Indonesia-U.S. Relations: A Comprehensive Partnership

Monday, February 28, 2011 - 01:00

Editor: Would you please tell our readers something about your background and experience?

Djalal: Coming to America as ambassador is a big kick for me. Believe it or not, in 1980 I worked as janitor and dishwasher at that same embassy where I am now ambassador. To my pleasant surprise, my boss from those dishwashing days is still around, except that he doesn't tip me anymore. But the experience of having grown up in America and having made many friends in this country puts me in a good position to build a stronger bridge between Indonesia and America. My last diplomatic posting was in Washington, DC during 9/11, and even back then I realized that an Indonesian ambassador to the U.S. should be not only a person who can fiercely promote Indonesia's national interests but also somebody who understands America and knows how Americans think.

In any case, with the Comprehensive Partnership now in place, and with the successful visit of President Barack Obama to Indonesia last November 2010, there is no better time to be Indonesia's ambassador to America than today.

Editor: In your September 16, 2010 remarks at the USINDO Welcoming Dinner, you described robust Indonesia-U.S. relations under four broad categories. Starting with the first, what is the significance of our shared commitment to Democracy and how can it contribute to strengthening our relations?

Djalal: Indonesia and America today relate to one another in a different way compared to the past. This is because for the first time in the long history of our relations, we have entered into a partnership as fellow democracies. In fact, this partnership is not just between fellow democracies but among the world's largest democracies, and also between the world's oldest and younger democracies. This adds to a deep political connection between our countries and also means that America has a strong commitment to and investment in the success of Indonesia's democratic development.

Editor: How can Indonesia-U.S. relations serve as a model for outreach to the Islamic world? What are some of the unique features of Indonesia's Muslim community?

Djalal: Indonesia's brand of Islam is indeed unique and special, and we're quite proud of it. Islam was never brought into Indonesia by force. It was brought by traders in the spirit of peace and friendship. Over the centuries, Islam in Indonesia has developed a brand that is moderate, open and tolerant. In the Republic of Indonesia, which is home to the world's largest Muslim population, we have full religious freedom, and Indonesia is not an Islamic state. All Indonesians enjoy national holidays to celebrate the Christian Christmas and Easter, Hindu Nyepi, Buddhist Waisak and Islamic holidays. We are also proud of the fact that our Islamic identity does not clash but is in fact complementary to our democracy, modernity and women's rights.

The relationship between America and Indonesia is important because it reflects a constructive 21st-century partnership between the West and the Islamic world. Indeed, the commitment to pluralism and tolerance that is at the heart of both American and Indonesian nationhood should be an important part of our Comprehensive Partnership, so that both America and Indonesia can champion the cause of multiculturalism and interfaith harmony around the world.

Editor: How do Indonesia and the U.S. cooperate to fight terrorism, and what additional measures can be implemented to our mutual benefit? What are some successes of Indonesia's counterterrorism efforts?

Djalal: Indonesia has been very successful in counterterrorism efforts. We have been severely hit by terrorist attack over the years, but we have also responded to these threats with considerable success. We were able to apprehend most of those who perpetrated the attacks, and we have been very aggressive in covering new terrorist cells. We also have a very innovative deradicalization program for extremists, and we have been able to galvanize the role of moderates across the religious faiths to stand together against extremism and terrorism. But we cannot be complacent, and I expect this to be a long-term effort for Indonesia.

Indonesia-U.S. cooperation on terrorism and transnational crime has been solid. This is something that has to be done in a low-key manner, and it should be kept away from the political arena.

Editor: Please describe Indonesian-U.S. initiatives to address environmental issues. How will these efforts expand in the areas of improving air quality and developing renewable energy resources?

