Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The End of Europe’s Splendid Isolation

A personal favorite piece of early American wisdom, one that I first learned as a boy of ten and have never forgotten, is Thomas Jefferson’s injunction of “Peace and commerce with all nations- entangling alliances with none.” Of course, the world has never known a simple order of “peace and commerce,” nor have nations ever, in all of history, managed to avoid “entangling alliances”. To expect any country, big or small, to be able to conduct its foreign policy without partnerships of some sort is quite unrealistic. Unless you’re Switzerland, which has a very unique geography and history, sooner or later any country is bound to get caught in the snares of international politics whether they want to or not.

In my last post, I discussed how many scholars and practitioners of foreign policy and international relations have become burdened with the task of making sense of the “new” world we live in. It has become somewhat vogue to draw parallels with the state of affairs in 2014 with those of 1914. Of course there are indeed many similarities, and anyone familiar with my writing knows that I am a major advocate of using history as a guiding light for modern issues. But I accept the use of history as a compass only up to a point.

Nevertheless, if there is one lesson we can definitively draw from, it’s that no matter how hard a nation or polity tries to prevent itself from being ensnared in the tangles of international politics, sooner or later (again, unless you’re Switzerland), you are bound to get caught up in the throes of international politics. America’s founders had a vision for a quiet and peaceful United States, and aside from some foreign adventures the US managed to pursue a relatively isolationist policy on the global stage. That definitively came to an end with the outbreak of the First World War. Now it seems that the new Europe of the post Cold-War era, which seemed to be enjoying an unprecedented level of peace, prosperity and stability, is once again being dragged out of its blissful aloofness from the troubles of the chaotic global order.

Pope Francis recently warned of the beginning of a “piecemeal” World War III, which he believes has already begun, given all of the localized conflicts that have spread around the world. While I appreciate the pontiff’s calling out the horrendous situation developing across the world, the parallels between 2014 and 1914 are far from a perfect facsimile. Some scholars have pointed out the relatively isolated and (numerically-speaking, in terms of costs and casualties) low-calorie conflicts that have emerged across the world, which were the impetus for the Pope’s statement. Nevertheless, the international political landscape as a whole bears marked contrasts, along with some similarities, to the way it looked a century ago.

In brief, the First World War was essentially started because the rivalries between several great powers became entangled in a set of geopolitical alliances. All it took was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on a street in Sarajevo, and soon colonial troops as far-flung as the Namib Desert in Southern Africa and some of the lesser islands in the Pacific were fighting each other in the name of distant European imperial metropolitans. True, the assassination was one isolated event that took place in some “silly place called the Balkans” (as one leading German public figure of the time predicted where a war in Europe would start). But it seems unlikely now that a true “world war” will emerge due to one incident or even one conflict.

The Second World War--again, in an incredibly simplistic overview given the scope of this blog post--was started in many ways due to unresolved issues from the first war. Again, that’s a great over-simplification, but for our purposes it will have to do. One thing that distinguished the first and second wars from each other was that in the first, empires had already been more-or-less established. The second war involved a greater amount of imperial expansionism--Germany’s Lebensraum and Japan’s thirst for more land and resources to satisfy national glory and an increasing industrial base.

Today, Twitter memes of Putin and the streets of Aleppo have replaced the Punch magazine caricatures from Edwardian England featuring “Kaiser Bill” (which are quite funny, by the way). The US and Russia have also continued to jockey for power, particularly in East Asia to assert their own strategic positions and, in the case of the US, to contain China. Yet the political and social landscape of today is vastly different from that of yesteryear. The throngs of young men responding to the Lord Kitchener posters, lying about their age and desperate to get into the “good fight” are nowhere to be seen, and instead we in the West have developed little appetite for any more war. Nowhere is this more apparent than our retreat from the Middle East, followed by a much less conspicuous return in the form of airstrikes against IS, and in NATO’s highly-cautious treatment of the situation in Eastern Europe.

Nevertheless, one thing that we can certainly draw a parallel between is the Britain of the early 20th century and the Europe of the early 21st. Britain’s foreign policy through much of the 19th century was described by the phrase “splendid isolation,” meaning that, aside from the Indian Mutiny or the odd war with the Boers or Zulus in Southern Africa, Britain was able to escape from the majority of bloody conflicts that has beleaguered the other great European powers throughout much of the century.

