Jokowi’s UNGA speech: a squandered opportunity for Indonesia’s middle power diplomacy

During Jokowi’s first term, Jusuf Kalla would be the face of Indonesia in the UN General Assembly, where world leaders would meet for a week of intense, 24-hour diplomacy. Unlike the outgoing Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jokowi is much more reluctant to make international appearances. He would give the same reason every time: he’d rather focus on solving domestic problems first. In the rare occasion that he would show up in an international forum, he would usually use it as a platform to advance Indonesia’s economic interests.

This time, it’s different. After skipping six UN assemblies, Jokowi finally decided to show up. Unlike previous UN assemblies, the 75th General Assembly allowed the use of pre-recorded messages. Perhaps this was why Jokowi finally wanted to make an appearance at the UN. He could attend the General Assembly without having to leave Indonesia, where he could continue to work on domestic problems. In fact, while the General Assembly continues to convene, Jokowi is busy dealing with food estates in Kalimantan.

Unfortunately, his speech leaves much to be desired.

In his maiden speech to the UN, Jokowi preached about the values of multilateral cooperation, especially during a global pandemic. He told world leaders that “there was no point in becoming the largest economic power in the midst of a sinking world”, and that states should focus on a “win-win approach” in international relations. He further accentuated this by invoking the “spirit of cooperation”, that “no one, no country, should be left behind.”

Jokowi then emphasized Indonesia’s role as a “bridgebuilder”, a role that Indonesia, since the 1950s, has perceived itself to play in international affairs. In carrying out this role, Jokowi recalled the Asia-Africa Conference of 1955, a historical moment when Indonesia successfully gathered newly formed and independent states in the spirit of Global South cooperation. Jokowi also mentioned Indonesia’s role in promoting peace, stability, and prosperity through the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

He ended his speech with several recommendations to the UN. He urged to UN to continue to improve itself so it could be a better platform for multilateralism. He reiterated Indonesia’s “unwavering faith in the UN and multilateralism”, believing that “multilateralism is the only way that could guarantee equality.” Following the call for the UN to improve itself, Jokowi then called for increased cooperation in handling COVID-19, particularly in ensuring equal access to vaccines. In a twist on his domestic mantra, Jokowi called on states to “work together, work together, and work together.”

When compared to other, more zestier addresses in the General Assembly, Jokowi’s address was bland and uninteresting. It was clear that he did not want to step on anyone’s toes. But in doing so, he squandered an opportunity to firmly show the world Indonesia’s continued commitment to international middle power activism. He had the opportunity to rebuke the selfishness of great powers, such as Trump’s corrosive “America First” policy or China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the South China Sea but ended up with a soft call for increased multilateralism. This reluctance to step on anybody’s toes was evident in Jokowi’s soft, if not timid, support of Palestinian independence. Despite Palestinian independence being a core agenda of Indonesia’s foreign policy, Jokowi seemed half-hearted in its defence. Kornelius Purba (24/09) is right in saying that Jokowi’s statement was too soft and a little too late. He had the opportunity to accentuate Indonesia’s contributions in upholding world peace, especially in Indonesia’s continued commitment to global peacekeeping, while also advocating progressive values, such as gender equality. He also had the chance to showcase Indonesian leadership in the Global South, especially when he mentioned Indonesia’s commitment to being a “bridgebuilder”.

It is easy to give Jokowi’s speech a pass by saying it was his first speech in front of a truly global audience. But, he had delivered more interesting speeches before. Take his “Game of Thrones” speech, which he delivered in front of the International Monetary Fund in October 2018. It was a clever use of analogy to describe, and subtly criticize, great power competition and its devastating effects on the climate and subsequently, the less fortunate states in the international system.

While there is indeed no shortage of other international opportunities to advocate causes that Indonesia believes in, the UN General Assembly is one of those premier opportunities where states can make themselves heard globally. As a champion of middle power activism, Indonesia has often prided itself by taking a stance on contentious international issues. In his address to the 67th session of the General Assembly, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made strident calls for the world to address ongoing international conflicts and advocated Indonesia’s moderate pluralism to the world. Jokowi maybe needs to take a page out of SBY’s book.

But hey, it was Jokowi’s first UN address. Here’s to hoping that Jokowi will address the next UN General Assembly with more vigor and conviction in what Indonesia truly stands for.

Header image: ahmad syauki / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) (edited to include text)

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