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Review: Elite perceptions and Indonesia’s foreign policy

Review: Elite perceptions and Indonesia’s foreign policy
Published: Oct 02, 2011

Daniel Novotny attempts to expose the ‘inside’ story on Indonesian foreign policy-making

Caka Awal

I have mixed feelings after reading this book. On the one hand, it gave me an in-depth understanding of the perceptions of some Indonesian elite on foreign policy. Daniel Novotny’s interviews with leading stakeholders responsible for Indonesian foreign policy-making – including former presidents, former and present cabinet ministers, diplomats, MPs, academics and journalists – reveal the ‘inside’ story of personal views and rationales of the interviewees. They also provide a clear description of threats and opportunities presented by the countries that are perceived as the most important to Indonesian foreign policy, namely the US and China.

On the other hand, I feel I was left hanging. While the book is successful in providing insights into the outlooks and opinions of individuals within the foreign policy elite, it does not go on to provide analysis how these understandings are translated into actions. In other words, it does not explain how the perceptions presented translated into decision-making processes that resulted in real policies or actions. This would have been the ‘big bang’ I was looking for from this book: analysis that could provide the inside story of Indonesian foreign policy making.

Nevertheless, the author’s efforts should be appreciated. This book will surely serve as a reference whenever there is a foreign policy decision taken towards countries mentioned in the book (the US, China, Australia, ASEAN countries, Japan and India).

International relations

The book is divided into three parts. The first deals with the context and theoretical framework. Novotny convincingly argues for the significance of a study providing the views of the elite since Reformasi. It is the first (probably the only) attempt to do so. Furthermore, the theory he employs in this book is an interesting one. Constructivism – which reinterprets inter-subjective understandings and conversations by combining the historical, material as well as ideational factors – is not a mainstream theory in international relations or in politics more broadly. Indeed, some International Relations theorists consider it as merely a way to (re-)read history. In a way, the critics are correct in the sense that constructivism cannot make predictions or identify patterns, merely explanation. As a consequence, this book stops at explaining phenomena. Perhaps it is indeed the aim of the author – simply to provide explanations of perceptions. If this is the case, it is disappointing since the rich material Novotny presents is there to be explored and probed with regards to decision making processes within Indonesian foreign policy.

The second part of the book takes up the title of the book and elaborates on elite perceptions towards two ‘reefs’ – the US and China. The US, Novotny claims, is seen by his elites as simultaneously both a malicious and a benevolent power – though more strongly the former. He points out that this is a manifestation of the nature of Indonesia’s foreign policy making, which is ‘haphazard or lacking priorities’. China is a different story. From his interviews, Novotny concludes that the sense of animosity toward China is higher than the sense of amity, and that ingrained perceptions about Chinese and communism in Indonesia still hold sway. Whilst I share his views that there are mixed feelings towards both countries, I am not convinced that these feelings manifest in foreign policy. A foreign policy enthusiast will understand that there are low and high points in relations. Nonetheless, evidence shows that Indonesia’s relations with the US and China are broadly both steady and improving.

The third section provides descriptions of these elites’ perceptions towards ‘small reefs’ like Australia, Japan, India and other ASEAN countries. In these studies of ‘reefs’, large and small, Novotny identifies both change and continuity. Some countries (the US) have always been preeminent. Others (such as China and Australia) are gaining importance. The reasons for this include changed international structures post-Cold War, the democratic transition in Indonesia after 1998, an increased power (both militarily and economically) of certain countries, and the perceived intention of certain countries towards Indonesia, as well as the shifting self-perceptions of Indonesia elite.

The final section of the book begins with the author’s appraisal that in the elite’s view the US will remain the guarantor of stability in Southeast Asia and China will be either a benign hegemon or an assertive superpower. Novotny also lists geographical proximity and religion as playing important roles in determining the elites’ perception of threat. In my understanding, geographical proximity is always a major consideration of foreign policy attitudes of a state. States should always consider their neighbours when formulating and executing a foreign policy decision, although in Indonesia’s case, the strength of this factor should be qualified since it also puts emphasis on its multilateral relationships with the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organization of Islamic Conference and the Asia-Africa Partnership. On the issue of the role of religion in foreign policy decision making, however, I would disagree with Novotny’s findings. Religion rarely, if ever, figures. Thus Novotny’s conclusion that this factor plays a big part of the present perception of foreign policy by the elite leaves me very curious as to how this factor is translated into a decision or action.

Finally, I am puzzled by Novotny’s agreement with the idea of Indonesia’s foreign policy as being ‘untidy, illogical, messy, haphazard, and lacking of priorities’. He cites his sources for this conclusion as ‘some diplomats and scholars’ and an article in an influential newspaper. I am uncertain whether this idea refers to the competing, sometimes conflicting, personal views and perspectives of individuals or to policy. If it refers to views, of course there will be many variants. Even one person can have one or more ideas. However, it is different if it is evident in actions or decisions taken. One cannot judge the actions as untidy, if s/he has yet to analyse the vision, mission and programs of foreign policy.

The strengths of this book are thus also its weaknesses. It explains phenomena but does not identify any patterns or make predictions. In doing so, it raises various questions. This may be the reason why this book is worth reading: to generate a conversation and debate. Something I humbly dare to begin.

Novotny, Daniel. Torn Between America and China: Elite Perceptions and Indonesian Foreign Policy. 2010: Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

Caka Awal ( is working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Indonesia. This is his personal view.

Inside Indonesia 105: Jul-Sep 2011

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