Politics, Public Opinion, and the U.S.-Indonesian Comprehensive Partnership

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1 the national bureau of asian research nbr special report #25 november 2010 Politics, Public Opinion, and the U.S.-Indonesian Comprehensive Partnership Thomas B. Pepinsky THOMAS B. PEPINSKy is Assistant Professor of Government at Cornell University. He is a specialist in Southeast Asian political economy and is the author of Economic Crises and the Breakdown of Authoritarian Regimes (2009), among other works. He can be reached at 1

2 EXECUTIVE SUMMARy This essay discusses the U.S. Indonesian Comprehensive Partnership with respect to Indonesian public opinion and the challenges of political accountability in Indonesia s young democracy. Main Argument The U.S. Indonesian Comprehensive Partnership will be an important tool for realizing U.S. national interests in Southeast Asia and the Muslim world. To do so, though, the partnership must appeal to the Indonesian public, something that existing policy has failed to do. Despite the fact that Indonesian public opinion has not been sympathetic to the United States in recent years, this essay shows that Indonesians preferences align in important ways with U.S. interests. That public is represented, however, by a democratically elected government that falls woefully short in various measures of accountability and good governance. The main priority for U.S. policymakers must be to strengthen Indonesia s democratic institutions to create a truly accountable political system. Such a political system will better promote the realization of common U.S. Indonesian interests. Policy Implications The U.S. can take advantage of President Obama s personal popularity among Indonesians to strengthen relations between these two democracies. If the U.S. understands that the Indonesian public prioritizes clean and effective governance, and is on the whole favorable to moderate politics, democracy, and international economic integration, then these can become a new platform for U.S. Indonesian bilateral relations. If U.S. policymakers prioritize the strengthening of domestic political accountability within Indonesia, this will increase the likelihood that the U.S. Indonesian Comprehensive Partnership will yield tangible results that benefit both countries.

3 Relations between the United States and Indonesia are set to enter a new era in the coming months with the conclusion of an ambitious new comprehensive partnership agreement announced by the Obama and Yudhoyono administrations during President Obama s November 2010 visit to Jakarta. The comprehensive partnership is a framework for furthering bilateral cooperation on trade, security, educational, and environmental issues. Its provisions include, for example, a pledge to promote bilateral trade by reducing tariffs; expanded military cooperation to combat terrorism, piracy, and other mutual threats; and educational exchange between university students in both countries. 1 Although a new international partnership with Indonesia will hardly register for most Americans, closer relations with the United States are important news for the Indonesian public. The agreement raises the stakes for Indonesian and U.S. policymakers alike to get the optics right, ensuring that the Indonesian public supports its government s more cooperative relationship with the United States. That domestic public opinion can shape Indonesia s foreign policy is a relatively new development. Though the New Order regime ( ) certainly took note of public stances on basic foreign policy issues, democratization has substantially increased politicians incentives to follow public opinion more closely. In the years since the country democratized, politicians have no doubt become increasingly sensitive to the contours of public opinion in their country. 2 The same cannot be said, however, for U.S. policymakers charged with Indonesian affairs. 3 To the extent that policymakers do take Indonesian public opinion into account, it is as something to be managed, not something that can further U.S. interests in Indonesia. This is a mistake. Given that the ability of this new partnership to transform U.S.-Indonesian relations will depend on the extent to which Indonesians approve of the partnership, U.S. policymakers will need to be sensitive to public opinion. To do that, in turn, U.S. policymakers need to understand Indonesian attitudes, not only toward the United States but also toward the Indonesian government itself. Understanding the latter is important because the future of the comprehensive partnership will depend in no small part on the Indonesian government s ability to govern effectively while at the same time representing the interests of its citizens. After more than a decade of democracy, Indonesians and foreign observers alike are increasingly realizing that the Indonesian government faces substantial problems of governance, in particular in providing basic physical infrastructure, fostering a stable environment for investment and economic growth, and protecting the rights of all Indonesian citizens. 4 Moreover, Indonesia s democratic elections have not delivered the type of political accountability hoped for by many. In democratic Indonesia, politicians take note of public opinion in order to manage their election campaigns, but once elected, these politicians are far less beholden to mass public opinion in matters of policymaking and governance. While this is a problem that is endemic to all countries and political systems, the disconnect between public 1 U.S.-Indonesia Joint Commission and Bilateral Meeting, U.S. Department of State, September 17, 2010, ps/2010/09/ htm; and Fact Sheets: The United States and Indonesia - Building a 21st Century Partnership, White House Office of the Press Secretary, November 9, 2010, 2 See Marcus Mietzner, Political Opinion Polling in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia: Catalyst or Obstacle to Democratic Consolidation? Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land, en Volkenkunde 165, no. 2 (2009): Donald Emmerson observes, for example, that under the Bush administration, U.S. policymakers did not really take into account Indonesian public opinion. Donald K. Emmerson, Garuda and Eagle: Do Birds of a (Democratic) Feather Fly Together? Indonesian Quarterly 34, no. 1 (2006): At the level of macroeconomic policy, Indonesian policymakers have done quite well over the past decade. The problem is that this has not translated into successful policies for enhancing international competitiveness through stable and clear business regulations, dependable infrastructure, the absence of corruption, and so on. See Haryo Aswicahyono, Kelly Bird, and Hal Hill, Making Economic Policy in Weak, Democratic, Post-crisis States: An Indonesian Case Study, World Development 37, no. 2 (2009): Politics, Public Opinion, and the U.S.-Indonesian Comprehensive Partnership u Pepinsky 3

