Why Indonesia is a global swing state
Indonesia will share the stage this month with the world’s leading developed and emerging market economies when the G20 summit convenes in Los Cabos, Mexico.
As its international profile continues to grow through participation in the G20 and other multilateral frameworks, Indonesia will confront a strategic choice.
It can concentrate on internal development and retain a foreign policy that remains overwhelmingly regional in focus.
Or Indonesia can go global and work with the United States, Europe, Japan, and others to adapt and renew today’s international order. Indonesia’s conundrum is not unique; like a handful of other rising democracies, Indonesia is a “global swing state.”
The term “swing state” originates in American domestic politics. It refers to the handful of states that, because of their mixed orientation, can tip the outcome of presidential elections one way or the other. They are the states that matter most.
Internationally, there are countries that occupy a similar position: Brazil, India and Turkey, in addition to Indonesia. These countries share four defining attributes.
All possess large and growing economies. All occupy strategic locations in their respective regions. All boast democratic governments. And critically, all have neither fully embraced the existing international order, rejected it nor offered a detailed alternative.
These rising powers have emerged as global swing states because the international order has come under new strains. Established after the World War II, the order advances a core set of principles: Collective security, freedom of navigation, free markets, and human rights.
Although imperfect, the order has facilitated wealth creation, contained threats to the peace, and enabled the spread of democracy.
But it now faces unprecedented challenges with China’s ascendancy, the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, deadlocked global trade talks, and the West’s financial difficulties.
The choices made by rising democracies will have much to do with whether the international order evolves and endures or fragments and fails.
On multiple dimensions, Indonesia has embraced the existing international system. A model nuclear citizen, it has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Additional Protocol as well as a separate bilateral accord with the US on nuclear safeguards and security. Indonesia has started to promote good governance abroad.
Its five-year-old Bali Democracy Forum brings together Asian and Middle Eastern countries with the goal of fostering “political development, through dialogue and sharing of experience, aiming at strengthening democratic institutions”. In climate change negotiations, Indonesia has stood apart from other emerging powers and unilaterally pledged substantial cuts in carbon emissions.
Indonesia is not likely to swing away from the current order. But it may, through inaction, contribute to the order’s fraying.
Jakarta’s hesitancy to speak out against Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea weakens the freedom of navigation principle that has long governed the world’s waterways. Domestic choices made by Indonesia also have consequences for the order’s future trajectory.
Jakarta’s recent imposition of new limits on foreign investment may convey legitimacy on those in the region who would roll back economic openings.
Indonesia’s emergence as a global swing state calls for new thinking in Jakarta. Focusing on internal economic development and pursuing a foreign policy of “dynamic equilibrium” in East Asia holds understandable appeal at a time when domestic challenges loom large. But limiting Indonesia’s horizons to the region would be short-sighted.
The global order that has provided a conducive backdrop to Indonesia’s rise will erode without its more active support.
In the long run, this would be far more detrimental to Indonesia’s continued ascendance than the
additional attention and resources needed for more robust global engagement.
One area where Indonesia’s foreign policy has demonstrated particular initiative is the Bali Democracy Forum. Among the global swing states, Indonesia is relatively forward leaning on the promotion of good governance.
It could make a tangible contribution to international order by helping Brazil, India, and Turkey develop democracy support mechanisms that while reflecting their unique historical experiences and outlooks, advance rule of law and respect for human rights.
Indonesia’s position as one of four global swing states will long outlast this month’s G20 summit.
Jakarta may still regard itself as a largely regional power, but this is not the case. Indonesian choices will shape the future international order.
The writer is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.