War Stories

Listen to Indonesia, Rummy!

What a bizarre overseas encounter reveals about American foreign policy.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

Yesterday, Donald Rumsfeld found himself in an unusual position for an American secretary of defense: being browbeaten publicly by the defense minister of Indonesia. He—and other American Cabinet officers—had better get used to this treatment.

Rumsfeld was winding up an otherwise pleasant trip to East Asia—a breakthrough meeting in Hanoi, a speech to the Asian Security Summit in Singapore, a rally of U.S. sailors with the Pacific Fleet—when, at the pro forma press conference, came a blindsiding.

Juwono Sudarsono, Rumsfeld’s Indonesian counterpart, stepped to the microphone and issued some advice to his American guest: “In the application of security, including anti-terrorism laws, it’s best that you leave the responsibility of anti-terrorist measures to the local government in question.”

Then: “It is important to us because, as the world’s largest Muslim country, we are aware of the perception, or misperception, that the United States is overbearing or overpresent or overwhelming in every sector of life in many nations and cultures.”

“So, I was telling the secretary just recently, just two minutes ago,” the minister went on, “that your powerful economy and your powerful military does [sic] lead to misperception and a sense of threat by many groups right across the world, not just in Indonesia.”

At this point, Rumsfeld felt the need to reply: “I have never indicated to any country that they should do something that they were uncomfortable doing.” (Tell that one to the leaders of “old Europe.”)

Finally, Rumsfeld’s host unleashed the big one. The Bush administration has long been displeased with Indonesia’s reluctance to sign the Proliferation Security Initiative, a multilateral pact that lets U.S. and allied inspectors search cargo ships for nuclear and other sensitive materials. Responding to a reporter’s question about the dispute, Sudarsono said, “Perhaps we can agree on a limited framework of cooperation on an ad-hoc basis rather than a multilateral permanent structure.” Or, stripped of diplomatic jargon: Forget a permanent deal—we’ll help you when it suits us.

Michael Gordon, the New York Times reporter covering the press conference, dryly noted that Sudarsono’s comment “appeared to take his American visitors by surprise.” Indeed. Or, as Rumsfeld likes to exclaim in such situations, Goodness gracious!

After all, the secretary of defense of the United States of America had flown halfway around the world to patch up relations with the Indonesian military, to offer sage advice and assistance on a wide range of issues—disaster-relief operations, joint combat operations with U.S. forces, improved security of the Malacca Straits—and here’s this Third World nobody dishing out advice to him and treating relations with America (“on an ad-hoc basis”) the way America treats relations with others?

Sudarsono, it should be noted, is no chest-thumper. He’s a soft-spoken intellectual, Indonesia’s first civilian defense minister, a modern reformer in a Muslim country—in short, exactly the sort of official who deserves courting and close attention. Like the leaders in many other countries, he seems to understand something about the nature of global power that many of our own leaders fail to grasp.

George W. Bush and his team came to office believing that, because America had emerged from its Cold War victory as the world’s sole superpower, they could do whatever they please, shout orders and receive obedience, respect alliances and treaties when they were useful and disregard them when they weren’t.

But in fact, the dissolution of the Soviet Union also meant the disappearance of a common threat whose very presence had bolstered American power. As long as there was this second, opposing superpower, the nations in between felt compelled to choose sides and often had to pay fealty to the superpower’s interests, even when they somewhat differed from their own. Now, ironically, in a unipolar world, there’s no fulcrum of pressure—no common looming enemy—to keep the bloc in line. Many countries, once formally allied with the United States, remain allied, whether out of shared values, shared interests, or a desire for security. But they are also free to go their own way, pursue their own interests, form their own alliances, without regard to America’s thoughts on the matter, to a degree that wasn’t possible when the Bear was at the door.

Things might have been otherwise if the United States had been disposed to behave like a grand imperial power—if, in the wake of Cold War victory, we had, say, tripled the military budget, expanded naval and air forces, revived the draft—in short, set out to conquer the world. But, thankfully, we didn’t. We don’t have the resources for this sort of enterprise, and we’re not really cut out for it, either. We can’t even maintain 130,000 troops in Iraq—or one-fifth that many in Afghanistan. Being the world’s sole superpower doesn’t mean we’re superpowerful. The term “superpower,” in fact, no longer has meaning. Sudarsono was telling Rumsfeld that we should stop pretending otherwise—or risk so alienating the rest of the world that we lose the power and legitimacy we still have.