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Insight: The Obama doctrine and Indonesia

  • Amitav Acharya

    The Jakarta Post

Washington DC | Fri, June 27, 2014 | 09:07 am

Where do emerging powers like Indonesia fit into the Obama Doctrine as outlined first by US President Barack Obama at West Point on May 28, then by his national security advisor Susan Rice at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington DC on June 11?

The Obama Doctrine has two aspects: The first, and the more well-known aspect, concerns the selective use of force. In the president'€™s words: '€œThe United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it.'€ But '€œwhen issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States ['€¦] we should not go it alone.'€

The second element of the Obama Doctrine has to do with the US leadership in world affairs. Here the president said: '€œAmerica must always lead on the world stage. If we don'€™t, no one else will.'€

The two aspects of the Obama Doctrine are closely related. If the US is to be selective about using force, then it must provide alternative, political, economic and diplomatic means to exercise leadership. But how realistic and desirable is Obama'€™s pledge to '€œalways lead on the world stage'€?

At home, the Doctrine faces the challenge from domestic opponents. This was highlighted by Obama himself when he cited the US Senate'€™s refusal to ratify the Law of the Sea, which is relevant to US diplomatic credibility in managing East Asian territorial disputes.

We can'€™t try to resolve problems in the South China Sea when we have refused to make sure that the Law of the Sea Convention is ratified by the United States Senate, despite the fact that our top military leaders say the treaty advances our national security. That'€™s not leadership. That'€™s retreat. That'€™s not strength; that'€™s weakness.

Is this situation going to change? Not likely, at least during the remaining 18-month lifespan of the Obama Doctrine.

Externally, the Obama Doctrine faces the challenge of drawing support from the emerging powers. These powers include not only the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), but also other important regional powers such as Indonesia, Nigeria, Egypt, etc. While both Obama and Rice promised to seek '€œcollective action'€ in exercising US leadership, his basic proposition that the US '€œmust always lead on the world stage'€, raises two major questions.

First, who is involved in collective action? Will the United States listen to the voices of the emerging powers? Will the emerging powers obey the command of the US? This is going to be difficult, as the decision of all the remaining BRICS nations to abstain in the UN General Assembly vote on Crimea showed.

Second, if American must always lead, where does this leave the emerging powers, who may disagree with America and may propose their own ideas of collective action?

To make good on his promise of collective action, the US has to promote the reform and democratization of international institutions. But US leadership on reform of global governance has not been particularly effective.

Collective action can also be undertaken at the regional level. At West Point, Obama talked mostly about NATO, more so than the UN or any other global or regional multilateral group and made only passing references other regional groups (he did mention the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE] and ASEAN). The emerging powers don'€™t share the same love for NATO. But regional multilateral groups such as the European Union, ASEAN and the African Union have an important place in shaping the security of their respective regions.

A case in point is Indonesia. Indonesia, a member of the G20, is by one account the 10th largest economy in the world. It is one of the largest contributors to UN peacekeeping. And more importantly, through ASEAN, Indonesia has contributed crucially to the security of the Asia-Pacific region and, hence, to global security.

If '€œcollective action'€ as used by Obama means NATO type of military intervention, then Indonesia is effectively marginalized. But despite its military weakness, Indonesia is the most trusted provider of good offices in Asian disputes.

The Obama Doctrine should pay close attention to supporting the leadership role of countries like Indonesia if it is to fulfill its promise of '€œcollective section'€.

Rice'€™s June 11 speech declared that: '€œWith emerging powers, we must be able to collaborate where our interests converge but define our differences and defend our interests where they diverge.'€ In reality, chastened by Russia'€™s action in Ukraine and China'€™s expensive and assertive claims in East Asia, the Obama administration appears to be more selective in its engagement with the emerging powers.

Herein lies a central challenge for the Obama Doctrine, it promises collective action at a time when its relationship with two of the BRICS nations has deteriorated. Russia has been expelled from the G8. A more intriguing question is the fate of the G20.

There are concerns that the US efforts to isolate Russia might also weaken the G20, of which Russia is a founding member. The emerging nations will not be happy if the US plays politics with the G20, which former NATO and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana described as '€œthe only forum in which world powers and emerging countries sit as equals at the same table'€.

The Obama Doctrine comes at a time when the '€œunipolar moment'€ in international relations appears to have passed. The emerging world order is not multipolar, as many mistakenly characterize it. It is better described as a multiplex world (as I have described it in my new book, The End of American World Order). Like in a multiplex cinema running several shows with different scripts, actors, directors, producers within one complex, we live in a global system with multiple key players (traditional great powers, emerging powers, international institutions and non-state actors) interacting closely with each other while bound by complex forms of interdependence.

Indeed, when Rice referred to the challenge of US leadership in '€œa world that is more complex and more interdependent than ever before'€, she provided an apt description of the multiplex world. But collective action to manage stability of the multiplex world requires shared leadership. The Obama Doctrine'€™s vision for that shared leadership needs greater clarity and consistency to support and sustain a Multiplex World Order.

The writer is Professor of International Relations at the American University, Washington DC, and author of The End of American World Order (Polity 2014) and Indonesia Matters: Asia'€™s Emerging Democratic Power (World Scientific, forthcoming).

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