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Jakarta Post

Do we need a new captain at the UNSC?

  • Kornelius Purba

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, May 10, 2019   /   09:23 am
Do we need a new captain at the UNSC? Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi among batik-wearing delegates of the UNSC meeting, Tuesday May 7th, 2019. (Foreign Ministry/File)

Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi pulled off a unique diplomatic and cultural scoop during the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) session at the UN headquarters on Tuesday. UN Secretary-General António Guterres, delegates from the United States, France, China, Germany and some other nations showed up wearing batik or tenun shirts during the Indonesia-led open debate on peace-keeping operations.

When I saw the picture of the UN secretary-general seated next to Retno onThe Jakarta Post’s front page of its May 9 edition, I recalled my recent conversations with foreign diplomats who asked about the future of the foreign minister. As President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is widely tipped to have secured his reelection, the question is whether he will hold on to Retno.

It is not impossible that Jokowi would consider a new foreign minister who has proven capacity not only in diplomacy, but also in economics, qualities we apparently missed over the last five years. During former president Soeharto’s rule, the Foreign Ministry had a directorate general for the economy, with the person in charge obliged to attend the Cabinet’s monthly meetings. Jokowi reportedly is considering reviving this directorate general.

Since 1966, when Soeharto came to power, foreign ministers have sometimes served the same boss for more than one term, including Mochtar Kusumaatmadja and the late Ali Alatas. Hassan Wirajuda worked for two presidents, Megawati Soekarnoputri and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s first term. Marty Natalegawa served Yudhoyono in his second term from 2009 to 2014.

Many were surprised by Jokowi’s choice of Retno as chief diplomat over other candidates from the Foreign Ministry such as career diplomats Mahendra Siregar and Arif Havas Oegroseno. Mahendra had also held key positions such as deputy finance minister, deputy trade minister, deputy coordinating minister of economic affairs and chairman of the Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM). Rizal Sukma, the then executive director of the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) was also among the candidates. Now Rizal is the ambassador to the United Kingdom, while Arif is the ambassador to Germany and Mahendra is the ambassador to the US.

Winning the UNSC nonpermanent seat — the fourth time for Indonesia — is likely to be Retno’s biggest and best service for her boss. And the timing would be right as Jokowi, if reelected, will pay more attention on foreign policy.

The President focused on more pressing domestic matters with regard to the economy and national politics in his first term. He never attended the annual UN General Assembly in New York, and sent Vice President Jusuf Kalla on his behalf.

Among questions raised by foreign diplomats are: Is it true that Sri Mulyani does not want to keep her position as finance minister? Will she replace Darmin Nasution as coordinating economic minister? Will the President pick fresh blood for his economic team? Do you think the President will appoint a new foreign minister? It seems the President is happy with Ibu Retno.

Foreign diplomats are generally confident that Indonesia will remain peaceful after the General Elections Commission (KPU) announces on May 22 the official and final results of the April 17 simultaneous presidential and legislative elections.

They apparently learned from the 2014 presidential election, when Prabowo Subianto eventually accepted defeat, although initially his supporters could not accept this embarrassing fact.

“Indonesian voters are cheerful but also very mature. Your nation has adopted an amazing democracy,” a senior Western diplomat recently told me. He was much more curious about the composition of Jokowi’s next Cabinet.

Another diplomat, who has been posted here for nearly four years, expressed relief at how little antiforeign rhetoric was expressed during the election process. “It is a big relief for foreign investors that both candidates expressed a strong commitment to foreign investment.”

One of Retno’s achievements as foreign minister is the consistent support for Palestine. Indonesia cannot do much for Palestine, not just because the problems are so complicated and now many Arab countries are even getting closer to Israel because of their fears about Iran. Indonesia would need to have good relations with Israel if Jakarta intended to act as mediator in the endless conflict but it would be political suicide for Jokowi to establish contacts with Israel despite the major changes in the Middle East. Palestine is much more crucial for Jokowi in terms of domestic politics.

Many Indonesians have expressed appreciation for the much-improved services provided by Indonesian embassies and consulates, including legal protection for Indonesian citizens overseas. They are often surprised to receive SMS messages from the Indonesian embassy after their arrival in a foreign country, giving contact numbers of the embassy.

So will Jokowi retain her because of her fine performance, or will he think about a new candidate?

The names that cropped up five years ago may emerge again. Ambassador Mahendra could be a strong contender for Retno.

Whoever will be the next foreign minister, Indonesia needs a strong and effective captain to lead us at the UNSC until next year.