September 24, 2022

When Indonesia’s Joko Widodo visited Ukraine and Russia this summer, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi explained that the president “decided to try to contribute, rather than remain silent.” And yet, now, when the world is in a perilous moment, he has bafflingly chosen silence.

Jokowi, as the president is known, is again chairing the United Nations General Assembly, an annual event of global diplomacy. This year, it’s an inexcusable absence.

However, he is not the only missing leader. Chinese President Xi Jinping, weeks away from a party congress that will crown him for a record-breaking third term, is staying at home, as is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. No-shows are not unusual for Jokowi, who has long put domestic politics first, and in his nearly eight years in power, has addressed the UN gathering only when pandemic restrictions allowed remote interventions.

But this is no routine meeting. Trust among global powers is at a low level, and the world is struggling with ever-increasing crises, first of all the consequences of the Russian attack on Ukraine, which particularly punished the emerging world, with rising fuel and food prices, and the threat of spreading instability. Moscow is threatening to torpedo an agreement that would allow the flow of grain. It’s a disaster that Jokowi reportedly wanted to fix with his trips back in June.

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

Even for Jokowi himself, it is not an unusual year, it is closer to the end than the beginning of his mandate and thinking about his legacy. He is the chairman of the G-20 and will host world leaders — including, reportedly, Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky — at this year’s Banner Gathering in Bali, before taking over the presidency of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year. Indonesia is, as Jokowi said last month, at “the pinnacle of global leadership.”

So why is the Indonesian leader not in New York?

Jokowi’s distaste for 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 the benefits of investment. In analyst and former journalist Ben Bland’s (1) book about the Indonesian leader, a Jakarta official says it well: “Jokowi’s position would be, why do I have to go to the United Nations, there is no money there and we actually have to pay them.” An inward-looking approach, not so unusual, as Bland, now at Chatham House in London, points out, in the context of Southeast Asia today.

Yes, in his early years, the president had good reason to concentrate on the home front—without an elite background or military connections, he had to build a power base. But his second term, now supported by a broad coalition, should have been a moment to look beyond. That didn’t happen. While there were creditable efforts, as with the visits to Kiev and Moscow, they largely fell flat, suggesting that projection at home was indeed as important, if not more so, than the outcome.

And this time, as always, there were domestic reasons for Jokowi to stay in place. Radityo Dharmaputra, who teaches international relations at Universitas Airlangga, points to widespread discontent over rising prices sparked by demonstrations in Jakarta, as well as the president’s growing concern about the end of his term in 2024 and what lies beyond. He can’t stand again, even though the local media raised the vice-presidency. All those headaches will be more important than the United Nations and the world stage – even if they shouldn’t be. After all, the continued catastrophe in Ukraine means only bad news at home.

Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in the world and the most populous in Southeast Asia, has long punched below its weight in international politics and this year should have been the moment to fix that. Moreover, its foreign policy has long rested on the idea of ​​bebas-aktif — a role in world affairs that is both independent and active.

Sitting on the sidelines at a time of global crisis, Jokowi is failing.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Why Putin cannot use the great power of fascism: Leonid Bershidsky

• Surprise winner as emerging markets crumble: Shuli Ren

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

(1) “A man of contradictions: Joko Widodo and the struggle to remake Indonesia”, Ben Bland, Penguin, 2020.

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

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

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