The Jakarta Post
At the first press conference days after her appointment as foreign minister, Retno LP Marsudi coined a new term: down-to-earth diplomacy. The term has also been repeatedly mentioned on other occasions.
Generally speaking, down-to-earth diplomacy is defined as foreign policy that is oriented for the benefit of the people. By such a definition, the work of diplomacy must bring concrete and immediate advantages to the people. Amid public perception that diplomacy is an elite exercise, the challenge for the Foreign Ministry is therefore to redefine its work and move from exercising an 'elite' diplomacy to one that fits the style of Indonesia's current leadership.
Diplomacy has traditionally been perceived as the domain of diplomats and political elites, which has little connection with the welfare of the people, especially those in the grassroots level. Now that President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo has put people at the center of his development agenda, people-centered policy has emerged as the new mantra in all aspects of Indonesia's governance, including foreign policy and diplomacy.
Building on such vision, the foreign minister has promised to create a foreign policy that is truly based on national interests and attunes to the needs of the Indonesian people. As such, the course of Indonesia's diplomacy then is being redirected toward achieving more concrete results for domestic stakeholders from all walks of life, be it farmers, fishermen, teachers or small entrepreneurs.
This raises a valid question: which issues does the Foreign Ministry need to focus on?
Diplomacy covers a broad array of issues, varying from bilateral to regional and multilateral settings: from nuclear weapons (security issues) to contraception (population and development), from global economic architecture (multilateral) to migrant workers (bilateral). Diplomacy at those levels may impact people's lives, directly or indirectly. However, given the lack of financial resources and institutional capacity, setting up priorities is needed.
If diplomacy is aimed at bringing concrete benefits for the people then economic issues should be at the top of the ministry's agenda.
Making socioeconomic issues a priority, which are mostly being dealt with in bilateral settings, does not necessarily mean putting behind multilateral issues. Multilateral and bilateral diplomacy deserve equal attention as they both could benefit the people directly or indirectly. Despite the commonality, the results of bilateral diplomacy are more visible than those of multilateral.
In bilateral diplomacy, the immediate interests of a country may be exchanged with others quicker than in multilateral diplomacy. Unlike in multilateral, a deal achieved in a bilateral forum may well be achieved faster and more tangible in such a way that the real advantage is felt by the people. This claim might provoke the question: does multilateral diplomacy not bring benefits to the people? No need to contradict bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. The two must complement each other. Indeed, multilateral forum, take the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) for instance, does provide numerous development funds that country members can utilize.
Therefore, the matter in this context is not whether we should work in bilateral or multilateral settings. Rather, it is a question of which issues Indonesia prioritizes in diplomacy and how they are implemented and have an immediate impact on the people.
Bearing this in mind, it suffices therefore to say that if the Foreign Ministry is to be down-to-earth it must focus its work on socioeconomic issues, no matter if they are discussed in bilateral or multilateral forums.
Within bilateral settings, diplomacy in trade, tourism and investment (TTI) is considered most effective in bringing benefits to the people. TTI promotion has been core and the routine activities of many Indonesian missions all over the world. Economic diplomacy and events, such as trade expos, tourism exhibitions and investment promotions, often result in a pile of inquiries about business opportunities and match-making facilitation with local business partners in Indonesia.
How we respond to those inquiries is very crucial as it could mean winning over new markets or untapped potentials in foreign markets. Yet inquiries forwarded by Indonesian missions abroad have been often disregarded and not followed up on by related ministries or agencies at home.
As a matter of fact, inquiries are opportunities. We may not recognize which ones are 'gold' in the first place. But responding to them is also part of a diplomat's job, abroad and at home. This looks simple but could potentially bring great results and concrete benefits to the domestic audience. In following up such inquiries, the Foreign Ministry needs to coalesce with relevant domestic stakeholders, such as relevant ministries and the private sector, i.e. chambers of commerce and industry or business associations.
Down-to-earth diplomacy can be exercised in multilateral settings too. Sadly, there is a misleading perception even among diplomats that multilateral diplomacy is too set on dealing with norm-setting and macro-politics and not producing concrete results.
Indeed, economic diplomacy should be focused on in multilateral settings. Multilateral organizations offer plenty of commitments on socioeconomic development and these organizations are in fact allocating an enormous amount of funds for developing countries for development programs and capacity building.
In line with this, economic diplomacy at the multilateral level should emphasize how to channel out as many development programs as possible provided by the UN or other multilateral development funds, among others UNDP, FAO, UNFPA, UNEP and GEF, etc.
The UNDP has extensive poverty alleviation programs that Indonesia can utilize. GEF and UNEP have outstanding environmental-related funds that Indonesia can make use of, particularly for climate change adaptation and mitigation programs. If the Foreign Ministry wishes to get diplomacy down-to-earth, diplomats should be able to identify multilateral development funds relevant to the national development plan and in turn to inform the opportunities to the related ministries for implementation.
Down-to-earth diplomacy prioritizes socioeconomic issues without neglecting other fields. If diplomacy is intended to serve the people's need, the Foreign Ministry should establish a TTI Delivery Unit, sort of an economic diplomacy operational function that can follow up all development cooperation, business opportunities and match-making received from Indonesian missions abroad until a deal is struck and the projects are implemented.
In short, the Foreign Ministry should be able to link up opportunities abroad for domestic delivery. Only through this link-up should diplomacy get down-to-earth and benefit the people.
The author is director general/head of policy analysis and development agency at the Foreign Ministry. The views expressed are his own.