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170 9 PROBLEMS OF IDENTITY AND LEGITIMACY FOR INDONESIA’S PLACE IN THE WORLD R.E. Elson ‘Our foreign policy must be in accordance with our own internal strength.’ Ruslan Abdulgani (1957)1 Over the last half-century or so, the Republic of Indo­ nesia has enjoyed some notable diplomatic successes in its international dealings. Among them can be counted its feat in 1949 in securing formal recognition of the sovereignty it had proclaimed over the territory of the former Nether­ lands Indies state on 17 August 1945; its capacity to bring early substance and energy to the yearnings of decolonizing nations for proper recognition and to assert their own unique role in international affairs; its success in securing recognition of its sovereignty over West Irian; its persistence and, eventually, astonishing success in securing international acknowledgment of its assertion of territorial rights over the waters of the archipelago; and its central role in the Cambodian peace process. But it is fair to say that Indo­nesia – vast in size and large in population, gifted with immense natural resources and boasting a strategic political and economic location at the intersection of two continents and two oceans – has achieved much less in the international arena than might have been expected over the longer course of its modern history. Indeed, its influence in world affairs has for the most part been minimal. Dewi Fortuna Anwar (2010) has remarked that ‘it is sometimes said that Indo­ 1 Ruslan Abdulgani (1914–2005) was Indo­ nesia’s foreign minister from March 1956 to April 1957. Problems of Identity and Legitimacy 171 nesia is the most important country that the world knows least about’. Indo­ nesia possesses little by way of threatening armaments (its army has generally played the role of a kind of neocolonial internal police force), has no energetic and influential diaspora, has no modern record of significant intellectual acknowledgment or athletic achievement, and has long had a subdued international diplomatic profile. In short, Indo­ nesia has usually troubled the world – in the various meanings of that verb – very little. The world might have heard of Bali, or more vaguely of Krakatau or even of Jemaah Islamiyah, but it is seldom conscious of and knows little about Indo­ nesia as either civilization or nation-state. The point of this essay is to explore the reasons, over time, for this continuing, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes debilitating – but at times useful2 – Indo­ nesian failure of global projection and engagement. In sharp contrast, those young Indo­ nesians in the early part of the twentieth century who first seized upon and then developed the idea of Indo­ nesia, that is, that the territory of what was then the Netherlands East Indies should be ruled by and in the interests of its own people, were deeply internationalized. Not coincidentally, the Netherlands Indies had itself only recently taken on something of an individual ‘legal personality’ and a measure of financial independence in international matters in place of the old purely colonial, subservient identity (Fievez de Malines van Ginkel 1924). Those Indo­ nesians were generally deeply disenchanted with the humiliating servitude that had befallen their own once-glorious histories and societies – something variously attributed to the coming of Islam or the coming of the European – and they were profoundly captured by the sense that the West provided the single viable means of resurrection. That meant ‘becoming modern’ – at first in economic and technological terms, and later in the political arena – by creating and energizing a modern nation-state of their own: Indo­ nesia. That notion/nation of ‘Indo­ nesia’ was almost immediately accepted by the small elite of educated Indo­ nesians with an astonishing equanimity and lack of internal contestation (Elson 2006). For the most part, those young Indo­ nesian leaders were the products of modern Western education; they were multilingual, cosmopolitan and intellectually open. Moreover, they recognized the importance of commanding a strong sense of international tendencies and movements if they were to realize their dream of making ‘Indo­ nesia’ a reality. Thus they understood the significance of Japanese reform and spirit in the nineteenth century in coming to grips with the imperial West, they 2 Australians, among others, have reason to be grateful that Indo­ nesia has seldom seen itself in a position to throw its weight about in the international arena. 172  Indonesia Rising: The Repositioning of Asia’s Third Giant were particularly attuned to indigenous political developments in India and China, and they appreciated that Indo­ nesia’s size...


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