Opinion

Reassessing Indonesia's
foreign policy

A meeting of Indonesia's foreign envoys is scheduled to be held here today (Wednesday) to appraise Indonesia's diplomatic performance and adjust foreign policies to match the latest global developments. The meeting takes place amid expectations that the next vice foreign minister will be named during the meeting, suggesting that one of the envoys will fill the post.

The world has seen much change. With the onset of globalization, our foreign ministry is at a critical juncture. It needs to reflect not only on the demand for human resources, but also on policies to ensure Indonesia's capacity to be at the forefront in a changing world. The meeting of our envoys may be designed to expand public awareness of our country's basic needs in the international scene.

The past five years or so have seen our foreign minister empower his ministry by injecting ideas on how to strengthen our international standing by formulating a much stronger and productive bureaucracy.

The reorganization of our foreign ministry paralleled the need for our country exhibit a new image on the international scene. The message is, Indonesia must continuously adapt to the changing strategic international environment while continuing to address its domestic problems.

As the world has become even more interdependent, and Indonesia has become regarded as well on its way to full-fledged democracy, the issues facing the foreign ministry have become even more challenging and multidimensional.

Indonesian foreign policy has to balance its domestic needs and the imperative for the country to continuously remain proactive on the international stage. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's metaphor "navigating the turbulent ocean" was meant to describe those same challenge.

With its relatively new outlook, initiated about six years, and with the appearance of young and able diplomats, the Foreign Ministry has attempted to inform the public about at least four factors facing our foreign policy.

First, it has let the public know where Indonesia stands relative to the current state of international relations. The foreign ministry knows well that the world we live in today is radically different than the one faced by our forefathers and that the country is now in a particular era of history where foreign policy needs to be adjusted in a way that meets the expectations of the public.

There is a growing public awareness that Indonesia needs to convey to the international community its basic needs as a developing nation.

Second, it has kept the public up to date on its foreign policy discourse. Such announcements were once used to indicate Indonesia's position while it faced antagonism between the opposing Eastern Communist and Western Capitalist blocks, which Mohammad Hatta famously likened to "rowing between two reefs".

The point he was making was that Indonesia should avoid choosing sides. The foreign ministry is telling us that Indonesia is choosing such a path in the interest of our nation.

Third, it has let the public know of Indonesia's foreign policy goals. If Yudhoyono's "turbulent ocean" is used as a point of reference, the foreign ministry tries to convince the public of the importance of activism in our foreign policy, meaning that such an "ocean" must be seen as providing ample diplomatic opportunity for Indonesia, rather than risk.

Finally, the foreign ministry has assessed that Indonesia is confronted with three options as a consequence of its extensive international relations: be part of, follow or lead the change.

We surely cannot only be a follower, nor stand idly by, in the this world. It has attempted to lead the country on certain international issues and make itself heard globally, as evidenced, among other examples, by its position on the issue of climate change, Iran's nuclear program and the Middle East conflict.

The past four years have seen many brave moves by our foreign ministry to redefine and redirect the country's international diplomacy by introducing and promoting new sketches of our country's profile, portraying a democratic Indonesia, change, courage, and internationalism. Such a profile has resulted in a greater international recognition of Indonesia's capacity to solve acute international issues.

We, however, should not be too complacent with what we have actually gained from this image, but rather take confidence in our approach to new global problems that could have immediate and long-term impacts on the stability of this country.

With its new profile, and its ambition to lead the way in certain international issues, it is especially important for Indonesia to remain pragmatic but cogent in its foreign policy. But it doesn't end there.

As our foreign policy challenges are set to become even more tremendous in the future, Indonesia needs to make constant adjustments to reflect the realities of tomorrow's challenges, including on domestic, regional and global scenes. What must and remains unchanged is Indonesia's international engagement.

The foreign ministry needs to project a clear-sighted view of the country's national interests if the country is to successfully navigate new regional and global security and economic issues. The greater regional and global complexities of the 21st century demand strategic, outside-of-the-box thinking.

These qualities are needed by the vice foreign minister and he or she must be able to view foreign policy as "intermestic". He or she must also know how to use foreign policy to bridge the gap between national and international areas. All of these prerequisites demand that our next vice foreign minister be a career diplomat, not a politician.

The writer is chief editor of The Indonesian Quarterly published by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. He is also a lecturer of the International Relations Post-graduate Studies Program of the Faculty of Social and Political Science at the University of Indonesia and a guest lecturer of the Center for Education and Training at the Department of Foreign Affairs. He can be reached at bandoro*csis.or.id

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