Toward the end of the 19th century, however, Britain found she could no longer remain free from the snares of continental security and balance-of-power politics. Indeed, Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm even stated his desire to end Britain’s “free ride on the coattails” of other European powers. Today we see a similar situation unfolding, in which Europe is no longer able to depend exclusively on the United States for its security.  In Of Paradise and Power, Brookings Institution scholar Robert Kagan likens modern Europe to a retirement home, which essentially farms out its security to the United States.

Of course, some European powers have begun “pulling their weight” by intervening in the crises in Libya and the Sahel regions. But now the combination of preparing NATO to defend against further Russian aggression on the continent along with more coalition-style intervention by European powers against the Islamic State shows that there is a greater universality to the nature of Europe’s security complex.

While I don’t think we are “reliving 1914” or on the cusp of “World War Three” as many have postulated, I do think we can agree that the era of Europe’s relatively comfortable position and freedom from security threats is over. Perhaps we will see the rise of a Europe once again that is more willing to take up arms. While many had hoped that after such a blood-soaked history on the European continent, Europe would finally come to enjoy a measure of peace. But it seems Europe will have no such privileged position. True peace in international relations, it seems, can only be temporary.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Class of 9/11

In the spring of 2005, when I was a graduating high school senior, TIME Magazine ran a cover feature titled “The Class of 9/11,” which displayed cadets from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The phrase was originally coined by National Public Radio to refer to the graduating high school class of 2005, and how we had to deal with aspects of being teenagers during those years.

The TIME article detailed how the graduating class at West Point, which were commissioned as Second Lieutenants in the United States Army, entered as freshmen candidates just before the nature of America's war-fighting and the security issues changed dramatically. In the course of their studies, the cadets learned a whole new set of strategy, tactics and other war-fighting methods. In fact, however, so would their would-be commanders and the policymakers governing the U.S. military. The West Point graduating class members were told that they were "a special group forged by historic events."

In many ways, however, all of us foreign policy professionals who have developed our careers in the post-9/11 era can be considered a sort of “class of 9/11.” Not so much because of the direct effects of that single, horrible event on our academic, policy and practical execution of international relations and foreign policy, but because that day marked the beginning of a new era in which, over the course of the next decade-and-a-half, we all would have to learn, or really re-learn, how to contend with a multi-faceted and new world order.

Indeed, that horrific event did mobilize an entire generation of professionals: young men and women in uniform, ambitious youth aspiring to become intelligence analysts and other Middle East and security experts, etc. Over a decade later, many people continue to be attracted to the world of international security and foreign policy out of sheer interest as well as a desire to serve their country. Yet for all noble intentions, we must be wary of two potential pitfalls: the tendency to become too narrowly focused on one issue or region, and not being able to adapt our analytical frameworks to the changing realities of the times.

Thirteen years after the events of what I often refer to as “Bloody Tuesday” in my own mind, we face a Middle East that is worse-off and more unstable and insecure, thanks in no small part to the Islamic State, as well as a renewed Russian threat to European security, and festering geopolitical tensions in the northern and southern parts of East Asia. This is to say nothing of the narco-insurgency occurring on the U.S.’s southern border, and the horrible ravaging of the Ebola virus in West Africa, among other things.

Some scholars, such as my biggest intellectual hero Robert D. Kaplan,the prominent geopolitical analyst, have asserted that old historic tensions, which were suspended during the Cold War, are now re-emerging. Still others have even attempted to draw parallels between the year 2014 and 1914. Indeed, while the common wisdom is that “the world is getting smaller,” “the world is flat” or even “we are all getting closer together,” the reality is that what has changed is not the level of integration among nations, but rather the speed with which we are able to move and exchange ideas, goods and capital. The volume of international trade is not that much bigger now, relative to the size of national economies, than it was 100 years ago.

Thus, in some ways we are not in uncharted territory, but rather must regain our footing after the academic, policy and other facets of foreign policy have grown used to a Cold War order. The biggest task we face as academics and practitioners in this new era is to define exactly what we mean by “post-Cold War” and “post-9/11.” With so many issues flaring up in a plethora of regions around the world, we must take care not to hyper-focus on one part of the world, and not allow ourselves to be beholden to antiquated ways of thinking about our world.

After over twenty years without a clear purpose, NATO is re-calibrating itself in the face of Russian aggression and expansion. The Middle East is now not only ravaged by ruthless dictators, but also by a chaotic and violent vacuum of power and institutional authority. With the specter of “mutually-assured destruction” between two nuclear superpowers gone, we have forgotten that nuclear weapons are still a major instrument in many regional geopolitical conflicts (such as India and Pakistan).

