The Jakarta Post
Indonesian Ambassador to the United States Mahendra Siregar and the US envoy to Indonesia, Joseph R. Donovan Jr., are both accomplished career diplomats. Mahendra presented his credentials to US President Donald Trump on April 8 while his counterpart presented his in January 2017.
The impulsive and reckless US president, however, has forced the two senior diplomats to readjust their positions, as Trump rules his country like his own business empire. For Mahendra, the priority is to gain direct access to the White House, including Trump’s children and son-in-law Jared Kushner. He is luckier than the American diplomat, because Trump has an Indonesian business partner who knows him and his children very well.
Trump’s company sold his 500-square-meter Beverly Hills mansion to his Indonesian business partner Hary Tanoesoedibjo at the price of US$13.5 million, The Washington Post reported last January. Both friends reportedly have a resort in Bali and a golf course and resort in Lido, West Java.
As reported by Tempo weekly, the 53-year-old media mogul and politician acknowledged he had access to President Trump — Hary was apparently the only Indonesian personally invited by Trump to attend his presidential inauguration in January 2017. He also met with Trump twice a few days before the inauguration.
When asked by Tempo on how frequently he met with Trump, Hary responded, “I don’t count, but often enough. After all, it’s a big project whose vision and strategy requires continuous coordination. The three [Trump] kids go back and forth to Jakarta, Lido and Bali. But to meet with Donald, I must fly to New York.”
Meanwhile, Ambassador Mahendra is apparently the only Indonesian diplomat who has held many different government positions, including in the Cabinet. According to the website of the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, the 56-year-old diplomat was previously deputy to the ministers of trade and finance, chairman of the Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM), chairman and CEO of Exim Bank and deputy coordinating economic minister.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is reportedly interested in promoting Mahendra as his new foreign minister, despite the amazing track record of incumbent Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi. The President would need Mahendra to boost his personal relations with the most powerful man on the planet, although Trump has often demonstrated a fondness toward Jokowi.
In recent conversations with The Jakarta Post, several Indonesian officials and diplomats conveyed that the government should be more aggressive in approaching Trump’s business organization or his own family members, especially if Trump wins next year’s election. Washington has warned Indonesia over its trade deficit with Jakarta.
Last year, Trade Minister Enggartiasto Lukita worked hard to lobby Washington, including in his meetings with US Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. The world’s largest economy suffered from a $13.2 billion trade deficit with Indonesia and had decided to review 3,546 Indonesian products listed under the Generalized System of Preferences. The minister clearly has not been able to follow up on his optimistic expectations.
“President Jokowi realized that the final decision was in the hands of Trump,” an official remarked.
What should Indonesia’s government and businesspeople do to gain quick and effective decisions regarding our bilateral relations and/or business deals with the US under President Trump? Forget the old diplomatic and bureaucratic practices. The way that business was done under former president Soeharto for three decades until 1998 has also become common practice under Trump’s administration.
A search on Google reveals many reports on the shortcuts made by officials of foreign countries and overseas businesspeople in dealing with Soeharto. By approaching one of his six children or cronies, many problems could be easily resolved. The same rule now “applies” to the White House.
For nearly all previous US presidents, there was a standard diplomatic protocol regarding bilateral meetings and negotiations. Often, Indonesian officials would just approach the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, who is in charge of US diplomacy for the region’s daily business.
“Now you need to meet with the children and son-in-law of President Donald Trump,” a diplomat explained.
For Ambassador Donovan, one of the most important things he should pay attention to is that a single Trump tweet could skyrocket or ruin his career. Some officials say Donovan markedly differs from his predecessors, who rarely hesitated to address the public. The same potential threat to their careers is reportedly shared by other American diplomats and officials.
Donovan is an excellent career member of the US Foreign Service. He was sworn in to his position on Nov. 4, 2016, just four days before Trump won the presidential election. There were rumors then that Trump canceled his appointment as he wanted all politically appointed ambassadors to return home.
Donovan is keeping a comparatively low profile “perhaps because he does not want to be bullied by Trump in public through his tweets”, an Indonesian diplomat said. Several world leaders have had a bitter experience with Trump through his tweets, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and, most recently, outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May.
In the past, Washington often preached to developing countries about clean governance and transparency. The Americans have been very proud of their leaders, often described as role models for the leaders of other countries. The next presidential election will show how proud they are of their current leader.