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Jakarta Post

Jokowi needs powerful foreign minister

  • Kornelius Purba

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, July 19, 2019   /   07:59 am
Jokowi needs powerful foreign minister Retno Marsudi (The Jakarta Post/Ben Latuihamallo)

Due to his lack of attention to and interest in complex and long-term foreign affairs, and his strong preference for down-to-earth diplomacy, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo needs to look for three traits in his future foreign minister.

First, he needs to have a powerful foreign minister who dares to “force” him to engage more intensively in regional and global affairs.

The ongoing trade war between the United States and China will likely continue, especially if US President Donald Trump wins reelection next year. Japan and South Korea are also embroiled in a trade war, albeit at a smaller scale. As those countries are Indonesia’s major trading partners, the implications of their disputes could be devastating for us. In the meantime, the European Union’s decision to phase out palm oil imports from Indonesia will pose another challenge.

Therefore, his minister should have deep knowledge, skills and experience, not just in traditional diplomacy but also in economics, among other fields. Apart from the ministry’s many capable diplomats, noncareer diplomats are also available for the President to choose from.

Jokowi will reportedly announce his new Cabinet lineup this month, to be finalized after he is sworn in for his second term on Oct. 20. He may replace some ministers implicated in corruption cases.

Jokowi may or may not retain Retno LP Marsudi as his chief diplomat. She will certainly be remembered for two achievements in the last five years, but are they enough for Indonesia? My answer is definitely no.

First, Indonesia was selected to be a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council for two years until December 2020. It is Indonesia’s fourth membership.

Second, Indonesia succeeded in convincing ASEAN to unanimously adopt a united position on the Indo-Pacific concept during its summit in Bangkok last month. It is perfect on paper. The regional grouping demands to play a central role in the Indo-Pacific. Other partners, such as the US, Australia, Japan and India, however, have their own concepts. It will take an extremely long time to achieve the goal.

EU officials insisted last week that Indonesia should play a much more substantial role in global affairs. “You are a member of the world’s 20 largest economies, but you are too shy,” a diplomat said.

In his farewell interview with The Jakarta Post last month, then-British ambassador Moazzam Malik said Indonesia should be more open and active internationally. “It is important for the world, because you are the world’s fourth-largest country, the third-largest democracy and [have] the world’s largest Muslim population.”

Though Jokowi may be recorded in history as Indonesia’s president with the least attention to and interest in foreign relations, he is very keen on economic diplomacy. He is consistently inclined to an inward-looking approach. In his victory speech to staunch supporters last week, just one day after his contender Prabowo Subianto had congratulated him on his reelection, the President did not explicitly mention the direction of his foreign policy for the next five years.

However, a careful reading of the speech shows Jokowi has actually set up his foreign policy base — domestic economic power and domestic democracy. He differs sharply from Prabowo, who insisted that Indonesia’s international posture was determined by its military might.

“We have to be optimistic about the future. We have to be confident and brave in facing the challenge of global competition. We have to believe that we can be one of the strongest countries in the world,” the President said, one day after Prabowo finally congratulated the President in their meeting on the Jakarta MRT.

Second, the President also needs to consider expanding the role and function of the Foreign Ministry by putting it in charge of international trade. After Soeharto’s fall, the government abolished the directorate general for foreign economic relations at the Foreign Ministry. This played an important role during Soeharto’s rule and was fully involved in the Cabinet meetings. The Foreign Ministry then only had directorates general for the Asia Pacific, American and European affairs, ASEAN cooperation, multilateral affairs, information and public diplomacy, law and international treaties, and protocol and consular affairs. None of them are specifically for economic matters.

Indonesia may need to learn from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which states on its website that it “provides foreign, trade and development policy advice to the government. We work with other government agencies to ensure that Australia’s pursuit of its global, regional and bilateral interests is coordinated effectively”. So Jokowi could rename the Foreign Ministry to be the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Ministry. The current Trade Ministry then could focus on domestic trade.

Third, the President needs to set up a council on foreign relations. The Foreign Ministry already has its own think tank, the Policy Analysis and Development Agency, now headed by Siswo Pramono, but it is more for internal purposes. The council would serve as a think tank and advisor to the President and the foreign minister. It would comprise former foreign ministers, senior diplomats, businesspeople, scholars, senior military and police officers and eminent persons. Its main task would be to provide outlooks and advice for the President and the Cabinet regarding foreign relations.

President Jokowi needs a powerful foreign minister who would be in charge of an expanded ministry, and he definitely also needs an effective foreign relations council. On security and defense affairs, it is also important for the President to set up a national security advisory council, but, again, with an effective team.

It is the President’s prerogative to pick his ministers. This is just a gentle reminder: He needs a powerful foreign minister as his chief diplomat.