Perhaps then, the biggest issue facing all of us involved in various aspects of international relations and foreign policy is that we still are a “class of 9/11” in that, rather than graduating seniors, we are still the awkward, insecure and unknowing freshmen trying to figure out our way. Maybe we, just as we were in our teenage years, too cool to listen to those who have gone before us.  But, if you ask me, we ignore the lessons of the past at our peril. At the same time, of course, we must remember that this is not a perfect repeat of history, and that we must adapt and innovate based on new realities. Perhaps the “class of 9/11,” which must contend with the issues while still remaining very much “in school”, can combine the best of our past guidance with our own flexibility and creativity in analyzing and executing foreign policy.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Jokowi’s Maritime Axis

A mountain dominates the skyline above Ranai, the largest town in Indonesia’s remote Natuna archipelago on July 10, 2014. (Reuters Photo/Tim Wimborne)

Indonesia's Natuna archipelago. Photo: Reuters/Tim Wimborne

Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, has promised to make Indonesia a leader in maritime affairs. In particular, he christened the doctrine: global maritime axis. Researcher Evan Laksmana sees this proposed axis playing out in two directions. He writes:

Domestically, Jokowi will seek to boost Indonesia’s maritime resource development and infrastructure, through, among other things, the development of an inter-island marine highway. Internationally, he envisions the further development of the country’s naval and maritime security capabilities, placing maritime and border issues — such as securing Indonesia’s maritime resources and sea lines of communication — at the heart of the country’s diplomacy.

Clearly, Jokowi seeks to unlock Indonesia's seafaring potential. This maritime potential has much to do with trade, energy, and fishing. It also has much to do with the country’s national security. After all, Indonesia is an archipelagic nation. Its contacts to other countries is via waterways; similarly, now that Indonesia is mostly past its messy and turbulent period, the major, existential security threats come via the seas, from foreign countries with competent offensive maritime capabilities. This national security component is only heightened nowadays, given Indonesia’s broader neighborhood in Asia, a locality filled with increasingly nationalist countries with steadily improving power projection capabilities, some of whom have longstanding waterway and territorial disputes and grievances with each other.

At bottom, the new maritime doctrine raises questions as to whether Jokowi plans to devise a conventional axis that's been witnessed throughout history, one that is essentially grounded in alliance politics, or simply a policy extension of Indonesia's bebas aktif.

Of these two paths, I suspect Jokowi wants to follow the latter. That is to say, Jokowi would like to upgrade and explicitly recognize Indonesia's position as a growing maritime power, but in a way that keeps Indonesia firmly as a friendly and independent country. Mind you, these aren't inconsistent goals.

Possessing better maritime capabilities doesn't necessarily mean that Indonesia will turn aggressive or acquisitive. Of course, those things could, at least in theory, happen. But that's highly, highly unlikely, given the foreign policy goals of Jokowi, the presence of other dominant powers in Asia, and, quite frankly, how the nation sees itself: as friendly and peaceful, a force for good. Plus, Jokowi has more than enough domestic political issues on his agenda--including boosting Indonesia's economic growth, tackling the fuel subsidy dilemma, and uprooting corruption--to prevent any radical changes in Indonesian foreign policy.

No, instead, a qualitative improvement in Indonesia’s maritime capabilities means that the country can more effectively leverage itself as the regional leader--in bilateral relations, in multilateral settings and platforms, and in ASEAN--that it aspires to be throughout Asia. A stronger Indonesia can more confidently and productively pursue its national interests and the interests of its friends and partners in Southeast Asia. Plus, a more capable Indonesia can function better as a regional mediator on knotty issues like the various disputes in the South China Sea.

Why? A stronger Indonesia is a country that nations like Vietnam and the Philippines and China—the major parties involved in the current round of hostilities there—will take very seriously, earning their respect and listening intently to what Indonesian officials have to say. Which is good, considering that Jokowi has recently stated that he'd like to see Indonesia get more involved as a problem solver in the South China Sea. If he invests in the time and requisite tools, his dream can turn into a reality.

In general, the history of regional and international powers tells us that possessing strong land and/or sea capabilities and resources does many things for such countries. Notably, these countries are respected, have a voice in the world, and play a part in shaping the rules and norms of regional and world bodies. This is where Indonesia is headed: not a world of militarism or confrontation, but a world in which Indonesia is able to carve out a large niche for itself as a builder and shaper of mutually beneficial rules and norms. Should Indonesia manage to cultivate enhanced status and position, it will be in a prime position to spread and entrench—via treaties and institutional mechanisms—its message of regional cooperation, stability and peace.

