November 28, 2022

When Indonesia’s Joko Widodo visited Ukraine and Russia this summer, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi explained that the president was “choosing to try to contribute, rather than choosing to remain silent.” However, now, as the world entered a perilous turn, he chose to remain puzzlingly silent.

Jokowi, as the President is known, is once again sitting outside the United Nations General Assembly, the preeminent annual event of global diplomacy. This year, it’s an unexplained absence.

True, he is not the only missing leader. China’s Xi Jinping, weeks away from a party conference that would dedicate him to an unprecedented third term, will stay at home, as will Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The no-show is also out of character for Jokowi, who has long put local politics first and in his nearly eight years in office has only addressed the UN meeting when pandemic restrictions allowed remote interventions.

But this is not a routine meeting. Trust among global powers is low, and the world is grappling with worsening crises, most directly with the repercussions of the Russian attack on Ukraine that has been punishing the emerging world in particular, with rising fuel and food prices, and the broader threat. Instability. Moscow is threatening to scuttle a deal that would allow grain exports to flow in. It’s the disaster that Jokowi supposedly sought to fix with his travels back in June.

It also occurs at what may be a turning point in the war, as losses in men and materiel for Russia pile up, while China and India—which initially embraced what might be called pro-Russian neutrality—begin to signal resentment. The pressure has had an effect on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is now struggling to find a way out of this catastrophe that befell his creation. (Moscow announced voting in the occupied territories and partial mobilization.) Indonesia also wields clout, with Russia needing large, densely populated, and fuel-importing economies to avoid isolation.

Nor is it an ordinary year for Jokowi himself, closer to the end than the beginning of his time in office, and to reflect on his legacy. He holds the presidency of the G-20 and will host world leaders – including, presumably, Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky – for the Banner of the Year meeting in Bali, before taking over the presidency of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year. . Indonesia, as Jokowi described it last month, at the “Global Leadership Summit.”

Why is the Indonesian leader not in New York?

Jokowi’s aversion to the geopolitical theater is well known, especially compared to his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and while his personal charisma opened doors abroad, he tended to focus on the merits of investing. In former analyst and journalist Ben Bland (1)’s book on the Indonesian leader, an official in Jakarta said: “Jokowi’s view is, why should I go to the United Nations, there is no money there and in fact we have to pay them.” The inward-looking approach is not unusual, notes Bland, now at Chatham House in London, in today’s Southeast Asian context.

Yes, in his early years, the president had good reasons 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 moment to look further. This did not happen. While there were credible efforts, as with visits to Kyiv and Moscow, they mostly fizzled out, suggesting that dropping back home was as important if not more so than the outcome.

And this time, as always, there were domestic reasons for Jokowi to stay put. Radito Dharmaputra, who lectures in international relations at the University of Irlanga, points to widespread discontent over price hikes that led to demonstrations in Jakarta, and the president’s growing concern about the end of his term in 2024 and whatever lies next. He can’t stand it again, even though local media have floated the vice president position. All this headache would be more important than the United Nations and the world stage – even if it shouldn’t. After all, the ongoing catastrophe in Ukraine portends only bad news back home.

Indonesia, the world’s largest and most populous Muslim country in Southeast Asia, has always been under pressure less than its weight in international politics and this year should have been a moment to start to rectify that. And most importantly, its foreign policy has long been based on the idea of ​​\u200b\u200bbebas-aktif – an independent and active role in world affairs.

By sitting on the sidelines during a moment of global crisis, Jokowi falls short.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Why Putin Can’t Take Advantage of the Great Power of Fascism: Leonid Bershidsky

• Surprising Winner with Emerging Markets Crash: Shuli Ren

Can Jokowi’s shuttle diplomacy influence Russia?: Clara Ferreira Márquez

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

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

Clara Ferreira Marques is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and a member of the editorial board covering foreign affairs and climate. She previously worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the United Kingdom, Italy and Russia.

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