Diplomacy in the Age of No Great Statesmen

The Ministry celebrated its 65th anniversary some days ago, only two days after the country marked the 65th year of its independence. I often wonder whether the Ministry was the first national agency established. It has to be – I’m too lazy to make small research right now, but it is logical that at the time when international recognition was desperately wanted (and needed, by the way), an organization representing the nation abroad was deemed top priority. Aside from the president, what other state apparatus could serve this purpose? A foreign minister, of course.

History also tells us that during Indonesia’s early life (which could go as far as twenty years after the Proclamation Day) diplomacy had played a critical role in forming AND securing its very existence within the international community. An abundance of negotiations and agreements, accompanied by several military aggressions (which went both ways, in my humble and must be unpopular opinion), finally in the dawn of 1949 Indonesia got its long awaited, deserved, recognition from the Dutch. It was not a secret that the US’s stance on the Indonesian issue, deriving from its rivalry with the Soviet Union, determined the final process.

It was also diplomacy that won Indonesia’s interest in securing its borders and marine resources in the UNCLOS negotiations. Despite the fact that some countries – including the US – don’t recognize this international convention, it’s still a law abode by the majority of the international community, the US included in most cases.

Just like the country, the Ministry’s 65th anniversary is marked by a string of challenges. Corruption allegations and incidents with our beloved neighbor (and the so-called “teman serumpun” – yeah right!) must have given Pak Marty a big headache. You fangirls should have noticed that his hair has turned grayish pretty fast. The Ministry has been under spotlight and not for good reasons.

In the TV show DemoCrazy, Yudi Latief, a prominent scholar, raised the good ole diplomacy days to underline his observation that diplomats these days can’t accomplish what their predecessors did. Using those exemplary cases, one would nod in agreement.

The situation reminds me to an article in Intisari many, many years ago, in which a bunch of science prodigies were asked about their favorite innovators. One of them said it was Newton, claiming that Newton was brighter than Einstein, for “he’d made a lot more findings and innovations”.

That is debatably true. To a certain extent. But if we try to put the gentlemen in time context, we might have different perspective. Newton lived in an era of the newfound freedom of researches and science, Einstein made his findings when basic physics are already in place and formula established.

Similar case, IMHO, can be made to international relations. Post World War 2 was the age of decolonization; new nation-states in Asia and Africa emerged. The World War 2 trauma prompted the establishment of the United Nations, modeled after the failed League of Nations. The international community was in the euphoria of freedom, democracy and liberty. This gave way to highly gifted, inbred politicians in what was then dubbed “the Third World” – the Western educated (and many of them came from affluent families), multi-lingual, microphone and spotlight savvy, charismatic leaders. That was the era of Nehru, Sukarno, Tito, and their peers – who often headlined newspapers.

As in the case of many newborn countries, the Indonesian forefathers were those active in independence-seeking movements. They shared experiences in facing the colonial authority, breaking repressive laws, spending time in jails and exiles, and educating their less fortunate, school-lacking fellows. Some were engaged in physical clashes (by joining the guerilla army, for instance). Despite the various backgrounds, and the differing political ideologies (which transpired in the later stages), their united efforts contributed to the birth of this national entity and the forming of its identity.

This had made them in generally equal positions. They might have taken diverse roles in the government structure: president and the vice (and the prime minister), ministers, advisors, parliament members – but they had equal footings in the decision making process. And in the process of gaining international recognition, they discussed steps to take together, took turn making appearances and public speeches, and practically anything representing the ideal of democracy.

Over the years, the ministers become more and more the aide of the president. Hence, their role was diminishing, though after 1998 there has been significant change – thanks to parties shoving their candidates to fill in the roles. For the Foreign Ministry, however – aside from the one time Alwi Shihab was appointed the Foreign Minister – it has almost always been the case. More often than not, a Foreign Minister is a career diplomat. While this serves the purpose of having a professional doing his/her job, it often affects his/her ability to influence the decision making process.

In many highly politicized cases, the Ministry becomes car bumper, shield, or fire brigade. The recent challenges, and Indonesian missions still struggling to change tainted reputations, albeit the revolutionary internal reform, do not make it easy. How many people outside the Ministry know that diplomats do suffer from their job – not the glamorous ones as pictured everywhere? How many people realize it’s the matter of life and death for the diplomats assigned in conflict areas? How many people observe the number of young diplomats (under the age of 40) died of hard works? (Meetings and preparing documents that last for hours, sometimes well past midnight, with no health insurance) In the past three years, there are five young diplomats passed away this way. How many people understand that a number of diplomats – it’s no coincidence that they are the ones assigned in missions dealing heavily with migrant workers problem – have to consult psychiatrists to stay sane?

Of course, this is not Indonesia’s own problem. I remember a few years ago Washington Post reported that State Secretary Condoleezza Rice had to ‘coercively’ assigned diplomats to their embassy in Baghdad, as these diplomats initially refused to do so.

However, diplomacy today takes place in a whole different era. There are many more actors – and the non-state actors are more heard. More issues to solve, more actors play, and the lack of great statesmen these days – diplomacy is greatly challenged. Not only in Indonesia, but everywhere.