Djalal: Environmental cooperation is one of the exciting new sectors that we can develop as a pillar of our partnership. Indonesia has great environmental assets - in our tropical rainforests, in our seas and in our biodiversity. We look forward to developing a robust program on sustainable forestry with the U.S. and also to developing non-fossil energy sources such as geothermal, where Indonesia has the world's largest reserves and America has the world's best geothermal technology. I am pleased that the U.S. has been the strongest supporter in the regional Coral Triangle Initiative. This program aims to help preserve marine biodiversity in our seas, which is a source of livelihood for the peoples living in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Solomon Island. This is a win-win cooperation that we must strengthen.

Editor: How has Indonesia taken a leadership role in the pursuit of a more prosperous and peaceful Southeast Asia? How are Indonesia and the U.S. cooperating in these efforts?

Djalal: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will always be the cornerstone of Indonesia's foreign policy. As President Yudhoyono has said, ASEAN is our home, our family, our neighborhood. That is why Indonesia is strongly committed to advancing the attainment of the ASEAN Community by 2015. Today, we live in a rare era: it is a time when the whole region of Southeast Asia is at peace and evolving a healthy regionalism. This is important because a peaceful and dynamic Southeast Asia in the heart of Asia makes a big difference, as President Yudhoyono recognizes.

I am really glad that Indonesia and the U.S. are working together to promote a strong regional cooperation. The US-ASEAN Summit is now an annual event; the U.S. has signed on the treaty of amity and cooperation after a long absence and has now joined the East Asia Summit - which all mean that we have better building blocks for regional cooperation with the United States. Indonesia believes that the key to regional stability is a dynamic equilibrium, and this is why our relationship with the U.S. is strategic. We see the U.S. role in Asia as tremendously important for that condition of dynamic equilibrium.

Editor: Secretary Hillary Clinton has applauded Indonesia's commitment to democracy, which extends to areas such as free and fair elections, press freedoms, human rights and vibrant civil society. What are the latest developments in these efforts?

Djalal: Indonesia's democratic development has been nothing short of remarkable. Since our first free and fair multiparty elections in 1999, we have become Southeast Asia's strongest and most resilient democracy. And we remain on an upward trajectory. I think President Yudhoyono will secure a place of respect in our history.

But our democracy remains a work in progress. There's much to do in terms of connecting democracy to good governments and improving the democratic habit of our politicians, bureaucrats and the people. The most significant recent development has been the so-called "quiet revolution" in Indonesia, which is a democratic process to get all of our governors, regions, mayors, and local parliaments to be directly elected by the people - previously they were mostly appointed. So through this process, the political pyramid has been turned upside-down. We have a genuine, grassroots, bottom-up democracy, and it all happened peacefully. Further, all these developments took place in the short time of only five years. Isn't that amazing?

Editor: How can Indonesia and the U.S. establish a forward-looking 21st-century G20-world relationship? How have bilateral meetings between Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa and Secretary Hillary Clinton contributed to progress in this area?

Djalal: Indonesia and the U.S. have no choice but to evolve a forward-looking partnership in the 21st century. We have both become different nations, in a different world and a different era; therefore, we must have a different relationship. Given the size of our countries, our diplomatic assets and our shared ideals, there is much that Indonesia and America can do together to manage global issues such as global financial crisis, climate change, natural disasters, trans-national crimes, disease and Millennium Development Goals.

It is therefore timely that our relationship has been equipped with the Joint Commission Meeting mechanism, an annual meeting led by Secretary Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa to conduct periodic and systematic reviews of progress across important sectors: security, governance, trade and investment, energy, education, and climate and environment. This has made our relationship much more structured and no longer ad hoc.

Editor: What final comments do you have for our readers?

Djalal: The Comprehensive Partnership will not go far without its biggest driver, which is not necessarily government but rather the people on both sides. Before I left for Washington D.C., all my friends and people I met on the streets constantly asked me: how will the Indonesia-U.S. partnership benefit us? That is a very real question from real people, and that is why this relationship must translate into more educational opportunities, more trade, more investments, more jobs, more exchanges and more progress for both sides. Otherwise, it will just be an ordinary partnership, rather than an extraordinary one.