Of course, to an extent, this has already been happening. Led by the tandem of outgoing President SBY and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia has seen its profile in its region and world steadily rise. Sure, Indonesia’s crucial geostrategic location, its developing democratic political system, and its strong economic growth over the past decade have stimulated considerable interest in the country—from world powers, neighboring countries, international organizations, businesses, investors, consumers, and so on. But the other reason Indonesia has been making a name for itself on the world stage is because it’s widely seen—in particular, in Southeast Asia, the broader Asia, and the West, among other places—as a force for good.

For instance, Indonesia has been a key troubleshooter within ASEAN. Via Foreign Minister Marty’s diligent efforts, Indonesia has kept ASEAN relatively cohesive and worked to limit the influence of outside powers on ASEAN. While there are policy differences among ASEAN members, and some members have strong ties to Washington and Beijing, Marty has done a good job of ensuring that ASEAN hasn’t fractured into competing blocs. As one example, his laudable efforts in brokering a last minute 6-point statement in the aftermath of the tumultuous 2012 ASEAN ministerial meeting were vital in helping ASEAN to remain unified in the face of internal and external pressures.

All of these accomplishments are good, especially for an emerging power. But Jokowi wants to go beyond them. One logical place to start is to commence working toward getting China on board with a code of conduct for the South China Sea. This would be a smart decision, for a number of reasons. It fits with his stated political preferences. It would validate Indonesia’s self-identity as a regional mediator and power. It would go a long toward solving the region’s tensions, which would be beneficial for all disputants, Asia, and—given the amount of trade that passes through the South China Sea—arguably the entire world.

There are also national security and sovereignty issues at play here for Indonesia. In particular, there are questions about whether China’s 9-dash line passes through parts of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands. Not only are the Natunas prized as Indonesian possessions, but also because of their rich resources. As stated by the Jakarta Globe, “Its fish-rich waters are routinely plundered by foreign trawlers. Lying just inside its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone is the East Natuna gas field, one of the world’s largest untapped reserves.”

At this point, Indonesia’s official position is that there is no dispute with China over the Natuna Islands and that it is not one of the five countries that are currently challenging China’s claims to the South China Sea—though the Indonesia military has issued more strident tones over the Natunas in recent months, broaching the idea of sending more troops there to protect the islands. So far China has not made claims to the Natuna Islands, seemingly accepting that they are a part of Indonesia. Nevertheless, given its vague and ever-expanding 9-dash line, it’s possible—especially as its power and ambitions rise over time—that China might contest the islands in the future. Such a scenario would put Indonesia into direct hostilities with Beijing, which would not be a good thing. It would also undercut Indonesia’s ability to function as a neutral mediator in the South China Sea; that, by extension, would harm Indonesia’s position as a leader in Southeast Asia and ASEAN. And of course, the very foundation of Indonesian foreign policy—the idea that Indonesia is a free and independent country, a friend to all and an enemy to none—would stressed to the breaking point.

It is precisely because of these future possibilities that Jokowi should get ahead of the game and begin to work on getting all involved and concerned countries to recognize that lowering tensions in the South China Sea is essential and that work on a code of conduct for the sea should begin as soon as possible.

But what if Jokowi really does want to develop a maritime axis of seafaring powers—either in addition to or instead of the ideas mentioned above? In this case, Jokowi will probably face pressure, especially from the West, to develop such an axis along democratic lines. In other words, for its own self-interested reasons, the West will likely want Indonesia to put together an axis that is primarily, if not completely, democratic, including such countries as India and Japan. Of course, developing stronger military and defense and economic and political ties to Tokyo and New Dehli is a healthy thing for all involved. But leaving Beijing out of this axis would be self-defeating. It would only alienate China, as it would probably fear the worst at being left out. Indeed, China would likely think this axis was directed at it. Plus, such a move by Indonesia, given the attitudes and interests of Japan and India, risks signaling to Asia, if not beyond, that is planning a transition away from its free and independent foreign policy to an alignment that leans in the direction of containing China. Does Indonesia want to be in this position? Highly doubtful. It flies in the face of Indonesia’s national interests, identity, and history.

A better move would be to include all of Asia’s powers in a potential maritime axis. Put simply, if Jokowi goes this route, China should be in. This would reduce China’s anxieties and insecurities. It would serve as a good forum for all parties to communicate and exchange ideas with each other on maritime issues, which is crucial given that these issues are so sensitive to countries in Asia and have political, economic and security repercussions for entire globe. It would also provide ample opportunities for all sides to parlay cooperation on discrete maritime issues into collaborative efforts on a wider range of issues, even non-maritime issues. This kind of structure, this axis, with close contact and free flowing information, creates an environment in which trust can more easily thrive, misperceptions are limited, and inter-state bonds are strengthened. This would be excellent for Indonesian national security as well as the security for Asia and the world at large.

