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  • Democratization and Indonesian Foreign Policy:Implications for the United States
  • Ann Marie Murphy (bio)

Indonesia, foreign policy, Islamic democracy

Executive Summary

This article examines the impact of democratization on Indonesian foreign policy and assesses its implications for U.S. interests.

Main Argument

Indonesia's transition to democracy has had a significant impact on its foreign policy, leading it to project a new set of values and promote a new set of interests abroad. In contrast to the Suharto era, when Indonesia based its claims to global influence largely on its leadership role in ASEAN and economic success, today the country increasingly emphasizes its credentials as the world's third-largest democracy and home to the world's largest community of Muslims. Indonesia's democratization has been a key factor behind the dramatic improvement in U.S.-Indonesian relations that culminated in the signing of a Comprehensive Partnership during President Obama's November 2010 visit to Jakarta. At the same time, democracy has opened up Indonesia's traditionally insulated policymaking process to a new constellation of actors, many of whom advocate policies antithetical to U.S. interests. Democracy, therefore, can make it costly for Indonesian leaders to adopt policies advocated by the U.S. and has complicated the task of managing U.S.-Indonesian relations.

Policy Implications

  • • Indonesia's adoption of a new democratic foreign policy plank creates opportunities for the U.S. and Indonesia to cooperate on democracy promotion efforts, particularly in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring.

  • • Indonesia's adoption of a new Islamic foreign policy plank, with the goals of playing a larger role in the global Islamic community and serving as a bridge between it and the West, is fully consistent with U.S. interests. However, greater Indonesian attention to Muslim issues, combined with U.S. support for Israel, often places the U.S. and Indonesia on opposite sides of Middle East politics.

  • • With virtually no Western constituency in Indonesian politics and strong anti-American sentiment, close links with the U.S. can discredit political leaders. The challenge for the U.S. is to ensure that efforts to advance its interests do not inadvertently weaken those Indonesians most amenable to U.S. interests. [End Page 84]

Since the overthrow of President Suharto in 1998 after 32 years in power, Indonesia has undergone a dramatic domestic transformation that has strongly influenced its foreign policy. A decade ago, the Indonesian economy collapsed during the Asian financial crisis, social violence erupted in parts of the country, and the 2002 Bali bombings illustrated Indonesia's vulnerability to terrorism. Only a decade ago, analysts wondered whether Indonesia, long held together by authoritarian rule, would break apart along ethnic and religious lines. Instead, Indonesia resolved major conflicts, instituted an effective counterterrorism policy, and expanded its economy by 6% in 2010 despite the global recession.1 Critically, Indonesia has become the world's third-largest democracy in a political transformation that clearly refutes the proposition that Islam and democracy are incompatible.

Indonesian leaders firmly believe that their experience transitioning from authoritarian rule to democracy, peacefully resolving conflicts, managing a terrorist threat, and overcoming an economic crisis gives them the credibility to address many of today's global challenges. Since his election in 2004, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has sought to raise Indonesia's international profile. As he does so, Indonesia is projecting a new identity abroad based on its domestic transformation. In his bid for international leadership, Indonesia's founding father, Sukarno, projected a staunch nationalism and advocated third-world solidarity. Suharto emphasized the country's economic development and leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Today, Indonesia is increasingly highlighting its status as a democratic, Muslim-majority state.

Indonesia's transition to democracy has served U.S. interests. At a time when the United States espouses democracy as an antidote to terrorism, a cure for social conflicts, and a means to unleash economic growth, the Indonesian experience appears to vindicate U.S. policy, leading Washington to hold up Indonesia as a model for others to emulate. Common democratic values have been a key factor behind the recent rapprochement between the United States and Indonesia. Just a...


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pp. 83-111
Launched on MUSE
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