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INDONESIA IN THE EYES OF THE EUROPEAN UNION: MOVING BEYOND BENIGN

NEGLECT?
Dr. Manuel Schmitz, KU Leuven

1.

Introduction

Indonesia is often misunderstood in Brussels. At least, this is a common complaint of


Indonesian diplomats based in the capital of the European Union (EU). 1 Europeans have a distorted
image (if they have any) of the Southeast Asian state and are prone to misperceptions, unable or
unwilling to understand this large nation, so goes the argument. According to many Indonesians
dealing with European affairs, the large archipelagic state does not get the attention it deserves, and if
Indonesia makes it on the European agenda, it is often for the wrong reasons. Of course, making
these misunderstandings public is not good diplomatic style. It also runs counter to what most
diplomats see as their core responsibility: to build bridges between strangers. 2
But sometimes these strains show nevertheless, for example in the debate about palm oil.
Indonesia is already dominating (together with Malaysia) global production of palm oil, but is eager
to expand its market share even more and Indonesian diplomats are charged with fostering exports. In
Europe, however, palm oil is seen critically by many non-governmental groups (NGOs), which run
various campaigns to limit the use of palm oil.
Part of these campaigns is an animation clip by Greenpeace on YouTube titled Protect
Paradise: An Animation about Palm Oil. 3 The message is simple: Palm oil productions threaten
Indonesias rainforests, which are described as a paradise. The Indonesian Embassy in Brussels felt
obliged to react and posted a clip with the title Protect Paradise for All: An Animation on Anti-Palm
Oil Dirty Secret.4 Mirroring the style and structure of the Greenpeace clip it aims to deliver at least
three messages: (1) Palm oil production in Indonesia is green. (2) It is on Indonesia to decide what to
do with its rainforests. To quote from the clip: We live here, it is for us, it is our paradise. It is my
home. (3) Europes criticism is hypocritical. The EU simply wants to protect its market and uses
environmental and health arguments only to cover up their real protectionist motives. This is,
according to the clip, the Anti Palm Oil Dirty Secret. Repeatedly the viewer is told that the facts are
supporting Indonesias claims, but that the other side intentionally misrepresent the issue: They know
it, but they do not care.
This rather undiplomatic video is vague only in one respect: Who is they in the clip. The only
actor mentioned is the European Biodiesel Board, an umbrella organization for the European biofuel
industry. This is neither an official EU institution, nor is there a connection to Greenpeace or the
1

The EU does not have an official capital. However, de facto Brussels fulfils the function of a capital since it is
the seat of the Commission and the Secretariat of the European Council/Council of the European Union, as well
as being one of two seats of the European Parliament. Not only do most EU officials work in Brussels, but so do
journalist and lobbyists interested in EU affairs. Last but not least, the European External Action Service, the
diplomatic service of the EU, is located in Brussels and foreign diplomats accredited to the EU are based here.
2
Indonesian and European diplomats should share an understanding of the social roles of diplomats, since the
diplomatic sub-culture that defines acceptable behaviour developed largely in Europe and was exported in
the age of Western dominance. Furthermore, Western understandings of international relations are dominant in
Indonesian thinking about the issue. See on this: Hadiwinata, Bob, International Relations in Indonesia:
Historical Legacy, Political Intrusion, and Commercialization, in: International Relations of the Asia-Pacific,
No. 9 (2009), p. 55-81. For an interesting debate on local influences on the perception of international relations
see: Nguitragool, Paruedee, God-King and Indonesia: Renegotiating the Boundaries between Western and NonWestern Perspectives on Foreign Policy, in: Pacific Affairs, Vol. 85, No. 4 (2012), p. 723-743.
3
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0o6WHN4NDTk
4
The clip was posted by the user KBRI Brussel, standing for Kedutaan Besar Republik Indonesia, with a picture
of the Embassy in Brussels as profile picture. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQ5_ITx1JoU

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environmental NGO scene. However, the video raised some eyebrows in the European institutions,
although no European bureaucrat went public in order not to fuel the debate on biofuel.
This episode clearly shows that perceptions are important in the relationship between the EU and
Indonesia. It also raises the question what Indonesias image is in Brussels. How does the EUs
foreign policy elite perceive Indonesia as an international actor? To answer this broad question, the
discussion is divided in three sections: The first is dealing with Indonesias general importance as
perceived in Brussels. Section two looks at Indonesias economic image. The last section focuses on
the issue of religion. But first it is necessary to explain the methods used and to put the issue in the
context on the wider theoretical debate on perceptions in International Relations.
2.