Monday, July 28, 2014

MH17: Bringing the Fight to Your Doorstep

We here at CWCP have tended to cover things generally from two angles- my colleagues (with some exceptions) have tended to focus their analyses on events in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, while I myself have tended to produce pieces pertaining to Russia and the former Soviet Union. Now, most unfortunately and for all the wrong reasons, we see the two areas of the world united in one analysis, namely the shooting down of MH17.
 
The US State Department has established that the weapon used to down the Malaysian airliner was an R-1 rocket, known to the Russians as SA-11 (a weapon made by the Soviets, based on the V-2 rocket), and that it was used by separatist rebels who knew what they were doing (at least as far as handing and operating the weapon). We now know for sure it was fired by the pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels in Eastern Ukraine.
 
Petr Poroshenko has stated that while the rebels in Ukraine were known previously as “terrorists” in Ukraine, they will now be known as terrorists to the world. Indeed, after reports of separatists looting the bodies, a Ukrainian government official warned the relatives of the victims that looters have made off with credit cards, and asked that the relatives of the deceased cancel the credit cards lest they become assets of “terrorists.” Personally, my initial reaction to the Ukrainian government’s use of the term “counter-terrorism” to describe military operations against separatists this past spring was a little heavy-handed. I personally believed that the term “counter-terrorism” was deliberately used to get the backing of the West, particularly the US, which has been focusing on counter-terrorism in its own right for over a decade.
 
The consensus seems to be that this was not a deliberate act of terrorism, but rather was a horrible accident, perhaps not dissimilar to the crash in 2010 of a plane in Smolensk, Russia, which was carrying many of Poland’s top brass. It was a messy, highly contentious affair not only because of what happened, but the aftermath of trying to conduct an independent and unbiased investigation. One thing that distinguishes the shooting-down of the Malaysia Airlines flight, however, is that now the pro-Russian rebels have possibly not only lost any support they may have had from analysts and the public at large, they may also end up losing some of their support from Russia, as well.
 
Anna Dyner of the Polish Institute of International Affairs asserts that the attack on the airliner does not seem to be deliberate, but that Russia is nevertheless at least partially to blame for the incident. Even if the attack on the civilian airliner was not deliberate, a position which British Prime Minister David Cameron seems to be taking, the armed groups in Ukraine’s east have sent a very clear message: we are not without the capabilities to do major destruction to innocent civilian targets. Whoever was operating the launch system was trained in how to use it, even though, as US Intelligence officials have announced, the people operating it were nevertheless poorly trained.
 
Some figures, such as The Nation’s Bob Dreyfus, places blame for the tragedy squarely on the shoulders of Vladimir Putin. Russian papers and media outlets, of course, are painting a much different version of the events. Indeed, many in the area of the crash are supporting the version of events coming from Moscow. Unfortunately, no incident like this will be devoid of opportunism, propaganda and a chance for the conflicting sides to undermine each other.
 
One thing that is certain is that the tragedy involving Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 indicates how incidents which occur in seeming distant corners of the globe have not only broad international implications (that, frankly, has never been anything new) but that they now entail a broad scope of international involvement. Earlier this year, when over 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped by the insurgent group Boko Haram in Nigeria, a host of countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States, sent military and intelligence officials to help relocate the victims of Boko Haram’s kidnapping. Now we are seeing, once again, the involvement of investigators from several other countries in this current incident. To be sure, there were Americans, Britons and Canadians on board, too, but it almost now goes without saying that most of the victims abroad MH 17 were Dutch nationals.
 
The involvement of so many in the ensuing investigation of the crash, I believe, demonstrates an underlying tension which characterizes international relations in general. As I have pointed out in previous blog posts, there are two main schools of thought in this field: liberalism (the idea that countries can cooperate) and realism (the notion that all countries only seek their own interests). What seems to be occurring is that, while there is definitely a lot of genuine goodwill and benevolence on the part of those participating in the investigation, this incident unfortunately also provides both sides of the conflict and their major backers with a chance to engage in a propagandistic battle of wills. All the while, it is the families and friends of the victims who, to put it colloquially, get the shaft.
 
