- Prospects for U.S.-Indonesian Relations in Jokowi's Second Term
The inauguration of Joko Widodo (Jokowi) for a second term as president of Indonesia comes as the United States and Indonesia celebrate 70 years of diplomatic ties, providing an important milestone to assess the relationship. This essay will first address the most critical implication of the Indonesian election for the United States: the outcome. It will then assess the prospects for bilateral relations in Jokowi's second term by analyzing Indonesian foreign policy during his first term and assessing the current state of bilateral ties across the economic, security, and political arenas. The essay argues that while opportunities exist to enhance the bilateral relationship in Jokowi's second term, significant obstacles are also present.
Jokowi's Electoral Victory
The most important implication of Indonesia's 2019 presidential election for the U.S.-Indonesian relationship is that the incumbent president, Jokowi, beat Prabowo Subianto. Prabowo is Suharto's former son-in-law and a former three-star general who headed Kopassus, Indonesia's Special Forces Command. He has been credibly accused of human rights abuses in East Timor and during the 1998 protests that toppled Suharto's New Order regime. Following the demise of the Suharto regime, Prabowo was stripped of his command, forced out of the military, and denied a visa to enter the United States in 2000 over his alleged human rights abuses. In a January 2019 presidential debate, Jokowi called for voter support because he had no "past burden" related to human rights.1 The election of Prabowo would have certainly complicated Indonesia's ties with the United States.
Foreign policy issues played a minor role in the election. Jokowi campaigned on his record of improving social programs, such as health and education, and building infrastructure. He also portrayed himself as [End Page 79] a defender of pluralism. Prabowo resurrected many of his 2014 campaign themes: he blamed elites for increasing income inequality, railed against foreigners for exploiting Indonesian resources, allied with conservative Islamist groups that seek to expand Islam's role in public life, and made no secret of his desire to roll back democratic reforms. Both sides ran populist, nationalist campaigns, but Prabowo adopted a nativist approach that sought to appeal to voters by identifying and condemning collective enemies. The positive implications of Jokowi's victory for Indonesia's relationship with the United States, therefore, extend well beyond Prabowo's human rights record. Even at a time when the Trump administration has lowered the priority of democracy and human rights in U.S. foreign policy, a Prabowo victory would have portended a turn toward authoritarianism and Muslim majoritarianism that would have negatively affected U.S. interests.
U.S.-Indonesian Relations under Jokowi
Under Jokowi, Indonesian foreign policy has served domestic goals much more than under his predecessor. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004–14), a former general, championed Indonesia as a model for democratic transition in Muslim-majority states and facilitated rapprochement between the United States and Indonesia. The 2008 election of Barack Obama meant that, for the first time, the two countries were led by presidents with a deep understanding and affection for the other. U.S.-Indonesian relations reached their height during the Yudhoyono-Obama era.
Jokowi, a former businessman, has little interest in foreign policy, which he contends must bring concrete benefits to Indonesia. As a result, protecting Indonesian citizens abroad, promoting economic opportunities for Indonesian companies, and soliciting foreign investment have become his key foreign policy goals. Jokowi's appointment of Retno Marsudi as foreign minister in his first term, a diplomat who lacked the multilateral experience of her predecessors, has led some analysts to lament that Indonesia has lost influence in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Although Jokowi emphasized Indonesia's status as a "maritime fulcrum" in the 2014 election and early in his first term, he largely abandoned this idea in the 2019 campaign and instead emphasized Indonesia's Muslim identity.2 Whether this signifies a strategic intention to deepen relations with Muslim [End Page 80] countries and causes, a pragmatic desire to expand Indonesia's role in the global halal market, or simply an...