Methods

Answers to the research questions cannot be found in secondary literature, since there is a gap
in academic literature on EU-Indonesian relations. 5 An analysis of primary sources, such as EU
official documents, could be a starting point. However, I will concentrate in this paper on sources that
are not public available and present insights from an ongoing book project on EU-Indonesian
relations. So far sixteen interviews with European and Indonesian actors were conducted.
Representatives from the Commission, the European External Action Service, the EUs representation
in Jakarta, and Indonesian diplomats and civil society representatives were questioned on a one-onone basis (the interviews lasted between 60 and 90 minutes). In order to receive genuine accounts of
the process, the interviews have been conducted on a confidential basis and are therefore used in this
paper in an anonymized form.

3. Perception and Soft Power in International Relations


Perception is a term often used, yet seldom defined in the academic field of International
Relations.6 Not only do most dictionaries and handbooks on international relations shy away from
giving an explicit definition of the term, research on perception also ranges from psychological
studies on national leaders to public opinion polls to constructivist explanations of enemy images.
Sometimes the focus is on the self perception of an actor (for example in role theory), sometimes on
the perception of actors (asking for example how popular a state is among the population of another
state) or the perception of a situation (e.g. if the current crisis in Ukraine is the start of a new Cold
War).
The variety of (meta)theoretical perspectives and empirical case studies makes it hard to
develop an elaborate definition most scholars could agree on. However, the following basic definition
should be unproblematic for most researchers: Perceptions are interpretations of reality by the human
mind, which help individuals to process information and make decisions. Thus, perceptions are part of
the cognitive process.7 Of course, this information processing is influenced by many factors.
5

There is in general only very few publications on the bilateral relationship. For some exceptions see: Camroux,
David/Srikandi, Annisa, EU-Indonesia Relations: No Expectations-Capability Gap?, in: Christiansen,
Thomas/Kirchner, Emil/Murray, Philomena B. (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of EU-Asia Relations,
Houndmills/New York 2013, p. 554-570; Schmitz, Manuel, The European Union and Indonesia: Problems and
Prospects for a Global Partnership, EIAS Briefing Paper, April 2012,
http://www.eias.org/documents/EIAS_Briefing_Paper_April_2012_Manuel_Schmitz.pdf. The following article
mentions misperceptions in the relationship, but is mainly a historical account with no specific focus on
perceptions: Jovanovic, Jovan, Indonesian Relations with Southeast Asia: Bridging the Distance and
Overcoming Misperceptions, in: Indonesian Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 1 (2011), 4-20.
6
It is telling that the groundbreaking book on perceptions by Robert Jervis, titled Perception and Misperception
in International Politics (Princeton 1976), does not include a definition of the term perception.
7
Good overviews on cognition in IR provide: Neack, Laura, The New Foreign Policy. U.S. and Comparative
Foreign Policy in the 21st Century, Lanham et al. 2003, p. 55-66; Gross Stein, Janice, Foreign policy decisionmaking: rational, psychological, and neurological models,, in: Smith, Steve/Hadfield, Amelia/Dunne, Tim,
Foreign Policy. Theories, Actors, Cases, Oxford 2008, p. 101-116.

