American Diplomacy
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January 2009

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The inauguration of a new administration in Washington provides an opportunity to strengthen long-neglected relations with Indonesia and build a strategic partnership, this article maintains. The author, a past president of the United States-Indonesia Society, calls for a presidential visit plus several specific diplomatic, political, economic, cultural, and defense actions. – Ed.

Toward a True Strategic Partnership with Indonesia

Indonesia, surprisingly to many observers, is a successful Muslim-majority democracy which would resist a return to autocracy.  As we begin the turn of administrations in Washington, effective United States approaches to the Muslim world and Asian regionalism call for a deeper relationship with Indonesia.

Too often overlooked in the panoply of United States policy interests, Indonesia is becoming indispensable to our key regional objectives, including:

  • Restoring U.S. credibility in Indonesian and Southeast Asian public opinion.
  • Combating extremism through education and civil society development.
  • Developing a comprehensive maritime security system for Southeast Asia (military cooperation with ASEAN is a longer term objective).
  • Increasing U.S. investment and mutually beneficial trade.
  • Promoting Asian regional integration with the United States as the “indispensable partner.”

U.S. interests in Indonesia and Southeast Asia have suffered since the early 1990s due to reductions in our diplomatic presence and public diplomacy, insufficient priority given to trade and investment, and underpowered leadership in regional institutions.  Especially in light of the current global financial crisis, economic progress is crucial to Indonesia’s continued democratization, and major new investment is needed to create jobs and achieve more balanced social development.  The new administration also must recognize that relations with the Indonesian military are central to a meaningful strategic relationship, and the armed forces (TNI) are in desperate need of modernization and professionalism.  We must bear in mind that while Indonesian nationalism occasionally is problematical for the United States, it can be taken into account through closer dialogue and education.

President Yudhoyono

To initiate a genuine strategic relationship, President Obama should visit Jakarta on his first Asian trip to establish a personal relationship with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and meet with next-generation Indonesian leaders.  A comprehensive U.S. approach in the following areas is justified, indeed overdue:

Public Diplomacy:  A public relations blitz is needed to restore the U.S. image, although there is still respect for American values and our open society.  The Fulbright program (especially for Ph.D. study) should be doubled immediately, also actively recruiting U.S. scholars for research and teaching in Indonesia.  Full-service libraries in major cities should be reopened, the number of “American Corners” in Islamic institutions and universities should be increased, new “Information Kiosks” for studying English in Islamic schools and other learning centers should be established, and book shipments should receive funding.  Educational innovation projects should be extended to middle and secondary schools and there should be an energetic program to fund partnerships between Indonesian and U.S. universities.  Educational advisory centers in major urban centers to promote study in the United States should be reestablished.  And Indonesia should be removed from special watch lists for student and exchange visitors.

Political:  The new U.S. President should initiate a public-private Leadership Forum to regularly bring together senior leaders and opinion-makers.  We should step up support for reforms in the civil service, the courts and legal system, and the armed forces.  Efforts  to promote the reform of parliament (DPR) and political parties should be expanded, while relations between the DPR and Congress should be enhanced through bilateral “retreats” for key foreign affairs and defense legislators on both sides, orientation visits to Washington for new parliamentarians elected next year, and systematically engaging rising leaders on the provincial and local levels. 

Defense:   The United States should progressively build a near-ally relationship, but without overblown rhetoric and expectations.  Measures should include increased U.S. assistance for defense reform, professional training, equipment upgrades, and Indonesia’s new national defense university.  The United States should also support an advisory project to extend the military command and control system to the Ministry of Defense and Office of the President, together with establishing an NSC “cell” to coordinate policy issues, disaster mitigation, and security operations.  Indonesian control of their archipelagic space for natural resources protection and law enforcement should be stressed.  The target for FMF and IMET funding to support these activities should be to reach $300 million per year by the end of President Yudhoyono’s next term in 2013, while police assistance should be expedited through a special training mission.  Human rights training should be included at all levels and, for their part, the Indonesians should commit to re-address past human rights abuses in the National Human Rights Commission.  

Foreign Affairs:  Although Indonesia’s term on the UN Security Council expires soon, closer relationships at the top of our foreign policy establishments are needed to reinforce mutual understanding.  Frequent meetings on the presidential level should continue, and structured policy dialogues with the Foreign Minister and his chief advisors should be held semi-annually.  Information-sharing on key international issues should be enhanced.

Economic and Social Affairs:  Though benefiting from superlative macro-economic management under Economic Coordinating Minister/Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati and Central Bank Governor Boediono, economic nationalism and protectionism have constrained regional economic and trade integration, infrastructure development, and external investment.  A Center for Indonesian Studies should be established in Washington, with U.S. “seed money,” to supply independent opinions on priority financial, development, and public sector management issues.  The Millennium Challenge compact process and FTA negotiations should be initiated next year to reflect the new, closer relationship, and in social affairs, support should be given to grassroots public health and environment programs and training for local officials.


LaPortaAmbassador La Porta is the immediate past president of the United States-Indonesia Society. He retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2003. During his 38-year career, he served as Ambassador to Mongolia and Political Advisor to the Commander of NATO Forces in Southern Europe as well as at posts in Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Turkey, and in the Department of State.

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