Obama and Indonesia: Strong Progress But an Uncertain Future
U.S. President Barack Obama with Indonesia's President Joko Widodo October 26, 2015.
Image Credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Obama and Indonesia: Strong Progress But an Uncertain Future


Few countries were as euphoric about the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States in 2008 as those living in his one-time childhood home, Indonesia. Quickly christened Anak Menteng, referring to the leafy Jakarta neighborhood that was his home, expectations were high that his leadership would herald a new era of relations between the two countries.

Early on, Indonesia was high on the agenda, with the signing of the Comprehensive Partnership and the opening of the first high-tech @America Cultural Center in Jakarta. Then, things changed.

Since his last visit in 2011, Obama has seemingly ignored the country, not returning despite multiple trips to nearby Malaysia and Myanmar, to the disappointment of many Indonesians. Despite this, Obama’s presidency has seen relations between the two countries shift mostly for the better, with the lack of headlines this decade actually a sign of strength.

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Hope and (Real) Change

Obama’s inauguration was as close to a 180 degree turnaround as was possible both politically, but also socially. America’s popularity in Indonesia went from near bottom — the legacy of eight years of George W. Bush, and the grouping of Indonesia into the battleground states of the “War on Terror” — to unseen highs, with Obama’s personal connection with Indonesia playing a key role.

“From the Indonesian perspective, the shift from a kind of Christian-crusading, cowboy image, of America under George W Bush, to an America that elected an African-American man whose father was a Muslim and an immigrant was dramatic, and one with which they could better identify,” said Ann Marie Murphy, director, Center for Emerging Powers and Transnational Trends at Seton Hall University.

Bush’s main international legacy, the War in Iraq, also was off-putting to many in Muslim-majority Indonesia. But the other factor many forget was the still-fresh wound over what had happened in Timor-Leste. Many western countries were upset at the inability of the government to hold the military accountable for the human rights crimes that occurred in the aftermath of the independence referendum there, while Indonesia was bitter at the West helping to wrench part of what it considered “sovereign territory” away. In 2008, the United States still had sanctions in place against the Indonesian military, and there was limited cooperation on security issues.

Obama was a chance for a reset, and he had a willing partner to work with. It was noteworthy that the initial olive branch came not from Obama, but his Indonesian counterpart, the globally-minded President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who, within a month of Obama entering the White House, reached about what would eventually turn into the Comprehensive Partnership.

The peak came in 2010, when Obama returned to his one-time childhood home and made headlines by speaking a few lines in the little Bahasa Indonesia he remembered. That same year the United States dropped sanctions connected to the Timor-Leste violence, allowing for greater military cooperation, and the Partnership came into effect.

The Comprehensive Partnership was, like many of Obama’s initiatives in those days, broad and ambitious. It covered several wide-ranging areas, from democracy, civil rights, education, and security, to, importantly, trade and investment. Under this framework, both economic and cultural exchange between the two countries has grown markedly, and the deal was broad, focusing on long term cooperation between what was then, and still is, two of the world’s three largest secular democracies.  

The Partnership is still in force today, despite Obama not having returned to Indonesia since 2011, and fewer headline-grabbing news stories regarding the two countries. Things have still progressed, albeit quietly, in a very different world.

“This is something you see in a lot of relationships,” said Gregory Poling, Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “In the first Obama [term], you got a lot of these big wins. The rest of it is the hard work, but it doesn’t mean that the relationship didn’t continue to evolve.”

Second Term Blues

This reflects the Obama presidency more broadly: ambition and action the first two years, with a unified Democratic Congress and residual hope due to the dramatic shift away from the policies of his predecessor. But 2011 brought with it a new, Republican-controlled Congress, creating domestic turmoil. Then came the Arab Spring, shifting Obama’s attention away from Asia, and, in particular, Indonesia.

Sometimes a lack of attention can be a good thing. America’s focus since 2011 has been on countries such as Libya, Syria, or nearby Myanmar and its delicate democratic transition. It was easy to ignore Indonesia when the U.S. plate was so full, especially when so much progress with Jakarta had been made in such a short time.

“Indonesia is not an ally, it doesn’t have major problems – which is a good – and it is a solid relationship at the time when there are so many problems elsewhere,” said Murphy.

It is a testament to how much the country has changed since the 1997-98 financial crisis. While not without its challenges, Indonesia is, all things considered, a stable democracy with relatively competent leadership, and has far less conflict than in the previous decade. The growing relationship with the United States is a testament to the country’s progress, and it is only when taking a wide-lens perspective that the change becomes evident.

“The relationship is undoubtedly better – on every metric,” said Poling, mentioning security, trade, investment, and, importantly, soft power, including growing numbers of Indonesians studying in the United States, as important markers of progress.

What’s Next?

None of this means that things can’t improve more. But the United States, under Obama, has done its part. According to Murphy, the ball is now in Indonesia’s court.  

“[There is] much more potential to expand – there has to be changes in regulatory and investment environment in Indonesia – no [American] president can really make much of a dent there.”

That means Indonesia’s Obama – the young, outsider president elected to replace Yudhoyono, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Therein lies the problem. Jokowi’s administration has seen a marked shift towards domestic issues and nationalist-oriented policies, a big contrast from Yudhoyono.

“[Obama] was pushing an open door… This has certainly swung farther the other way with Jokowi, who doesn’t seem as interested in international relations,” said Poling.

This has not yet negatively impacted the U.S.-Indonesia relationship, though it may have slowed investment. But it means the status quo may continue until there is a change in Indonesia, or in America, which faces its own stark choice in the coming weeks on who will replace Obama.

If there is one thing to be disappointed by in Obama’s presidency, it is that while the perception of America changed dramatically in Indonesia, the converse is not true. As much as one could have hoped that Obama’s family connection to Indonesia would bring attention to the large, diverse, and democratic archipelagic nation in the United States, it didn’t.

The few stories that did break – such as a false tale that Obama attended a “radical Islamic” madrassah, few of which existed in 1960’s moderate, tolerant Indonesia — misinformed more than they brought Indonesia to light among Americans.

“Indonesia is the largest, most important country Americans know nothing about,” said Murphy, “and I don’t think that’s seen a huge change.”

Some things are easier to change than others. As Obama leaves office, it will be up to Jokowi – who has three years left in his first term – and whoever enters the White House in January, to build on the immense progress of the past eight years.

Nithin Coca is a freelance writer and journalist who focuses on cultural, economic, and environmental issues in developing countries. Follow him on Twitter @excinit.

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