During the opening session of the UN General Assembly each year there is a period when heads of state and governments come to UN Headquarters in New York to present their views and analysis of the problems facing the UN and the world. This period is one of an Annual Debate. During this period, the Asia Society in NY traditionally invites some of the diplomats visiting NY from the Asian region to speak at the Asian Society.
One of the speakers at the Asia Society in the past few years has been Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. He was appointed as Foreign Minister of Indonesia in October, 2009. Prior to that he served in different diplomatic positions including a term as Indonesia’s Ambassador to the UN.
This year, on Monday, September 29, Marty spoke at the Asia Society. His talk was on “Indonesia’s Place in the World Order”. In his talk, he touched on some of the critical issues raised during the 69th UNGA opening session. His perspective on these issues was often refreshing as he considered complex problems in a broader context than is normally the case.
Marty observed that this is a time of great uncertainty, as the global environment is very unpredictable. In the past, he recalled, one could expect there would be difficult problems in various areas, like for example the Israel Palestinian conflict. Now, however, there are many more such problems. For example he listed Iraq, Syria, Libya, and the Ukraine among the many other such conflicts. And while there is a need for Russia, the US and Europe to be on the same wave length to solve the problems, he noted the opposite is more the norm. In this context he pointed to the lack of communication and trust that just exasperates the problems.
Turning to the South East Asia region where Indonesia has played a leadership role, Marty pointed to the fact that while the conflicts continue, means of problem solving have been developed. The emphasis has been on ways to encourage diplomatic processes rather than the use of force. Hopefully over time, Marty said, such practices can become a beacon that countries in other regions can rally around.
In this context, he proposed a different approach for how to look at the issue of security. He contrasted what is referred to as “collective security”, which is usually at the expense of some nation or group, and “common security” which focuses on creating an environment to benefit all. “Common security”, he maintained is actually a public good.
Responding to a question from the audience about a recent action by the Indonesian legislature to end direct election of regional leaders, Marty said that this was still a relatively recent development whose outcome was not yet decided. He was hopeful that it would be corrected or adjusted. The Indonesia President, Marty noted, was crystal clear that he rejected this anti-democratic action.
In the presidential election that recently took place in Indonesia, Marty pointed to how one key aspect of Indonesian democratization is the participation of many who were not members of the political parties. “Young voters,” he noted, “were particularly keen to keep watch over and guard the democratic processes.” He reported that, “they were out there ensuring that our democracy is vibrant.” While he realized there could be setbacks in the democratization process, the Indonesian experience provided a basis for optimism. “If you look at Indonesian history, we are quite resilient. The obituary has been written many times,” he noted.
The discussion of democracy turned to the issue of foreign policy. Good policy “must have the support of the public,” he maintained. He referred to the problem in the foreign policy arena when diplomats focus their actions on how such will be treated in the media back at home. “Statesmanship,” Marty argued, “involves looking at the bigger picture.”
In response to a question about whether there were lessons from the experience with ASEAN that could be helpful in determining what reform was needed in the UN Security Council, he pointed to the need to make the Council’s working methods more inclusive. The 15 members of the Security Council engage with non-Security Council members by inviting them to deliver statements on some of the issues before the Council. Such a process, however, can be characterized as where “you hear but you don’t listen.” He was not sure there is really a lot of listening to each other, he remarked.
To illustrate he referred to a regional meeting of all ASEAN members and the other countries who are involved in the conflict on the Korean Peninsula. They were all in the same room, which included the DPRK, the ROK, the US, Japan and others. But they were all looking at the video monitor in the room, rather than talking to each other. He decided to drop his prepared remarks. Instead he said, “We are all here in this room. Why are we talking past one another?” Describing the deafening silence after his statement, he said that he pitied the person who had to speak after him. He emphasized the need for more listening and a better understanding of the issues, by going back to the basics of striving for better communication.
A significant aspect of Marty’s presentation was to keep in focus the public purpose underlying the various issues discussed. This purpose was to create a peaceful and secure international environment. Such a purpose was put above considering and acting on any nation’s short term interests being pursued at the expense of other nations’ interests. Also Marty put the participation and understanding of the public in foreign policy matters as an important criteria.
One problem he identified, however, was that the public discussion of foreign policy could be used in a political way in the political arena at home. In response he proposed more informal, off the record discussions among diplomats rather than speeches and public expressions of positions. Such a solution to the problem of politicizing foreign policy diplomacy, however, leaves out the need for the public to be involved in the debate over foreign policy controversies. A lively debate and discussion over foreign policy issues can be helpful in determining the principles that serve the public interest.
The experience of Indonesia in the foreign policy arena, as discussed at the Asia Society, provides a helpful model to consider in the effort to create a more effective international diplomacy. Such a diplomacy could play a much needed role to help resolve some of the many conflicts challenging the UN in these difficult times