Tony Abbott's meeting earlier this month with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will likely be his last, with only four months left in SBY's second term. Reading the reactions to the meeting, I am struck by the high regard in which many Australian officials hold SBY, which is in sharp contrast with the low opinion in which many American officials – to say nothing of most Indonesians – hold him.
Australian diplomats have approached SBY's second term over the last five years as their last best opportunity to move the relationship forward before the transition to a new president whose attitudes toward Australia might not be as warm. As General Peter Leahy noted here last week, the resulting plans were often waylaid by 'beef, boats, badly behaved Australians in Bali, and spying.' Australia has taken quite a few blows from Jakarta over the past few months. But the warm feelings for SBY remain. Australian diplomats look at the achievements in the bilateral relationship over the last ten years – foremost among them the Lombok Treaty – and domestic achievements that benefited Australia directly and indirectly – such as wins in the fight against terrorism and separatism – and question whether any other plausible Indonesian leader could have delivered them.
But in Washington, SBY is viewed with a mixture of cynicism and disappointment. Americans had high expectations for SBY, particularly after the start of his second term, believing that an extraordinary mandate of 63% in the presidential election in 2009 on a good-governance platform would allow him to push through economic and governance reforms that would unlock Indonesia's economic and social potential, and that a more secure SBY at home would be able to do more on the world stage.
US Ambassador Cameron Hume persuaded SBY to propose, on a visit to the US just a week after President Obama was elected, that the US and Indonesia form a comprehensive partnership that would lead to bilateral cooperation on a range of issues and in multilateral fora. Expectations ran high.
Yet SBY's reformist instincts were thwarted by his countervailing instincts for caution and consensus.
Those threatened by reform in the legislature and the bureaucracy, particularly disloyal members of his own coalition, took advantage of these weaknesses to run circles around SBY. When the National Police jailed two anti-corruption commissioners in retaliation for investigating bribes of the police shortly after SBY's second term began, the President did little to defend the graft busters beyond a speech that was weighed down by heavy equivocation. Then, within a year, disloyal members of the ruling coalition forced the resignation of SBY's reformist finance minister, Sri Mulyani, and opened a formal legislative inquiry into his technocrat vice president.
On foreign affairs, SBY appointed a first rate and ambitious foreign minister in Marty Natalegawa. But he was otherwise content to maintain generally good relations with Indonesia's neighbours, and to accept adulation both from investors trumpeting the country as an emerging market destination and foreign leaders hailing Indonesia's accession to the G20. Yet SBY did little with his elevated stature. With regard to the US, SBY sent his principal first-term foreign affairs adviser, Dino Patti Djalal, to Washington to reinvigorate the Embassy there, but after three years in DC, Pak Dino too admits that the love is lost in the relationship (Dino blames lack of US effort, not his old boss).
Despite Indonesia's newly elevated status on the world stage, SBY often behaved in petty ways that suggested not the confident leader of an emerging power but the oversensitive head of an insecure state. In October 2010, he cancelled a long-planned state visit to the Netherlands at the last minute, having already boarded his jet for Amsterdam, because his staff informed him that an obscure Indonesian separatist group there had filed a publicity stunt of a lawsuit against him (the lawsuit was quickly dismissed for lack of standing). A month later, his staff prevented President Obama from speaking to a roaring crowd at Monas on his state visit to Jakarta, the White House's first choice of venue, because they feared Obama would upstage SBY. Obama addressed elated students in an auditorium at Universitas Indonesia instead.
American disappointment reflects Indonesian disappointment. SBY's popularity among Indonesians has steadily declined, dipping into the 30s late last year. Indeed, one of the biggest surprises in the Lowy Institute poll last week was the relatively high number of Australians – 38% – who said they admire SBY, almost certainly a higher number than he would get in Indonesia (precise numbers are hard to come by – pollsters have mostly stopped asking as they turn their attention to the men looking to succeed him – but this poll provides some indication as to his popularity). Australian journalists and academics, too, can hardly be included among SBY's champions; Marcus Mietzner for one slams SBY for the 'gradual calcification that befell Indonesian democracy' under his leadership.
Official Australian and American views of SBY diverge because we seek different things from Indonesian presidents. Australian interests regarding Indonesia, due to geography, are deeper and more immediate than American concerns. Perhaps for that reason, Australians look first for an Indonesian president who does no harm. Americans, on the other hand, have the luxury of aspiring to a role for Indonesia on the world stage commensurate with all the familiar statistics on its size and its status as a democracy – even if that is a role the Indonesian foreign policy elite do not aspire to, as Dave McRae argued in his Lowy Institute Analysis earlier this year.
SBY's management of foreign relations has been competent but unexciting. That has pleased Canberra, and disappointed Washington.
Photo by Flickr user US Embassy, Jakarta.