Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, July 22, 2011

In Search of an Indonesian Grand Strategy

My recent article in the Jakarta Globe, which claims that Indonesia is unprepared to take more responsibility in the security of the Southeast Asia, raises several interesting issues that unfortunately can't be covered in that piece, most notably whether a state truly needs to have a set of  overarching foreign policy objectives or what international relations specialists often call "Grand Strategy."

Peter Feaver, a practitioner and scholar, and one of my favorite authors, describes Grand Strategy as follows:
"Grand strategy is a term of art from academia, and refers to the collection of plans and policies that comprise the state's deliberate effort to harness political, military, diplomatic, and economic tools together to advance that state's national interest. Grand strategy is the art of reconciling ends and means. It involves purposive action -- what leaders think and want. Such action is constrained by factors leaders explicitly recognize (for instance, budget constraints and the limitations inherent in the tools of statecraft) and by those they might only implicitly feel (cultural or cognitive screens that shape worldviews)."

This definition is still hairy. We can argue that every state has a grand strategy, though the scale of which is often limited, based on resources, capabilities, and political will. Still, some people would not call it grand strategy if it is conducted by small states. Rather, it is simply a "national objective," primarily because of their inability to marshal and concentrate resources in way that significantly impacts world politics. (According to this view, think about cold war politics and the jockeying for power and stability during WWII.) In short, perhaps only the major players can have a grand strategy.

I disagree with such proposition. I will take Feaver's definition and add another proposition: that grand strategy is a set of foreign policy objectives that aim to fulfill a state's long-term goal.

For instance, even though Nauru is just a very small dot in the middle of nowhere that only few states really care about, such as Taiwan, South Ossetia, and the Republic of Abkhazia, which are craving for international diplomatic attention and recognition, Nauru has a grand strategy, which is to make every state in the world agree on the urgency of the problem of global warming, lest it be drowned by the rising sea level. In order to pursue that goal, Nauru engages in various foreign policies, from supporting academic enterprises that deal with climate change to lobbying other states to get involved more in the issue of global warming. Due to Nauru's small size and small base of resources, however, its efforts are minimal and only partially effective. Still, that does not mean that Nauru doesn't have grand strategy. It does, but it has not sufficient resources to support it.

Indonesia, however, is a state that potentially has considerable influence in international affairs, thanks to its strategic location and abundance of strategic resources, making it an attractive partner for every single great power in the world.

Indonesia used its position rather nicely during the Sukarno and Suharto era. In the 1960s, Sukarno in essence manipulated Indonesia's strategic position to blackmail the United States, the Soviet Union, and People Republic of China at the same time to fulfill his foreign policy goals of incorporating West Irian (West Papua) and to launch an armed conflict with Malaysia. During Suharto's era, Indonesia managed to attract American aid and investments in exchange for its role as a bulwark against the Communists. Fearing the encroachment of the national communists and China from the north, Suharto engaged in a series of diplomatic maneuvering that would end the civil war in Cambodia and enlarge ASEAN, while at the same time, simultaneously engaging and keeping China out from the region.

After the fall of Suharto in 1998, however, Indonesian foreign policy has been aimless. Even though current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has an aspiration for Indonesia to be the leader of Southeast Asia, there is neither a coherent plan or strategy for achieving the ambition.

There are three reasons for why this has happened. Let's look at them individually.

First is the lack of attention from the leaders themselves on foreign policy due to various domestic political concerns. Really, a large part of this is Indonesia's relatively new democracy, with its weak and underdeveloped institutions.

Indeed, most pressing for any Indonesian leader is the fact that his or her domestic support is very weak. No political leader in Indonesia actually has strong structural support in either society or the bureaucracy. In the U.S., any president can rely on a strong domestic support, ranged from a strong political party to highly sophisticated interest groups and political action groups that provides loyal followers and financing. In Indonesia, however, such support is lacking. Indonesian leaders know that today's support may dry up in the future rather quickly, as former President Megawati Sukarnoputri painfully found out in the 2004 election, when having placed second in a five-way presidential race, she found that all of her financial backings and political supporters had gone to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who placed first. Not surprisingly, Mr. SBY won handily in the run-off. The reason is simple: Indonesian politics is heavily personalized, without any strong structural foundation in parties.

As a result, having been preoccupied around the clock in shoring up domestic support, no Indonesian leader pays much attention to foreign policy. SBY finally moved in this direction, but only once he got reelected in 2009 with a healthy 67% of the electorate. Yet, recent political scandals involving corruption within his administration and party have sucked all the oxygen from his foreign policy ambitions, leading to foreign policy paralysis.

Second is the decimation of the professionals of the Indonesian foreign ministry. Back in the Sukarno's era, the foreign ministry was practically the strongest ministry in Indonesia under Dr. SubandrioSubandrio also moonlighted as Sukarno's deputy Prime Minister (with Sukarno as both president and prime minister) and the chief of Indonesian Intelligence Service, making his position paramount in Indonesian politics.

But the seeds of the fall of the foreign ministry can be traced to the Suharto era. It was during that time that interference from the military began to weaken the ministry. The Suharto regime purged the ministry of Subandrio's professionals it couldn't trust or rely on. And in their place came former military officials who were sent to exile (usually for political reasons) or forced to retire. Hence, what we find is the foreign ministry losing its institutional autonomy over time.

Nowadays, while positions in the foreign ministry are still prestigious, the ministry simply has no money, making the posts less attractive to wealth-seeking civil servants. As a result, both morale and quality of the personnel of the ministry suffer. There are lots of vacancies within the ministry. It should be no surprise that under these circumstances, the foreign ministry lacks creative and novel initiatives. Meantime, the foreign ministry has been dogged by bureaucratic infighting with other ministries that encroach on its turfs, such as ministry of labor (dealing with Indonesian workers abroad) and trade (international trade). All of which means the foreign ministry is simply too busy or distracted to make effective foreign policy.

Third is the sad fact there is only very few Indonesian universities teaching security studies. Most International Relations programs in Indonesia focus on political economy and regional studies. Thanks to Suharto's de-politization and de-professionalization of Indonesian society, there's no demand for security studies as most people are concerned only on economics, which is very common in every authoritarian society since economics are a politically safe set of issues.

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