4 opinion and actual governance the stuff of politics between elections is particularly striking in contemporary Indonesia. Attuned to these concerns, this essay outlines an underappreciated challenge that the United States faces in forging a comprehensive partnership with Indonesia that will realize U.S. foreign policy interests. The essay argues that despite the fact that Indonesian public opinion on the whole has not been particularly sympathetic to the United States throughout the past decade, the key to achieving U.S. goals is nevertheless to understand that the real target of the comprehensive partnership is not the Indonesian government but rather the Indonesian people. Viewed this way, U.S. and Indonesian interests are for the most part aligned. At the same time, because the comprehensive partnership is by necessity a government-to-government project, the partner in the relationship is not the Indonesian public but rather the Indonesian government. Here, despite some agreement on regional security and counterterrorism, it has proven challenging to prevail on the Indonesian government to undertake many domestic reforms that are in U.S. interests and that would likely have strong constituencies within Indonesia. It is the disconnect between Indonesian mass public opinion and Indonesian governance that generates these challenges. Thus, the United States faces two paradoxes: Indonesian public opinion is rather unsympathetic to the United States but is the key to forging a successful comprehensive partnership with Indonesia; and the Indonesian government democratically elected by that same Indonesian populace in free and fair elections is a substantial obstacle to the proposed comprehensive partnership. The implications of this perspective are twofold. First, the successful realization of a comprehensive partnership between the two countries will depend at least as much on the successful completion of domestic political and economic reforms within Indonesia as on the status of bilateral relations. Second, as a consequence of the previous point, U.S. interests will be best served by helping to strengthen domestic political accountability within Indonesia as part and parcel of the comprehensive partnership agreement that is finalized between the two governments. This essay develops this argument in several steps. The first section analyzes the customary way that U.S. policymakers have approached Indonesian public opinion, focusing on Indonesians views of the United States and U.S. foreign policy. After establishing that Indonesians views of the United States have recently been quite negative but that they are also quite volatile, the essay turns to the question of how Indonesians view their own government. Section two shows that Indonesians demands on their own government are wholly consistent with U.S. interests in the region, and, in doing so, demonstrates that one potential bugbear for U.S.-Indonesian relations the new assertiveness of political Islam is less consequential than often is believed. From there, the essay identifies the constraints that Indonesia s political system places on popular accountability and representation as key challenges to the U.S.-Indonesian partnership and concludes by outlining a concrete strategy for the United States to overcome these obstacles. Indonesian Public Opinion toward the United States 4 nbr One way to approach how mass public opinion in Indonesia will shape the future U.S.-Indonesia comprehensive partnership is to examine Indonesians perceptions of the United States. Viewed through this prism, there is little cause for optimism. The past decade has not been kind to the image of the United States abroad, and Indonesia is no exception. Polls conducted in summer 2008 Special report u november 2010

5 show that only 23% of Indonesians held either a favorable or very favorable opinion of the U.S. government. 5 The percentage holding a favorable or very favorable opinion of the American people was only slightly higher, at 36%. This is particularly striking when compared to Indonesians opinions of people from Saudi Arabia and China (see Figure 1). It is perhaps not surprising that Indonesians have high opinions of Saudis. But it is noteworthy that public opinion in a country that has long considered the People s Republic of China (PRC) to be a regional competitor, if not a direct security threat and where the descendents of Chinese immigrants have faced substantial bias nevertheless views Chinese people on the whole more favorably than Americans. A snapshot from 2008 may not be representative of how events in both countries have shaped Indonesian public opinion toward the United States. Favorable views toward the United States declined precipitously after the onset of the war in Iraq (see Figure 2). Since 2008, however, attitudes have changed once again, with the United States standing rebounding dramatically after the election of President Barack Obama, who as a child lived in Jakarta for several years. The current period, therefore, appears to be an auspicious one for a comprehensive partnership that Indonesians will support. But the same surveys that show higher favorability ratings for the United States among Indonesians in the wake of Obama s election also show that Indonesians f i g u r e 1 Indonesian public opinion of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and China Percent (%) United States Saudi Arabia China Very favorable Favorable Unfavorable Very unfavorable Don t know Opinion s o u r c e Lembaga Survei Indonesia, May June See footnote 5 for more information about this survey. 5 This and the other figures in this essay, unless otherwise noted, are drawn from a nationally representative survey of Indonesians taken in May June 2008 by the Lembaga Survei Indonesia (Indonesian Survey Institute). Further background on the survey, its methodology, and the raw data is available from the author upon request. Politics, Public Opinion, and the U.S.-Indonesian Comprehensive Partnership u Pepinsky 5

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