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Perceptions depend on the worldview of actors, their belief systems, their intellectual capacities. 8
Some views may be the result of a conscious process of learning; some may be the product of an
unconscious process of socialization. Therefore, it is difficult or even impossible to trace the origins
of perceptions.
Some perceptions may be unique to an individual; some are shared by small or large
collectives, such bureaucratic groups or nations or even civilizations. This study deals specifically
with the perception of the foreign policy elite of the EU, those individuals which are in a position to
make binding decisions. In other words: The bureaucrats and diplomats based in Brussels that deal on
a day-to-day basis with the EUs external relations.
But why are perceptions important anyway? As Hudson notes: We perceive what we expect to
perceive.9 Perceptions are filters upon which actors interpret material facts, thus decision-making
becomes much less rational than most theories assume. Instead of being a process whereby the most
possible information is gathered, alternatives are identified and ranked according to a cost-benefit
analysis, and then the most efficient route is taken, decision-making is characterized by taking
cognitive short-cuts.10 Perceptions are thus fundamental to understand decision-making.
This point has not been lost on practitioners of diplomacy. Not only do they try to make their
own decision-making more rational, they also aim to shape the perceptions of their international
counterparts. This is today often called public diplomacy (cynical observers prefer the term
propaganda). Public diplomacy is an attempt to improve the image of a country or a government.
An image could be understood as a combination of various perceptions into a consistent whole. 11
Images are important because they contribute to a nations soft power.12
Soft power, as understood by Joseph Nye, who coined the term, is the power of attraction: A
country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries admiring its
values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness want to follow it. In
this sense, it is also important to set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not only to
force them to change by threatening military force or military sanctions. 13 In other words: Power, as
the ability to influence others, does not need to depend on material resources, which allow to promise
rewards or to threaten consequences, but can grow instead from credibility and better arguments.
While the concept is sometimes criticised for being American-centred (indeed, the reference to
openness as a value to be admired in the quote above supports such an interpretation), it nevertheless
is applied to non-Western powers as well. Indeed, some authors argue that Indonesia possesses
considerable soft power on the international stage. The following sections look at Indonesias image
and its soft power in the EU.

4. The importance of Indonesia


8

Kaufmann, Joyce P., Introduction to International Relations: Theory and Practice, Lanham et al. 2013, p. 148.
Hudson, Valerie, Foreign Policy Analysis: Classic and Contemporary Theory, Lanham et al. 2007, p. 41.
10
The most prominent discussion of the rational-actor model provides: Allison, Graham/Zelikow, Philip, The
Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, New York et al. 1999, p. 13-26.
11
Again, the term is most often not defined. For an exception, which however resembles very much the
definition of perception, see: Mintz, Alex/DeRouen, Karl Jr., Understanding Foreign Policy Decision Making,
Cambridge (M.A.) 2010, p. 101.
12
Soft power is a rather recent term, but it can be argued that societies always were concerned with prestige,
status, standing and honour. This point is made by: Lebow, Richard Ned, Fear, interest and honour: outlines of
a theory of International Relations, in: International Affairs 82, no. 3 (2006), p. 431-448; Olsthoorn, Peter,
Honour, Face and Reputation in Political Theory, in: European Journal of Political Theory 7, no. 4 (2008), p.
472-491.
13
Nye, Joseph, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, New York 2004, p. 5.
9

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Indonesia is on the rise on the global stage and the EU should engage with more closely. At
least this is the perception of Indonesian diplomats. 14 Scholars are more sceptical about Jakartas
ascend to global prominence but concede that indeed some arguments support such a claim. 15
Indonesias demographic and geographical size combined with substantial growth rates and ample
natural resources should put in on the agenda of European decision-makers. Furthermore, Indonesia is
not only home to the largest Muslim majority society in the world but also a thriving democracy. And
Jakarta is a member of the G20. Not to forget the central role Jakarta is playing within the Association
of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Thus, Indonesia should be an obvious candidate for closer
cooperation.16
Despite all these good reasons for a deep and comprehensive engagement, Indonesia is still
neglected in Brussels. Unlike other emerging powers, such as India, Brazil or Mexico, the Southeast
Asian state is not granted the status of a strategic partner of the EU. 17 And while the two players
signed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (after long and contentious negotiations) in
November 2009, yet not all EU member states have ratified the agreement. Furthermore, under the
new 2014 development strategy of the EU, Indonesia will no longer receive bilateral grant aid, only
funds through thematic and regional programmes. Discussions on a Comprehensive Economic
Partnership Agreement (CEPA), a free trade agreement, have been going on for some years now, but
official negotiations have not yet started. Thus, the relations are friendly, but shallow. Certainly,
Indonesia is not high on the agenda in Brussels.
Indeed, there is a debate within Brussels foreign policy circles if Indonesia does not need more
attention, although it is questioned if this means granting Indonesia the title of strategic partner. A
high ranking official of the European External Action Service (EEAS) remarked for example: What
do strategic partnerships mean, actually? Normally, to have a summit... But we need to give content to
this. And of course symbols count. So, we have not come to a full conclusion. But it is certain that if
there is one country in the world we play below our weight it is Indonesia. However, I think we
should aim to have a strategic partnership with ASEAN. 18 Thus, Indonesias position within ASEAN
may not contribute to its importance. The EU as a regional organization has an in-build tendency to
look for other regional organizations as partners. Most often this is not possible because most regional
organizations are not institutionalized enough to make cooperation with them meaningful. ASEAN,
however, is considered being one of the most mature regional organizations in the world. In Brussels`
thinking it might therefore be preferable to forge a strategic partnership with ASEAN, not Indonesia.
Another EEAS official pointed out in an interview with the author, that the EU is a complex
organisation, who`s internal decision-making procedures influence its strategies: And with the
strategic partnership: The EU machine has to warm up. It has nothing to do with Indonesia. 19 On the
other hand, the same official remarked that Indonesia still is overlooked to often: Okay, there is still
the perception that Asia is China, then India and then... However, perceptions are shifting, according
to the official: But this is changing. Indonesia is seen on its own rights. Another EEAS official
admitted that Southeast Asia, and Indonesia in it, is a side bet for the EU in Asia. 20 The Asian
century in the eyes of many in Brussels still looks very much like a Chinese century. Indonesia is
not yet an integral part of the narrative of Asias rise.
14

