The Reckoning

Part 1: Countries We Need: Indonesia

Jakarta’s skyline: No more dangerous than Detroit, and a lot more vigor, frankly.

Photograph by Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images

Outside of a tsunami, the 1982 flick The Year of Living Dangerously, and maybe a sense that Bali would be a nice place for a vacation, there’s not a whole lot of appreciation in my great country for Indonesia. But Indonesia, arguably, has more going for it than many of the more familiar places bandied about as leaders of the 21st century.

Now, over the past several months, Indonesia has started to think beyond the complexities of its own huge population and borders, and its voice should not only be welcomed in Washington, but heeded, too.

As mentioned in Saturday’s post (U.S. Foreign Policy: Time for a Reshuffle), I believe the United States remains tied to too many commitments, assumptions, and alliances that date to the Cold War or even World War II. Many of these alliances are built on sound fundamentals—genuine mutual interests in things like democracy and free markets, genuine disdain for authoritarian repression, and some cultural affinity, too.

But a period of historic power transition is no time to get cliquey. In my view, the United States is the only nation in the developed world (i.e., the OECD) that has the political will, demographic profile, and economic dynamism to hold its place in the world even as other nations emerge. Japan’s in a seemingly permanent recession. Europe’s nations, already opting out of global security commitments, have entered a period of declining economic capabilities, too, exacerbated by the hydra-headed crisis of the Eurozone.

Germany, the one possible star of that story, is turning ever more inward, wrestling with the inadequate centralization of the EU on the one hand and the historical ghosts that prevent it from seeking too forceful a role even regionally. This morass will last decades, and as we’ve seen already, it is not only affecting global growth by removing European demand, it’s also eroding consensus in NATO (see: Libya).

As any schoolyard basketball captain can tell you, when the team starts to atrophy, it’s time for a youth movement. While this might mean very tough choices in the zero sum world of choosing up sides on the playground, thankfully geostrategy is not a zero-sum game. You can be friends with aging Europe and flailing Japan even as you bring new blood into your ranks. And while conventional wisdom would argue that the new blood on the block belongs to China (or, at least, the BRICS), I see this a bit differently.

Again, repeating Saturday’s premise, Turkey, Indonesia, Brazil, Poland, and Nigeria are the rising stars of each of their respective regions. These rising and democratic powers have the energy, the incentive and the ambition to occupy the beachheads being exposed by the ebbing of America’s influence and power. We can argue later about those left out, as many of my readers have already done: What about Mexico? Poland instead of Germany? (See above) Indonesia not India?

But Indonesia’s case today: First, the fundamentals—Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country on Earth, has since the overthrow of the dictatorial Suharto regime in 1998 repeatedly defied naysayers who predicted it would become either a kleptocracy or a base for Islamic terrorism. Neither has materialized.

Of course, there has been Islamic terrorism hatched from its soil, but we could say the same about Germany, Britain, Spain, and the good old USA. In fact, Indonesia’s liberal brand of Islam, like liberal brands of any religion, allows for the kind of rational compromises necessary for a complex multi-ethnic state of 240 million people to thrive.

This is an important difference from India—which, I realize some of you are itching to point out, actually contains more Muslims (though they are a minority). India’s inter-ethnic relations, and even its regional political tensions, are far more dangerous than Indonesia’s. India is far less efficient and far more saddled with destitution. Even in the dubious realm of corruption, Indonesia has a leg up.

As Ruchir Sharma, the Indian-born Morgan Stanley EM specialist and author of Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles, put it to me recently: “Indonesia does corruption right. In India, you have to pay off everyone, but there’s still not guarantee anything gets done. In Indonesia, you get your money’s worth.”

But let’s not make the negative case: Indonesia’s positives are many and worth noting. A stable democracy, a responsible participant in Asia’s regional institutions in recent years, Indonesia has grown briskly (above 6 percent a year since 2010, and even the down year of 2009 it grew 4.3 percent). Net foreign direct investment, helped by important domestic reforms, has soared above $10 billion a year.

Mortality rates have plummeted, according to World Bank figures. At the same time, the percentage of GDP spent on health care, sanitation, the number of physicians per 1,000 people, and life expectancy have skyrocketed—all healthy signs of a society that is investing in its people and lifting millions out of despair.

More importantly in terms of poverty alleviation, per capita GDP—roughly put, the money people take home each year—has increased by over 5 percent in almost every year since 1989, the only exceptions being 2009 and the revolutionary year of 1998. Its middle class—defined as households making more than $10,000 a year—has doubled since 2004. By 2020, Euromonitor International, a consultancy, projects there will be 31.1 million Indonesian households in that category.

Already the Southeast Asia’s dominant power, Indonesia has patched up long-strained ties with Australia, which now sees it, rightly, as a natural ally in the region. It has settled ugly separatist insurgencies by letting go of East Timor and making concessions in Aceh, and corrected abuses by its military that led to horrific massacres on East Timor in 1999, though ties with the U.S. military remain under a form of sanctions pending further reforms.  

But what truly makes Indonesia special is the example it represents to other nations. At a time when relations between Islam and the West are at another nadir, Indonesia not only stands out for its tolerance but also for its willingness to chide the intolerant while offering creative solutions. Last week, Indonesia’s president, Bambang Yudhoyono, was largely dismissed when he suggested at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly that the world body take the lead in pressing for a ban on blasphemous speech. This may have been rank politics—an appeal to those in his country offended by the infamous anti-Mohammad video. But rather than dismiss it, the U.S. should revise it and make the idea more practical.

Our own laws, after all, in many states ban hate speech. Germany, Canada, the U.K., and others do much the same. While this is primarily a racial or gender preference approach in the West, there is no good reason not to expand that definition to include certain aspects of religion. (Laws banning anti-Semitic speech, for instance, already walk this fine line.)

In a separate venue, Indonesia circulated late last week a proposed “Code of Conduct” for the maritime powers of the South China Sea—a good-faith effort to halt the idiotic sabre-rattling between Japan, China, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan over various waters along the rim of Asia.

The State Department, sadly, has done little if anything with either initiative, probably reflexively worried about the consequences of not dominating the dialogue on either issue. Or maybe Barack Obama is worried about the political hay that Birthers would make of anything Indonesian.

This is sad, self-defeating, bad for America, and bad for the world. And also typical of America today. We ram an American candidate down the World Bank’s throat out of a sense of national entitlement; we fail the humility smell test time and time again.

Time, however, is not on our side. Indonesia is a friend for the future. We should jump on the chance to demonstrate that we, too, can see the future, and it’s not something we’re afraid of.

Tomorrow (I hope): Wild Turkey