April 1, 2023


When Indonesia’s Joko Widodo visited Ukraine and Russia this summer, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi explained that the president “choose to try to contribute rather than choose to remain silent”. But now, with the world at a dangerous juncture, he inexplicably chose to remain silent.

As we all know, Jokowi once again attended the United Nations General Assembly, the annual event of global diplomacy. This year, it was an unforgivable absence.

Granted, he’s not the only leader missing. China’s Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi are both staying at home ahead of an upcoming party congress where the party will appoint him for a precedent-breaking third term. The absence was also not out of place for Jokowi, who has long prioritized domestic policy, and during his nearly eight-year term has only spoken at U.N. meetings when pandemic restrictions have allowed for remote intervention.

But this is not a routine meeting. Trust among global powers is low, and the world is grappling with complex crises, most immediately the aftermath of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, particularly punishment for the emerging world, rising fuel and food prices, and the broader threat of instability. Moscow has threatened to undermine a deal that would allow food exports to flow. It is said that this is the disaster Jokowi was trying to solve during his trip in June.

It also occurred at what could be a turning point in the war, as Russian losses in human and material mounted, and China and India — who initially championed what might have been described as pro-Russian neutrality — began to signal dissatisfaction. That pressure is having an impact on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is now struggling to find a way out of a disaster of his own making. (Moscow has announced a vote and partial mobilization in the occupied territories.) Indonesia also has leverage, as Russia needs a large, populous fuel-importing economy to avoid isolation.

It has also not been a bland year for Jokowi himself, drawing closer to the end than the beginning of his tenure and thinking about his legacy. He chairs the Group of 20 and will hold this year’s flag gathering in Bali, which includes Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskiy, before assuming the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year. . As Jokowi said last month, Indonesia is at “the pinnacle of global leadership.”

So why is the Indonesian leader not in New York?

Jokowi’s distaste for geopolitical drama is well known, especially compared to his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who, while his personal appeal opens doors overseas, is more inclined to focus on investment interests. In analyst and ex-journalist Ben Bland’s book on Indonesian leaders(1), a Jakarta official put it well: “Jokowi’s point is, why do I have to go to the United Nations, there is no Money, in fact we have to pay them.” An introverted approach is not uncommon, as Brand, who now works at Chatham House in London, points out in the context of today’s Southeast Asia.

Yes, in his early years, the president had good reason to focus on the domestic front—without an elite background or military connections, he needed to build a power base. But his second term, now backed by a broad coalition, should be looking further afield. That hasn’t happened yet. Despite credible efforts, like the visits to Kyiv and Moscow, most of them ended in failure, suggesting that the prediction of going home does matter more than the outcome.

And this time, as always, there is a reason for Jokowi to stay at home. Radityo Dharmaputra, who teaches international relations at Universitas Airlangga, pointed to widespread dissatisfaction with the rise in prices that sparked the Jakarta demonstrations, as well as the president’s growing concern about the end of his term in 2024 and anything beyond that. He can’t stand up anymore, even though the local media has proposed the vice presidency. All of these headaches are bigger than the UN and the world stage — even if they shouldn’t be. After all, Ukraine’s ongoing disaster will only bring bad news at home.

Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country and the most populous country in Southeast Asia, has long been in decline in international politics, and this year should be the time to start correcting that. More importantly, its foreign policy has long been based on the idea of ​​bebas-aktif – an independent and active role in world affairs.

Jokowi failed to do so by standing by in times of global crisis.

More from Bloomberg Views:

• Why Putin can’t harness the power of fascism: Leonid Bershidsky

• Surprise winner in emerging markets crash: Shuli Ren

• Could Jokowi’s shuttle diplomacy affect Russia? By: Clara Ferreira Marques

(1) “Contradictory Man: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Reshape Indonesia”, Ben Brand, Penguin, 2020

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the UK, Italy and Russia.

More similar stories are available at Bloomberg.com/opinion



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