Insights and Analysis

Indonesians Look for Strengthened Relationship with U.S. through Obama’s Visit

March 17, 2010

By Robin Bush

President Barack Obama’s visit to Indonesia next week [Note from editor: President Obama’s trip has been delayed to June 2010] is not just a return to a childhood home, but an opportunity for the United States and Indonesia to signal that their relationship – as with childhood friends who may have drifted apart in adolescence – is now emerging into a mature partnership.

Relations have not always been smooth between Indonesia and the U.S. – the Sukarno years were fraught with disagreements and constant tensions, and under Suharto’s New Order, the U.S. always felt some ambivalence in engaging with an authoritarian regime. But as an American child growing up in Indonesia in the 1970s and ‘80s, the people-to-people relationship in Indonesia seemed to me almost familial. Indonesians loved America – and enthusiastically and voraciously consumed American products, from KFC to Levi’s to Hollywood films. The “American dream” for Indonesians was to send their kids to university in the U.S., and middle-class parents scrimped and saved to that end.

But over the past decade, sentiments seem to have shifted from enthusiasm to cynicism, for a variety of reasons. For example, in 1997, more than 13,000 Indonesians attended American universities. Today, in 2010, just over 7,000 do, with well-heeled Indonesians more often opting to send their kids to Australia or the United Kingdom. In general, Indonesians over the past decade held a cynical and distrustful view of the U.S, and U.S. foreign policy actions were more often than not met with a critical rather than a forgiving gaze.

Over the past eight years, many Indonesians felt that the U.S. government took a monolithic approach to Islam that not only linked Islam to terrorism but also did not differentiate amongst the variety of beliefs and practices in the Muslim world. Many Indonesians took great offense at the stringent visa restrictions that were applied post 9/11, as well as the difficulties encountered in the immigration process by those who were able to get visas. Indeed, these seemingly small irritations often caused more ill-will than the higher-order policy stances, like U.S. policy on Palestine and Israel and the invasion of Iraq, that were commonly cited as the main causes of bad relations.

These developments disrupted what should have been a blossoming relationship after 1998 when Suharto’s authoritarian New Order fell and Indonesia undertook – with remarkable success – deep-seated reforms of its state institutions and a relatively rapid transition to democracy. Indonesia’s civil society groups matured into sophisticated advocates of civil liberties; the press became one of the freest in the region; and Indonesia’s Muslim organizations monitored the validity of three national elections and nearly 500 direct elections of governors, mayors, and district heads. This metamorphosis of Indonesia into the world’s third largest democracy should have strengthened ties with the U.S. Instead, in 2003, people-to-people relations deteriorated to the lowest point in recent memory, with only 15 percent of Indonesians expressing positive views of the U.S., according to a Pew Research Center survey.

Tsunami assistance in 2004 helped soften the relationship, but dramatic positive sentiment toward the U.S. wasn’t again perceived on the ground in Jakarta until President Obama’s campaign for presidency. When he won, celebrations across the city matched, and in some cases surpassed, those anywhere in the world. The reasons for the change in attitude are in part personal – the fact that Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia makes Indonesians particularly affectionate toward him. But they are also policy related; the Obama administration has skillfully and effectively treated Indonesia with respect, avoiding invoking Indonesia as a model “moderate” Muslim nation – an approach that backfired on the Bush administration. Instead, the Obama administration appears to be focused on Indonesia’s own policy priorities: food security, education, and climate change, among other things.

Thus, President Obama’s visit to Indonesia has huge potential to signal a return to the kind of close relationship that befits the world’s second and third largest democracies. Indeed, the much-vaunted “Comprehensive Partnership” that is due to be signed by Presidents Obama and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono next week is in fact a true partnership in the sense that it reflects the shared priorities of both countries. While the precise nature and content of the agreement won’t be unveiled to the public until next week, key pillars under discussion include education, trade and business relations, security, climate change, and democratic institutions.

If, as we can expect, the foundation is set next week for substantive collaboration between the U.S. and Indonesia in some of these areas, the relationship will not only have thawed symbolically but will have matured to the point where these two nations have the potential to join forces to achieve greater impact globally on issues that concern us all. This is a huge achievement given the state of relations only a few years ago – and is a tribute in part to Obama himself, to the skill of his administration and committed U.S. Embassy and Indonesian Foreign Ministry officials in Jakarta, and to the deep-seated admiration and friendship that Indonesians once felt, and could perhaps feel again, for the American people. It will signify a relationship of adults, of two mature and strong democracies, that has transcended childhood friendship and adolescent ruptures.

Robin Bush is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Indonesia. She can be reached at [email protected].


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