Interview with Indonesian Diplomat SEM


For an overview of the debate see: Reid, Anthony (ed.), Indonesia Rising: The Repositioning of Asias Third
Giant, Singapore 2012; Hellendorff, Bruno/Schmitz, Manuel, Indonesia: From Regional to Global Power?,
GRIP Analysis Note, May 7 2014, <http://www.grip.org/sites/grip.org/files/NOTES_ANALYSE/2014/na_201405-07_en_b-hellendorff.pdf>
16
For a discussion of Europes stakes in Indonesia see: Schmitz, Manuel, Europes interest in Indonesia: What
it is to gain from closer cooperation?, in: Indonesian Quarterly, No. 4 (2011), p. 419-432.
17
For an introduction to the EUs Strategic Partnerships see: Keukeleire, Stephan/Delreux, Tom, The Foreign
Policy of the European Union, Houndmills/New York 2014, p. 290-294.
18
Remark by EEAS Official KEP at a conference under Chatham House Rule.
19
Interview with EEAS Official BAB
20
Interview with EEAS Official BEL
15

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Of course, the EEAS is not the only European institution dealing with Indonesia. In fact, the
non-traditional diplomacy of the Commission, dealing with issues such as trade or climate change,
may be often more important for the EUs external relations. What about the Commissions perception
on Indonesias importance? A high ranking Commission Official dealing with environmental affairs
described in an interview with the author Indonesia as a second tier rising power. 21 It is an actor that
one needs to speak to, but which is hard to grasp. Indonesia does not, according to this EU Official,
present the world with a clear cut image, it remains somewhat faceless.
This assessment is shared by another EU Official working on green issues. 22 Asked by the
author if Indonesia is seen as more and more important in Brussels his answer was: Objectively, yes.
But emotionally not so much... Some people recognize it is a rising power, but... From our
perspective, in environment Indonesia is not a big player. Malaysia is a more recognizable player,
because it is not afraid of saying no and being contrarian. And India is another one. Often being
difficult gives you some recognition. In the multilateral environment Indonesia is not seen as a big
player.
Both interview partners emphasized that the Indonesian government pursues a nonconfrontational negotiation style (both attributed this to cultural reasons). 23 They shared also the
notion that questions of sovereignty are still central to their Indonesian counterparts, which can make
negotiations difficult. And both interviewed pointed out that Indonesia longs for recognition on the
international stage. The country may have grown in self-confidence, but the approval of actors still
remains important to its representatives.
5. Indonesias economic image
Global consultancy firms have high hopes for Indonesias economic development. They see this
large nation of 240 million advancing fast in the next decades, making it one of the biggest economies
on the globe. Indonesian diplomats seem to share this optimistic outlook. Furthermore, European
Officials read the consultancy reports as well. This may lead to a rather rosy view of Indonesias
economic future. To give an example: When discussing a policy paper on EU-Indonesian relations at a
Brussels think tank in 2012, an EU Official expressed his disappointment of the many critical remarks
given by the discussants. His expectations were that the speakers would portray Indonesia as the next
China. How common is this perception of Indonesias economic rise among EU decision-makers?
There seems to be a consensus that Indonesia is moving. A Commission Official stated for
example, that it is an obvious fact that the country is in transition. 24 Another EU official, working for
the Delegation in Jakarta, portrayed Indonesia as a country in development. 25 Clearly, the economic
success of last decade puts the country on the agenda in Brussels. As one high ranked EU Official
remarked at a conference on Indonesia: Its the economy, stupid! 26 This notion is shared by another
Official, with many years of experience in EU-Indonesian relations. Commenting on meetings on
Indonesia he noted: Most often it is about economic interest, like 88 percent, and then the rest is a bit
of human rights.27
The question is to what extend the upward trend is sustainable. EU Officials dealing with
Indonesia on a daily basis are cautiously optimistic: Indonesia has grown into a stage that they think
that have grown enough to take a prominent role. They assume that they are entitled. But even their
GDP continues to grow, at best it is becoming as big as Germanys, and Germanys is just part of the
EU.28 Another EU official working on trade issues pointed out the positive effects of Indonesias
21

