure its food and energy security) and national branding (to gain international spotlight). If any proper analysis had been done before the visit, it would had been clear that Indonesia has not enough bargaining tools to actually play the desired mediator role in the war. In other words, it would require much effort and sacrifice on the part of Indonesia’s leaders to actually deliver on such expectations.

A dated Interpretation of Multilateralism

Indonesia’s practice of multilateralism has a rudimentary problem. It follows the theoretical prescription of the strategic calculation of Indonesia’s modality and interest that dates back to the Cold War. This interpretation is clearly outdated and unfit to address the increasingly complex global challenges of the 21st century.

In terms of its foreign policy, Indonesia has long sheltered under its “principle” of free-and-active foreign policy, anchoring it to Indonesia’s 1945 constitution. Since then, various administrations have offered different interpretations. A red string that links all these interpretations is a nationalist sense of foreign policy—that Indonesian foreign policies must serve the betterment of people’s welfare and strengthening of national interest, whatever the definition of interest is.

A good insight can be obtained from prominent Indonesian scholar Rizal Sukma’s trajectory of Indonesian foreign policy published in 1995, where he visited the development of the principle’s interpretation. It can be concluded that the principle needs to be modified in a manner that reflect the challenges of the time, and that the principle is definitely not equal to “playing safe”, let alone neutrality.

Indonesia’s multilateralism interpretation, then, is highly affected by a conservative interpretation of the free-and-active principle, characterized as “rowing between the two reefs”. The concept is derived from the thinking of one of Indonesia’s founding fathers, Mohammad Hatta, where he argued that Indonesia should navigate for its survival by being independent of great powers’ influences. This thinking, again, emerged in the context of the bipolar structure of the Cold War world order.

Hardcore Indonesian realists, both in the academic and policy-making sector, argue that this thinking is still relevant in the wake of the tense east-west, U.S.-Russia/China rivalry that we see nowadays. However, this disregards the increasingly multiplex world and keeps Indonesia on the sidelines of global great power politics. By doing so, Indonesia cannot rise to the place where Jokowi stated Indonesia is—“the top of global leadership”. In such a paradigm, Indonesia would not even rise to the potential of becoming a regional leader or a prominent middle power.

This leads to the root problem—the non-existence of a strategic doctrine for Indonesia. The Indonesian leadership has confused ‘national interest’ with ‘political legitimacy’, and by that, personal or group interest. Some Indonesian scholars have argued that this is a result of the increasing populism in Indonesia as a whole I, however, disagree and see Jokowi’s foreign policy as pertaining to its own style of populism.

Next year is another test for Indonesia’s interpretation of multilateralism. Indonesia will chair ASEAN, as well as MIKTA (Mexico-Indonesia-South Korea-Turkiye-Australia) which is a consortium of self-declared middle-powers. Indonesia has the opportunity to show its leadership potential in both platforms and its ability to address emergency matters such as the Myanmar crisis. This will be a test on whether Indonesia will continue to interpret its middle-power status as a safe position or truly stand up for international norms.

To truly live up to the multilateral spirit that it claims to hold, Indonesia needs to put more political will and capital to establish a true direction of its foreign policy. Indonesia needs to choose—not between who to be with—but on who it is. It needs to be more sincere in its policies and invest in long-term agendas that might not be popular in short term. This, unfortunately, seems to be difficult, as it might demand the Indonesian leadership to gamble their political legitimacy, especially in the face of the upcoming 2024 presidential election. However, only when Indonesia can determine who it is and stick consequently to its prescribed policies, that it can truly rise to the “great nation” it constantly claims to be.