Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, December 13, 2013

Why Don't Americans Talk About Indonesia?


Since we launched CWCP in 2011, I've done quite a bit of research and writing on Indonesia. It's a fascinating country, one that's central to a host of important international relations issues and questions. Along the way, I've noticed something rather puzzling: Indonesia is rarely discussed in America. Sure, Team Obama, with its pivot to Asia, has paid enormous attention to Indonesia. But when we look elsewhere, at American publications, including mainstream news outlets, pundits, and analysts, Indonesia is virtually ignored.

For instance, flip through any number of prominent newspapers and journals, such as the LA Times, NY Times, Washington Post, Foreign Policy Magazine and Foreign Affairs, and you'll find scant attention given to Indonesia. The same goes for the reporting on national and cable "news" networks. When Indonesia is mentioned, it's usually in the context of the latest regional natural disaster or terrorist incident. The recent hubbub over Australia's spying on SBY, his wife, and other Indonesian officials did get some press in America, but, I suspect, that's mostly because there's a U.S. connection to the overall series of events.

In the States, one has to go out of his/her way to find information and/or analysis on Indonesia. Of course, with the Internet, that's not difficult these days. But the point here is that if you're not an expert or have a strong interest in Indonesia, Southeast Asia, or Asia-Pacific, then news on Indonesia will easily elude your attention. That's a shame.

At first thought, it's strange, perhaps more than strange, that Indonesia has been so grossly omitted from American debates and discussion on foreign policy. After all, in terms of population, Indonesia is the fourth largest in the world, the biggest Muslim country, and the third largest democracy. Its democracy, while far from perfect, has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. Indonesia sits in a major geostrategic area. It has a powerful, emerging economy. It has good ties to the U.S., and cooperates with the America on a raft of issues. Importantly to the U.S., which has been so preoccupied with its war on terror, Indonesia, via its Detachment 88, has made great strides in thwarting and containing Islamic radicalism and terrorism. I could go on, but you get the point: Indonesia is important, to world politics, Asia, and the U.S.

So what's going on? Why don't the chattering classes talk more about Indonesia? After thinking about it, I've come up with several factors. The common thread in these factors is that Indonesia is a complex case that doesn't easily fit into any of the major themes that are often covered by journalists, pundits, and analysts. (In a sense, then, Indonesia is an outlier case, which by itself makes the country interesting and ripe for examination.)

1. Indonesia lacks the negative characteristics that are usually attendant to countries that are often covered in the States. It's not an internally troubled, chaotic country. It is not a regional or world troublemaker. And it isn't currently involved in a major dispute with another foreign country.

2. Indonesia's general foreign policy orientation places a great emphasis on making friends--hence, the slogan "a thousand friends and zero enemies--which is great for cooperation, peace, and stability in Southeast Asia, Asia more broadly, and around the world. The rub, as you might guess, is that nice and friendly is appreciated in Washington and in other foreign capitals, but those things don't make for sexy headlines or news/analytical articles. People like to read and write about drama in IR, and Indonesia--at least under SBY--just doesn't get mixed up in those kinds of situations.

3. Arguably, the most-discussed countries in America are the great powers and aspiring great powers, such as India, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France, and Japan. Indonesia doesn't fit that profile. It's not a aspiring peer competitor to the U.S., nor is it looking to dethrone the u.s. in Asia. Yes, in part, that's because of Indonesia's benign intentions. But the other part has to do with Indonesia's power capabilities. In short, it lacks the combined military, economic, and soft power heft to compete with the world's big dogs.

4. Lastly, it's not an American ally. Lots of words and ink has been spilled on countries like Britain, Israel, Japan, and South Korea. While Indonesia is friendly with the U.S., it's not a formal, true ally. Actually, it's a non-aligned country that seeks to keep its policies autonomous and free from foreign powers. It avoids tight alliances with the world's powers.

What do you think? Have I missed anything?

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