Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Commentary: A noble endeavor, an awakened foreign policy

Meidyatama Suryodiningrat , The Jakarta Post , Cambridge, Massachusetts | Mon, 05/19/2008 2:47 AM | Headlines

On May 20, 100 years ago, there was no Indonesian state, let alone a national foreign policy.

But the emergence of nationhood sowed by Boedi Oetomo in 1908 reflected events abroad.

It was an era of rising Asian nationalism: Four years earlier tsarist Russia suffered a crushing defeat to imperial Japan. A decade before, Filipinos began a rebellion against colonial power Spain and then the United States; and in 1885 the Indian National Congress was founded.

Over a century later the seeds planted by this generation of events would give rise to Asia's four greatest democracies of the 21st century -- India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan.

The emergence of a nationally conscious Indonesian educated elite in 1908 can also be attributed to a shift of perception in Europe. In 1899 Dutch lawyer Conrad van Deventer published an article underlining the debt of honor the Netherlands should pay for exploiting the peoples of the Dutch East Indies.

This prompted a marginal shift in Dutch colonial policy toward a somewhat more acceptable "ethical policy", which led to the opening of educational opportunities for Indonesians.

Lest we forget, Dutchman Douwes Dekker, one of the stalwarts of the 1908 generation, had his anti-colonialist views hardened while fighting against the British in the Boer War in South Africa six years earlier.

Indonesia may not have been a player on the global map at that time, but world events certainly helped shape Indonesian history.

And it is to history that the republic's leaders later turned as they envisioned awakening the Indonesian dream.

The country's first two presidents were rapt by visions of the ancient 14th century kingdom of Majapahit, and to some extent the preceding Sriwijaya kingdom, as antecedents to the modern Indonesian nation-state.

An archipelagic realm fabled by the ancient Javanese hymn "Nagarakretagama" extending through much of Southeast Asia. An international player in the Middle Ages.

The symbolism is irrefutable. The nation's motto, "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika" (Unity in Diversity) is derived from Sanskrit dating back to the age of Majapahit.

So too is the Indonesian Foreign Ministry's logo, which reads "Caraka Bhuwana" (ambassadors to the world).

Since the economic and political calamities of 1998 the Foreign Ministry has truly been an ambassador of change. It has been the most internally reformist and policy progressive department in an oft torpid government.

Indonesian foreign policy in the last five years has returned to its true respected self: publicly understated and underappreciated, yet consistent and effective.

As a former minister remarked in 1994, Indonesia's foreign policy has never been "passive" or "defensive", but "we were always reluctant to brag about the success of our efforts".

More recently, Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda, when asked during a conversation why countries in the region would listen to Indonesia, replied "because we are consistent".

The most glowingly positive awakening has been the gradual shift toward a more values-based foreign policy. Not as an intruder or preacher of human rights, the way some countries pursue, but as a cheerleader for democracy.

Every Indonesian diplomat memorizes the meaning of "Caraka Bhuwana". But in this democratic era that motto should be coupled with Boedi Oetomo, which roughly translated means "noble endeavor".

Hence, "ambassadors to the world in a noble endeavor" should be the raison d'etre of diplomacy, akin to the foresight of the country's founding fathers.

But while foreign policy has awakened, there is the danger of day-dreaming in a state of consciousness. Pursuing goals beyond our immediate capacity or urgency.

The foundation of Indonesian foreign policy is Mohammad Hatta's 1948 speech that stressed non-alignment. A forgotten component of the speech of the first vice president was his call for pragmatism.

In Hatta's words: "Executed in consonance with the situations and facts it (Indonesia) has to face."

Current leaders love to spew rhetoric about Indonesia's attempted role to resolve the Middle East crisis, a leadership role in the Islamic world, attaining a permanent seat in the UN Security Council or mediating in the Korean Peninsula.

Grand rhetoric to satisfy domestic constituents. Delusions of grandeur absorbing immediate priorities and limited capacities.

They would be wise to remember former German chancellor Helmut Kohl's quip, "If I started to have visions I'd go see a doctor!"

The aforementioned issues are important, but priority should be given to promoting a stable environment of political openness in Southeast and East Asia, public diplomacy to raise the country's profile abroad and facilitation for the growing throng of Indonesians overseas.

Let us realize that in many ways Indonesia's global presence is similar to the Majapahit kingdom six centuries ago. A local player with limited presence beyond.

The world's third largest democracy (Indonesia) does not register with most Washington policymakers or Ivy League academics. And this in a country (United States) which is infatuated with global democracy.

The ancient rulers understood their faculty and set priorities accordingly. Sriwijaya and Majapahit were conscious of the Chinese dynasties to the north, and the Chola kingdom to the west. Concentrating, instead, on what it does best in its immediate sphere of influence.

Present-day Indonesians should never cease to aspire, but never forget their own confines.

If Icarus had rockets he may have reached the stars. Alas, though Indonesia may now be beginning to soar, it too has feathered wings.

The author, a staff writer with The Jakarta Post, is currently a research fellow at Harvard University's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

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