Interview with Commission Official MAR


Interview with Commission Official MON
23
Interviews with Commission Officials MAR and MON
24
Interview with Commission Official USE
25
Interview with EEAS Official ALT
26
Remark by EU Official IMP at a conference under Chatham House Rule
27
Interview with EEAS Official BEL
28
Interview with EEAS Official KEP
22

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young population, the so-called demographic dividend. 29 And a European Parliamentarian (MEP) with
a close interest in Indonesia remarked at a conference that the countrys democratic system is
fostering its economic development. 30 According to this logic, the countrys ascend should continue as
long as it remains a democracy.
Despite this guarded optimism many on the European side are aware of the difficulties. One of
the most often mentioned is the issue of economic nationalism and protectionism. Indonesian
diplomats strongly deny this claim (pointing out the few cases against Indonesia in the WTO). But
even the most ardent defender of Indonesias economic policies concedes that Indonesia has an image
problem in this regard.31 Indeed, influential people in the European bureaucracy see Indonesias
economic nationalism as a challenge. 32 The view among EU officials is that protectionist tendencies
(especially the Indonesian Parliament is seen critical in this respect) add to already complicated
investment environment in the Southeast Asian state. 33 And certainly the way the Indonesian
governments try to climb the value-adding ladder, for example through export restriction, is perceived
as the wrong strategy.34 After all, that is the conviction in Brussels, Indonesia needs European
investment: So far it [the economic development] is about exporting commodities and Indonesia has
a low cost labour market. But Indonesia needs the technology that Europe can offer to climb higher on
the value chain.35 All in all, the issue of protectionism adds to the picture that Indonesia is difficult
place to make a quick buck.36
To a certain extent, these views on economic nationalism may steam from the general
perception in Brussels that nationalism still is very important for Indonesians. Describing interactions
with Indonesian counterparts, one EU Official remarked: A lot of emotions play a role. Perceptions
of fairness are very important to the Indonesians. It is about defending the national interest. 37 Others
agree and point out how important demonstrations of respect are to their Indonesian interlocutors. 38
Interestingly, there seems to be a genuine effort at least by some EU Officials to understand
Indonesias patriotic outlook. For example, some members of the elite are aware of the colonial
legacies: The struggle against the colonizers is very important for the legitimacy of the Indonesian
state; it is part of the identity and the pride of Indonesia. And I think they can be proud of it, proud of
the independence movement.39 And one of his colleagues admits: There is a problem of European
arrogance. I admit this is indeed an issue. I try to be conscious about this, but it is hard to avoid. There
is a gap between what you believe and what you do. Europe has been a colonial power and it is hard
to adapt to the new times. 40 Thus, there seems to be the desire among some of Europes foreign
policy elite to move beyond a Eurocentric outlook; to look at Europe and the world from a different
angle.