There has been no shortage of coverage of the situation in Ukraine since March on a variety of media outlets and in particular social media. So the downing of MH 17 will not necessarily create more attention for Ukraine, as there really has not been a lack thereof. Nor will this likely be the much-touted “game changer” for Russia and the pro-Russian separatists some have speculated on. But what this does mean is that involvement in the Ukraine crisis for countries and groups outside of Eastern Europe will comprise more than just diplomatic action. This incident now has financial and security implications. There is talk of increased sanctions against Russia, not to mention the potential financial blowback against Malaysia Airlines, which has now encountered a second major tragedy this summer alone.
 
Thus, with the downing of MH17, much of the world went from being mere spectators to being more directly involved and affected by the crisis in Ukraine.
 
Our thoughts are with all of those who lost loved ones on July 17 as a result of the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Is Jokowi’s Election a Transformational Moment?


Photo: AP. Taken after Jokowi and his wife Iriana voted on July 9.


Joko Widodo’s election is an important political moment in Indonesia. It ensures Indonesia remains firmly on the democratic path. Certainly, it gives hope to the masses that a changing of the guard will mean a different kind of politics in Indonesia. It reassures jittery investors, who can trust that Indonesia is still open for business. And this, in turn, can allow for Indonesia’s economy to continue to grow and thrive. Jakarta’s friends in Southeast Asia can rest tight that Indonesia will likely continue to support regional stability and cohesion, particularly via ASEAN.

So it’s a seminal event, sure. But transformational? I’m not so sure. Can Jokowi change the system? Can he really clean up corruption? Can he transform Indonesia’s “national character,” as he has alluded to on the campaign trail?

I think back to Barack Obama’s election in 2008. That was an important moment, to be sure. Many Americans will long remember where they were when Obama surpassed the magic 270 mark in electoral votes. His election—in symbol and fact—said that the U.S. had fully moved beyond its violent and overtly racist past. No, it didn’t mean America had transitioned to a “post-racial” society, but it did say that the U.S. was clearly an increasingly more tolerant and accepting country, that it had come a long, long way since the days of slavery and racial killings and segregation and Jim Crow. And for minorities, particularly African-Americans, as you might expect, the election held special meaning. For them, it was a healing moment.

But once in office, Obama’s presidency has been more ordinary than extraordinary. Part of this is his and his administration’s own doing, of course. Team Obama’s passive and incoherent foreign policy, Obama’s reluctance to take the lead on important issues domestic issues, such as significant economic reform, the NSA scandals, and so on, have created the perception that he’s simply muddling through his time in office.

Yet he’s also had to contend with external forces and events outside of his control. For instance, from the beginning, Obama came into the White House with sky high hopes and great expectations, particularly from the political left. His background, age, energy and soaring oratory skills inspired millions to believe that a new day in American politics had arrived. But by this point, the American lefties and independents are disappointed and apathetic, which means Obama can’t rely on his base to provide the heavy lifting of providing momentum and grassroots support for policy and political change.

Additionally, Obama has faced an intransigent Republican Party and powerful interest groups, both of which have been ready and capable to resist his policy proposals. The political and economic remnants of dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2008 financial calamity, combined, have placed constraints on American policy priorities and where and how it exercises its power.

All together, these factors have served as obstacles to Obama changing Washington significantly. As a result, he’s had to conserve his political capital to fight the fights he most prefers, like health care, and constantly operate in campaign mode, making public appearances to drum up enthusiasm and support for his programs. Overall, Washington hasn’t changed. The system is still highly leveraged by money, polarized and dreadfully slow to make policy.

This discussion isn’t so much about Obama as it is to highlight that widespread and deep political change is awfully difficult, no matter how good the intentions of a particular leader. Let’s turn back to Jokowi.

As a relatively young political outsider with a reputation for getting things done and “clean” politics, Jokowi has generated considerable expectations. The expectation is that he will apply the model of politics and policymaking that seemed to work so well in his prior positions in Solo and Jakarta to a national scale. Much, much easier said than done.

Here’s one example. One of Jokowi’s strengths has been his willingness to pay visits to all sorts of local government offices and businesses, so as to keep them in line and also provide a morale boost. It’s good politics, yes, but also a way to boost the production and development of localities. But as president, he simply doesn’t have the time to do this. He will have to alter his hands-on, personality-driven approach to governing. Will this limit his effectiveness in office? Will this disappoint his supporters and backers? If so, will they abandon the PDI-P and Jokowi in future elections?

