March 21, 2023

When Indonesia’s Joko Widodo visited Ukraine and Russia this summer, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi explained that the president was “trying to contribute instead of being quiet.” And yet, at a perilous juncture with the world, he has chosen to be remarkably silent.

Jokowi, known as the president, once again sits in the United Nations General Assembly, the annual marquee event of global diplomacy. This year, it is an inexcusable absence.

Of course, he is not the only missing leader. China’s Xi Jinping, weeks away from a party congress that will anoint him for a precedent-breaking third term, is staying at home, as is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Even the non-absence is not out of character for Jokowi, who has long put domestic policy first and has addressed UN assemblies during his nearly eight years in office only when pandemic restrictions allow remote interventions.

But this is not a routine meeting. There is a lack of trust between global powers, and the world is grappling with complex crises, most immediately the Russian attack on Ukraine that is particularly punishing for the emerging world, rising energy and food prices and instability with greater risks of Moscow torpedoing an agreement allowing grain export flows. threatening This is the disaster that Jokowi sought to fix with his trip in June.

It also comes at what could be a turning point for the war, as losses in men and material mount for Russia, while China and India — which initially embraced pro-Russian neutrality — begin to signal displeasure. The pressure is bearing down on Russian President Vladimir Putin, now struggling to find a way out of this defeat of his own making. (Moscow announced votes in the occupied territories and a partial mobilization.) Indonesia also has influence, as Russia needs a large, populous, energy-importing economy to avoid isolation.

It’s not even a run-of-the-mill year for Jokowi, closer to the end than the beginning of his time in office and thinking about his legacy. He chairs the G-20 and will host world leaders – including Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky – for the year’s banner get-together in Bali, before taking over the presidency of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year. . Indonesia, as Jokowi said last month, is “at the pinnacle of global leadership”.

So why is the leader of Indonesia not in New York?

Jokowi’s aversion to geopolitical theater is well known, especially compared to his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and while his personal appeal has opened doors abroad, he has focused on investment opportunities. In analyst and former journalist Ben Bland’s book (1) on the Indonesian leader, a Jakarta official put it well: “Jokowi’s view would be, why should I go to the United Nations, there is no point and actually we have to. Pay them.” An insider’s perspective is not so unusual, as Bland, now at Chatham House in London, points out in the context of Southeast Asia.

Yes, in his early years, the president had good reason to focus on the home front — without an elite background or military ties, he needed to build a power base. But his second term, now backed by a broad coalition, was supposed to be a more distant-looking moment. That didn’t happen. While there have been credible efforts, such as with visits to Kiev and Moscow, they have mostly faded, suggesting that projection back home is just as important, if not more, than results.

And this time, as always, Jokowi had domestic reasons to stay. Raditio Dharmaputra, who lectures in international relations at Universitas Airlanga, points to widespread discontent over rising prices that has fueled protests in Jakarta and to the president’s growing concern as his term ends in 2024 and what lies beyond. He may not stand again, although local media have floated the vice-presidential post. All these headaches are more important than the UN and the world stage – even though they shouldn’t be. After all, Ukraine’s continued turmoil only spells bad news back home.

Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country and Southeast Asia’s most populous, has long punched below its weight in international politics, and this year should have been a moment to rectify that. More to the point, its foreign policy has long been predicated on the concept of bebas-aktif – a role in world affairs that is both independent and proactive.

Sitting on the sidelines in a moment of global crisis, Jokowi falls short.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Why Putin Can’t Tap Fascism’s Big Power: Leonid Bershidsky

• A surprise winner as emerging market crush: Shuli Ren

• Can Jokowi’s Shuttle Diplomacy Influence Russia?: Clara Ferreira Marquez

(1) “Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia”, Ben Bland, Penguin, 2020

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marquez is a Bloomberg opinion columnist and editorial board member who covers foreign affairs and climate. Previously, he worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the UK, Italy and Russia.

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