29

Interview with Commission Official USE


Remark by Member of the European Parliament ANA at a conference under Chatham House Rule
31
Interview with Indonesian Diplomat GRO
32
Interview with EEAS Official KEP
33
Remark by EU Official IMP at a conference under Chatham House Rule
34
Interview with Commission Official USE
35
Interview with EEAS Official BAB
36
Interview with EEAS Official ALT
37
Interview with EEAS Official OLI
38
Interviews with Commission Officials MAR and MON
39
Interview with EEAS Official BEL
40
Interview with EEAS Official KEP
30

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6. The largest Muslim society in the world


One of the main selling points of Indonesian on the international stage is, at least in the eyes
of Indonesian diplomats, the country`s Muslim population. According to this view, being home to the
largest Muslim majority population on the globe should position Indonesia firmly on the strategic map
of Europe. Even more so since the Indonesian interpretation of Islam is moderate, tolerant and
compatible with democracy, as Indonesian diplomats are eager to explain to their European
counterparts.41 DEPLU diplomats are aware that Islam is a very sensitive issue to the Europeans. 42
However, they are convinced that Indonesia, being a different Muslim power, has much to offer to the
Europeans in dealing with the Islamic world and especially in fighting radical Islam. Indeed, the story
of Indonesia as the gentle Muslim giant may be the only coherent exercise in image-building by
Indonesian diplomats.43
It is certainly true that the issue of Islam is high on the bilateral agenda. Most Indonesian
visitors to the European capital are confronted with questions about religion: The most dominant
issue was religion. I was constantly asked first what my religion is. 44 The European counterparts
seem to be especially interested in the state of religious tolerance in Indonesia. Indeed, EU officials
dealing with Indonesian affairs share this experience. Members of Europes Christian Democratic
parties in Parliament are known to take a special interest in the issue of alleged discrimination against
Christians in Indonesia. Furthermore, religion appears to be an important issue for Europes civil
society, which tries to make its voice to be heard in Brussels political scene (for example on Papuan
issues).45
Thus, it is fair to say that two stories or images compete in Brussels: On the one hand, the
vision of Indonesia as poster boy of religious tolerance; on the other, the narrative of growing
Islamization.46 Which one is more dominant among decision-makers in Brussels? Only cautious
conclusions are at this stage of the research process possible, but it seems that European diplomats
lean towards a more benign look on Indonesias record. Take for example the comments by a leading
diplomat in Southeast Asian affairs: Indonesia is very attractive to us because of its mix of Islam and
democracy. And it is clearly in our interest to look to Indonesia because the Indonesian version of
Islam is according to our interests. It is in our interest to tap into these understanding of Muslim
values. I mean there is great misunderstanding that Indonesia is a secular state, Indonesia is not a
secular state. Religion does play an important part. 47 In his eyes, Islam in Indonesia is indeed
different from the Arabic interpretation of it.
If Indonesia is different (i.e. more tolerant), then it should have much to offer to the EU, because it is
after all the largest Muslim country in the world. It could be helpful as a partner for Europe, for
41

Indeed, the combination of Islam and democracy is not only relevant in the relationship with Europe but
maybe even more so in the relationship with the United States. For the American political elite the democratic
success story of Indonesia may be the dominant frame. See on this: Bulkin, Nadia, The Quiet American:
Deciphering U.S. Policy Toward Indonesia, in: Indonesian Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 2 (2012), p. 134-152, here p.
136; Murphy, Ann Marie, US Rapprochement with Indonesia: From Problem State to Partner, in:
Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 32, No. 3 (2010), p. 362-387, here p. 363.
42
Interview with Indonesian Diplomat GRO.
43
To give just one anecdotal evidence for this: The Indonesian Embassy distributed widely the book The
Illusion of an Islamic State edited by Abdurrahman Wahid, a theological rebuke of radical Islam by Indonesian
scholars.
44
Interview with Indonesian NGO Representative ASE
45
Interview with EEAS Official BAB
46
Which of these perspectives is more accurate and less a misperception cannot be debated here in detail,
especially since the literature on the issue is vast and ever growing. However, for the perception of the
Indonesian public of Islamic issues in foreign policy see: Jung In Jo, Who Sympathizes with Osama bin
Laden? Revisiting the Hearts and Minds of Pakistani and Indonesian Muslim People, in: International Journal
of Public Opinion Research, Vol 24, No. 4 (2012), p. 495-507.
47
Interview with EEAS Official KEP