But that’s not all. Jokowi will have to make deals to put together a political coalition capable of governing. Such deals raise the possibility that Jokowi’s policy preferences, including his wishes for a “cleaner” Indonesia, won’t necessarily be reflected in the ideas and proposals he puts forward. But even if they are, there’s another obstacle. Jokowi will face a strong opposition led by a formidable leader, Prabowo Subianto, assuming he wants that mantle. This opposition will likely try to undermine his legitimacy, which is already happening (!), and sink his policies. And plus, there are questions as to how Prabowo will handle losing the election. He could recede into the night once the election results are certified. But as a very connected guy with dubious motives, it’s also possible he could try to create instability and chaos, making life very difficult for Jokowi. Conceivably, Jokowi could spend the bulk of his time as president putting out brush fires caused by the opposition, and Prabowo in particular, rather than on the goals and objectives he wants to see accomplished.

Lastly, keep in mind that if Jokowi is serious about reform, he will eventually butt heads with vested interests that benefit from the status quo and resist change. This is especially the case with respect to corruption, which is endemic in Indonesia, from the top down to the bottom rungs on the political system. For years and years, political and economic actors, among many others, have been skimming off the top of a host of deals and agreements and transactions. This is how they have acquired and maintained their lot in life, something they want to preserve. Does Jokowi have the balance of power, so to speak, on his side to take on these vested interests? Or will he be outnumbered? If he is, his pledge to crack down on graft and corruption won’t be any more effective than SBY’s.

In sum, this post isn’t to downplay Jokowi’s election or to suggest that Jokowi can’t be a good president. He can. But we do need to be realistic about his chances to be a transformational figure in Indonesian politics. Just because he’s president doesn’t mean he has a clear ride to democratically impose his vision on the country.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

What's At Stake for Prabowo


First, let's be clear about one thing: Prabowo Subianto is not stupid. He is a very smart guy with a firm understanding on how politics work. And he created and ran a strong campaign team that nearly won him the presidency.

Therefore, it is very doubtful that Prabowo truly trusts the four survey groups, LSN, IRC, Puskaptis, and JSI, which are currently under fire for publishing questionable results, that have him in the lead. After all, had he trusted those outfits, there's no way in hell he would have been able to close the 30% gap in popularity between him and Jokowi, because these survey groups had been constantly publishing numbers favorable to Prabowo by healthy margin in the past couple of months.

But here's the big question: why has Prabowo decided to fight on rather than concede defeat?

Edward Aspinall and Marcus Mietzner have penned a very interesting analysis that everyone should read at New Mandala. I agree that one of main goals of Prabowo right now is to muddy the statistical waters, making the legitimacy of Jokowi's victory seem questionable. Still, I don't buy the argument that Prabowo is going to steal the result. He must know that virtually everyone is watching the Elections Commission very closely, including the anti-Corruption Commission. The analogy is this: would you steal money from a bank that you know was watched by the entire town?

Instead, he will move through the Constitutional Court. Instead of challenging the count, however, Prabowo could choose to challenge the legitimacy of the entire election. As the Constitutional Court decided earlier:
The court also ruled that the current election mechanism contradicted the Constitution, which considers the legislature and the executive equal in power. “The checks-and-balances mechanism between the House of Representatives and the presidency doesn’t work well.”
Because short-term coalitions form soon after the legislative election for the sole purpose of nominating a presidential candidate, the winner in the presidential election has to include members of those parties in his or her Cabinet, thus reducing the effectiveness of House oversight over the executive, it said.
...
In its Thursday verdict, the court turned down a request that the 2014 elections be held at the same time. The court said that a simultaneous election in 2014, would create “chaos and legal uncertainty”.
[We] suspended the implementation of the ruling until after the 2014 elections. In the future, [the mechanism] should follow the ruling and separate elections are no longer possible,” Justice Fadlil said.
Keep in mind that the court had decided on a judicial review from Effendi Gozali but has not yet answered Yusril Ihza Mahendra's challenge that only a political party or coalition of political parties that won 25% of national legislative votes could nominate a presidential candidate. So there is a chance of actually having judges in the Constitutional Court declare that both the election process and the next government is illegitimate.

Granted, this is a scorched-earth attempt that might alienate many voters -- including his own voters, but that's the main reason Prabowo's team has been accusing Jokowi of attempting to steal the election via public opinion polling firms: to shore up his base so they would be willing to accept this kind of tactics.

At the same time, it is also doubtful whether the PDI-P itself is willing to be dragged into a long, and very expensive legal fight, with the risk of redoing a very expensive election. It is more likely that the PDI-P will be willing to strike a deal, giving a couple of ministries to Prabowo and ending up with stronger position in the parliament.

