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Op-Ed

President Obama’s Visit to Indonesia: Putting the Country on the Map

Lex Rieffel

President Obama’s visit to Indonesia is not only personal but political. He will have the opportunity to visit the home where he lived as a young boy and the primary school he attended and learned the local language. None of the other 43 American presidents have had this kind of exposure to a non-Western country.

One of the president’s political objectives for this trip is to raise Indonesia’s global profile.

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Many Americans underestimate the significance of Indonesia—often described as the most important country in the world that people know the least about. With 230 million inhabitants, it is the fourth most populous nation after China, India, and the United States. Eleven years ago, it began an impressive transition from 30 years of authoritarian rule by former President Soeharto to become arguably the most democratic country in all of East and Southeast Asia. What makes the transition all the more remarkable is that about 85 percent of Indonesia’s citizens are Muslim, showing how democratic values and Islamic beliefs can combine to build a “just and prosperous society,” the main societal goal specified in the Indonesian constitution.

Indonesia is also important because of its strategic location astride the sea-lanes between Europe, Africa, and the Middle East to the west and the Japan, China, and Korea to the north. In addition, it is richly endowed with natural resources: oil and gas, coal, copper, nickel, fish, timber, oil palms, and many more.

Perhaps the main reason why Indonesia is not well recognized by Americans is that the U.S. has never gone to war with the country. Another reason could be that few Indonesian immigrants and students have come to the U.S. Compared to other Asian countries, Indonesia today remains distinctly more inward-looking and suspicious of foreigners.

Raising Indonesia’s profile can benefit the United States by helping to maintain a balance among Asia’s three leading powers: China, Japan, and India. Furthermore, Indonesia’s success in creating a durable system of democratic governance holds great potential benefits for a world struggling to address the problems associated with weak or conflict-ridden nations.

A quick assessment of Indonesia’s strengths and weakness on the eve of President Obama’s visit reveals a mixed picture.

Five areas of strength stand out. A set of four amendments to the constitution since Soeharto was forced to step down in 1998 has produced a solid political framework, notably including the direct election of the president. Free and fair nationwide elections have been conducted three times and are now routine at the provincial and district/city level. A sweeping decentralization law was passed in 2001, vesting more power in its 440 districts and cities than in its 33 provinces. Civil society has flourished, reinforced by a remarkably free press. Economic leadership has been exceptionally strong, most visibly by current Vice President Boediono and Finance Minister Sri Mulyani. They have managed Indonesia’s recovery from the extremely severe financial crisis it experienced in 1997-1998.

Six areas of weakness stand out. The legislature has excelled in granting itself generous salaries and benefits while bottling-up laws essential to improving governance and raising standards of living broadly. The bureaucracy performs poorly because it is underpaid and undisciplined. The military is largely out of politics but still too engaged in business activities to be a respected professional force.

Perhaps worst of all, Indonesia has allowed its rich resource endowment to be more of a curse than a blessing. Over-exploitation is occurring in virtually every square mile of the country, in its territorial waters as well as it 17,000 islands. Insufficient investment in infrastructure has made Indonesia a high-cost production base. And a host of impediments to domestic as well as foreign investment are making it harder for the private sector to create jobs at the pace required to absorb new entrants into the labor force.

Obama’s visit to Indonesia, albeit short, is the beginning to placing the country on the map. The “Comprehensive Partnership” that the two countries will formally launch represents the kind of long-term commitment that can go far in helping Indonesia pull its weight in global affairs.

Significantly, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono proposed the Comprehensive Partnership in November 2008 as he was gearing up for his successful campaign to serve a second five-year term.  Fleshing out the content has been an excellent test of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, which emphasizes listening rather than lecturing. Education is likely to emerge as the top priority: strengthening Indonesian universities, helping more Indonesians to study in the U.S., and encouraging more Americans to pursue Indonesian studies. The Indonesians would like to see U.S. economic and development assistance scaled up, but it will be difficult to meet their expectations in this area. The most problematical area is military cooperation because Indonesia has yet to articulate, let alone implement, a defense and security strategy that deserves strong support from the United States.

President Obama’s visit, eagerly awaited by the Indonesians from the day he was elected in November 2008, has great symbolic importance for both countries. However, the tangible benefits for the men and women on the streets of both countries will materialize slowly in the coming years, with hard work carried out on both sides.

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