125

example dealing with Iran, as one European diplomat mentioned. 48 However, some other Indonesia
experts within the European administration are a little bit more sceptical: Indonesians play a role in
the Muslim world, at least to a certain extent. But if you look at the actual capacity of Indonesia, this
is very limited. If you have a certain project it may be better to turn to Japan for example. And a place
like Qatar is more important, has greater international effect. 49 Part of the problem, according to EU
officials, is Indonesias foreign policy style, which is perceived as being very much discrete and
behind-the-scenes. Because Indonesians are reluctant to push themselves forward, to sell their ideas
and positions aggressively, they fail get attention on the international scene. 50 But would Indonesias
soft power really benefit from a more forceful approach? Or is it not Indonesias strength to avoid
lecturing on the global stage (something the EU is often accused of)?
Before working more closely on international affairs there is the need, according to an
Indonesian perspective, to understand the nature of Islam in Indonesia better. Too often, the European
perceptions are shaped by European experiences, as one Indonesian scholar complained: Too often
European experts view Indonesia from a European perspective. Example: The talk of balkanization of
Indonesia during the transformation period. 51 To increase the understanding between the two actors a
so-called Interfaith Dialogue is pursued. European decision- and opinion-makers are for example
invited to visit Indonesias religious centres (such as pesantren) and to gain first-hand experience.
However, secularization in Europe is ongoing and the number of non-believers in the EU is growing.
Therefore, an Inter-Culture Dialogue, which includes non-believers, may be needed.
One last comment: While Indonesias Muslim identity may contribute to the countrys soft
power among the EUs elite, there seems to be little signs that Europes considerable Muslim
community takes a strong interest in Indonesias interpretation of Islam. European Muslims debate
(and participate in) the conflicts in the Muslim heartland in the Middle East and look for spiritual
guidance to Mecca, Teheran or Istanbul. The developments in Southeast Asia are of little concern for
most European Muslims. From a soft power perspective, the largest Muslim country in the world still
has a long way to go.

7. Conclusion
Indonesia is not terra incognita for the EUs foreign policy elite. The country is neither seen as
a shooting star on the international stage, nor a background actor. Attention is given to Southeast
Asias largest nation because of its economic progress. This is no surprise. In general, there seems to
be a muted optimism that Indonesias economy will continue on an upward trajectory. But again, there
is no hype about the economic prospects. In this regard, Indonesias image cannot be compared to
Indias or Chinas. With the regard to the sensitive issue of religion, or to be more precise the issue of
political Islam, members of the European elite have in general a rather benign view. The combination
of democracy and Islam does, indeed, increase the attractiveness of Indonesia in the global arena (at
least among the Western democracies of Europe). To this extent Indonesia possesses soft power
resources.
Of course, the people interviewed may not be representative for the wider elite, since they all
deal with Indonesian affairs in the EUs administration. It would be surprising if European decisionmakers had a vivid image of Indonesia, as they certainly have for other nations, such as the United
States, Russia or China (which could be seen as the relevant others for European identity). But
exactly because Indonesias image in the wider elite may be rather vague, the views of experts matter.
48

Interview with EEAS Official BAB. A more critical view on Indonesias potential role in the Iranian issue can
be derived from: Gindarsah, Iis, Democracy and Foreign Policy-Making in Indonesia: A Case Study of the
Iranian Nuclear Issue, 2007-08, in: Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vo. 34, No. 3 (2012), p. 416-437.
49
Interview with EEAS Official BEL
50
Interview with Commission Official MAR
51
Interview with Indonesian Scholar KUL

126

Their perceptions, presented in this article, matter, because they influence the EUs policies (if not
strategy) towards the Southeast Asian state.

References
Allison, Graham/Zelikow, Philip, The Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, New
York et al. 1999
Bulkin, Nadia, The Quiet American: Deciphering U.S. Policy Toward Indonesia, in: Indonesian
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