That, I think, is the main objective of Prabowo's challenge, to squeeze some lemonade from the lemons that the election gave him.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Ten Things That We Learned From Indonesian Presidential Election 2014 (So Far!)

1. Indonesian democracy is doing better than expected (so far)


Even though the result from the Indonesian Presidential Election is currently in dispute, the silver lining is that so far both sides remain calm, haven't resorted to force, and more importantly, are willing to wait until the Election Commission announces the official result on July 22. The fact that both sides remain peaceful mean that both candidates agree that the electoral process and its institutions are legitimate. For all of this, we should give the credit to...


2. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is doing a good job so far


Whether you think President Yudhoyono is a good president or not, it cannot be denied that he managed to maintain order during the entire electoral process. Even though many criticized his last-minute throw of support to Prabowo Subianto, he has so far managed to keep the institutions of the presidency, military, and police force neutral, preventing the situation from spiraling out of control.

Of course the question is what will happen after the Election Commission releases its official result on July 22. The losers will cry foul and the President, considered by many as wishy-washy, might have to act decisively -- because that will have major impacts on his legacy and reputation.


3. People don't trust the General Elections Commission (KPU)


Which may sound contradictory considering that above I mentioned that all sides regard the electoral institution as legitimate. That, however, does not mean that the people trust the commission. Citizens were warned to check their ballot before voting in case of irregularities. There were accusations of ballot stuffing and other shenanigans going on, such as people receiving ballots with only one candidate, a hoax that was believed by many [link in Indonesian]. More importantly, the disputed incident in Hong Kong, gave the impression to Jokowi's voters that the Commission was slanted in favor of Prabowo. 

And keep in mind even the institutions doing the quick count declared that the commission could be at fault should the commission in the end declare Prabowo the winner [link in Indonesian]. And the KPK sternly warned the commission and its counterpart, Elections Monitoring Body (Banwaslu) against vote rigging.  

This was the main reason why Megawati Sukarnoputri jumped the gun, declaring victory even before the results were in during the election day, which in turn angered Prabowo, who believed that Megawati was going to steal the election, because....


4. Many do not understand a "quick count" and how statistics (or math) works

Math is hard!

Done right, a quick count is a great asset for democracy, as it provides control against governments, or anyone else, attempting to steal an election. Done wrong, it creates uncertainties and lack of trust even in legitimate survey institutions. This is what happens in Indonesia, where there are terrible survey institutions masquerading as legitimate outfits, which causes confusion, especially among people lacking knowledge in how statistics works -- and these outfits are paid handsomely for this.

Such chaos would not have happened had anyone or any body, including the Elections Commission, already threw the book at them: these outfits had a track record of manipulating the results of surveys (not to mention giving wildly off-the mark results). But in Indonesia, people generally never try to rock the boat, until... well... shit hits the fan.


5. Horse-trading remains a popular sport


Already, Golkar, a member in Prabowo's coalition, signaled its willingness to switch sides and join Jokowi's administration, should Jokowi finally prevail. Of course, nobody raises an eyebrow, because, well, this is Indonesia.

Expect more horse-trading later, especially as both Jokowi and Prabowo pursue their options.


6. Yes, money matters, but....


But it is more important to know how to use money effectively. Nobody could fault Prabowo in this regard. Prabowo managed to make the race so competitive thanks to his ability to spend money wisely: building a strong organization for campaigning and mobilizing voters, and launching attack ads that questioned Jokowi's ability to govern. In essence, Prabowo knows how to run a great campaign and regardless of whether he wins or loses, students of politics should study his campaign as an example of how to run an effective campaign. 


7. Also black campaigns are here to stay, whether you like it or not


Because it works against unprepared, incompetent and disorganized oppositions.  In fact, one of very few reasons Jokowi won was....


8. Spontaneous, highly motivated grass root support matters



Without political idealists--these highly dedicated people volunteering their time and money--it is doubtful hat Jokowi could prevail in such a tight and ugly race. The volunteers essentially did what the PDI-P failed to do: to mobilize voters and counter negative and black campaigns on Jokowi.


9. Presidential debates help


While presidential debates only change the mind of few voters, they do help to galvanize the supporters of the winning side of the debate. The debates also provided opportunities for Jokowi to regain the momentum from Prabowo -- and missed opportunity for Prabowo to prove that Jokowi was simply not a good presidential candidate.


10. And of course, a little bit of luck always helps


Nobody expected the fiasco of the polling in Hong Kong, and what happened there remains in dispute. And yet, the fiasco, it seems, led to quite a turnout from the Jokowi voters.

And we end this list with a song.