Thu, 29 May 2003

RI's foreign policy outlook after the 2004 election

Bantarto Bandoro, Editor, 'The Indonesian Quarterly', Centre For Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta,

People have now begun to discuss the issue of presidential candidates, as the country continues to prepare for the first- ever direct election in 2004. The election will be a turning point in Indonesian politics because it allows, for the first time, the public to cast a vote for someone who is ready to be president and lead the nation. The election, as it has always been, will be used by the contestants as a medium to introduce their political program in order to convince the public of their commitment to building democracy in the country.

The issue of the country's international relations is often not a dominant one in the election -- it has been almost ignored by contestants in their political programs. Defense and other foreign policy issues are less important to voters than, for example, the domestic economy, social security, education, law enforcement, etc. The public and the contestants do not seem to care about all these "international" things.

Perhaps it is time, if the bill on the direct presidential election is approved by the legislature, for the presidential candidates to express their thoughts on the future of our international position and role. A candidates's ability to talk openly, plainly and convincingly about foreign policy matters and other Indonesian international affairs will help voters become aware of the importance of our international interactions for the resolution of our domestic problems.

Perhaps, for the foreign policy communities here, who will lead Indonesia will be seen as important as the substance and orientation of our future foreign policy. Definitely, there would be differences in the way Nurcholish Madjid, Amien Rais or Hamzah Haz, if they were to lead the country, executed the country's foreign policy. Whoever leads the country, he or she must proceed with the assumption that Indonesia is not yet totally freed from multidimensional problems. Our foreign policy after the 2004 election should therefore still be designed and executed within such a framework.

The current government has been trying its utmost to improve the country's domestic situation and international image. But Indonesia's international diplomacy maneuvers have, so far, been of little significance to the solution of our domestic problems. But this is not to deny that Indonesia has continued to maintain the main tenets of our foreign policy, that is, an independent and active foreign policy. This is unlikely to change, despite a change in our national leadership.

No one can really predict what will become the most influential issue in the external environment of Indonesia after 2004. However, a global fight against terrorism will still definitely be on the international agenda. Indonesian policy on this matter will not change. In the future, however, the government will have to be even more active in initiating an antiterrorism policy, but it has to be very cautious in its policy implementation so as not to create the image that the policy is being targeted toward certain domestic groups. However, one must not accept the idea that the outlook of our foreign policy is dominated by such trends.

As foreign policy is indeed an instrument to promote and articulate our national interests abroad, our foreign policy after the 2004 election must be built upon pragmatic, realistic and rational thoughts. These should then be translated into a foreign policy agenda that is oriented toward overcoming our domestic problems. Thus, whoever becomes the next president, he or she must understand the importance of international links for the solution of our domestic problems.

Perhaps the most important matters to be included in our foreign policy agenda are: (1) full restoration of economic stability, (2) reduction in the tendency toward disintegration, (3) the search for alternative external sources for our long-term development, particularly when we are no longer part of the IMF program, and (4) restoration of our international image.

Such an agenda should be able to accommodate the current and future needs of our country and accommodate a variety of interests. That is to say, the future foreign policy agenda must be a reflection of a national commitment to tackle effectively our domestic problems. But such a policy agenda would be considered reliable, acceptable and qualitatively good only if it were comprehensive in scope, realistic and modest in its objectives and reflected the country's long-term needs.

What we need beyond 2004 is perhaps a stronger sense that what happens inside the country, as well as in our immediate region, affects our destiny too. Thus, our foreign policy beyond such period is out to prove not only our political existence and credibility in handling national and international problems, but also our commitment to be continually part of international collaboration in establishing a more secure and stable international environment.

The most important responsibility our future leaders will carry is the need to manage our foreign policy in such a way that it leads to major changes, domestically and internationally. Such changes must be geared at producing some sort of balance between our commitment to fulfill our domestic needs and the imperative to manage our external relations.

The best of Indonesia is yet to come. The economy is one example. However, our foreign policy is not only about the economy. Indonesian's foreign policy should convey the message that we are doing our best to strike the balance between democracy, respect for human rights and security.

A more proactive and well thought out foreign policy should be initiated if Indonesia is to be seen as meaningful, both strategically and politically, for the stability of its immediate region and the globe. It is therefore imperative for our leaders to make a new foreign policy breakthrough in such a way as to help promote domestic political stability and strengthen our international position. Therefore, the foreign policy of our next government must be as adaptive as possible to the changed external environment and unpredictable events.