July 25, 2023
JAKARTA – The recent appointment of senior banker Pahala N. Mansyuri as deputy foreign minister reminds me of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ambition to enlarge and empower the Foreign Ministry by entrusting it with major foreign trade responsibilities as well. Just a year before completing his second and final five-year term in October 2024, the President has a good opportunity to realize his economic diplomacy obsession, which is unlikely to face public resistance.
However, I cannot understand why the President left the number two position in the foreign office vacant for one year if he is really seeking to accelerate his economic diplomacy target. Last year, Jokowi picked then-deputy foreign minister Mahendra Siregar as a candidate for the Financial Services Authority (OJK) commissioner post. The House of Representatives then appointed the career diplomat and trained economist as the head of the powerful body in July 2022.
Mahendra deserved the new position because he had previously served as the deputy finance minister, deputy trade minister and head of the Investment Coordinating Agency (BKPM). He was the first career diplomat to secure prestigious positions outside the foreign service. He also came close to becoming Jokowi’s chief diplomat four years ago.
I propose that the Foreign Ministry be expanded now, rather than waiting for the next president to do it, because the current system was established 13 years ago and is showing its age. This is the right time to review and readjust it to meet today’s national interests. That way, Jokowi’s successor will only need to keep the new system running.
Many friends at the Foreign Ministry have understood for a long time that something is missing in the bureaucratic structure of their office, which they suppose is one of the reasons their mission to carry out the President’s economic diplomacy vision did not materialize as expected.
They divide the structural issues into external and internal factors. On the outside, there is an urgent need to merge all foreign trade and investment-related responsibilities into the Foreign Ministry. Internally, the Foreign Ministry should revive the now-defunct Foreign Economic Relations Directorate General, whose abolishment 18 years ago has created a deep vacuum at the ministry.
Since he came to power in 2014, Jokowi has repeatedly asked Indonesian diplomats to bring home more investment and export deals for the country’s products. One of his reasons for choosing Retno LP Marsudi as his foreign minister is her ability to execute policy; she is not trapped in grandiose ambitions to make, for instance, Indonesia “great again”.
“I told all diplomats, ambassadors and heads of consulates to focus their diplomacy on the economic sector. Our trade deficit can be turned into a surplus if our ambassadors can promote our commodities,” Jokowi said in February 2015.
Retno underlined the President’s instruction.
“All Indonesian diplomats have to think like merchants. They have to think about how to [boost] trade, invite investment, attract tourists and find [other] opportunities,” she said.
She also promised to ask Indonesian representatives abroad to provide the best services for investors.
“The embassies now have to answer questions from investors within [three days]. Sometimes we would get an offer but not respond,” she said.
Our diplomats have made tremendous progress for the nation in their foreign service. They are fully aware that the President wants concrete results, both in the short and medium term.
Just before forming his new Cabinet after winning his second term in 2019, the President had the idea to augment the role of the Foreign Ministry. He came up with the idea of merging two directorates general from the Trade Ministry – covering foreign trade and international trade negotiations – into the Foreign Ministry. And it was also possible to take one from the Industry Ministry, the office that is now called the Regional Zoning Resilience and International Industrial Access Directorate General.
Jokowi was also considering adopting the model of the US Trade Representative (USTR), whose main task is to advise the President on trade issues, lead international trade organizations and oversee the resolution of disputes, enforcement actions and other matters before global trade policy organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Back then, Jokowi reportedly almost appointed Mahendra, the Indonesian ambassador to the US, to replace Retno as foreign minister. But at the last minute, Jokowi dropped the idea and told his inner circle he would expand the Foreign Ministry another time.
Now let’s talk about the internal factor.
Senior and middle-ranked diplomats agree that the ministry needs a more specific director general to manage the economic mission and empower well-trained diplomats with solid economic expertise. But there is a gap between the two generations. The more senior officials are more reluctant to accept a new body.
“Learning from our experience in the past, we must ensure that this new economic directorate general will not create new problems,” said an official and friend who has been at the ministry long enough to have experienced the major structural changes of 2005.
During Soeharto’s 32-year rule, which ended in 1998, the Foreign Ministry had only four directorates general. They focused on politics, foreign economic relations (HELN), social and cultural considerations, as well as protocol and consular responsibilities. The directorate general for foreign economic affairs played a dominant role, and the official in charge was obliged to attend all financial Cabinet meetings with the President.
In 2005, then-foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda reformed the ministry. He massively changed the structure and abolished the HELN because he believed Indonesian diplomats should be able to play “total football” in diplomacy – be proficient in both their specific fields and economic issues.
Hassan joined the Cabinet of President Megawati Soekarnoputri in 2001, and when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took over from her in 2004, Hassan remained Indonesia’s chief diplomat until 2009.
Hassan’s system remains almost completely intact.
The ministry’s coverage is based on areas. Under the structure, diplomats must not just master their individual functions but should also be knowledgeable about the areas. Now they are ASEAN, Asia-Pacific, Africa, the Americas and Europe.
Currently, the Foreign Ministry consists of seven directorates general, covering Asia-Pacific, African Affairs, American and European Affairs, ASEAN cooperation, multilateral cooperation, legal and international treaty affairs, information and public diplomacy and protocol and consular matters.
But as acknowledged by many diplomats, in contrast to the previous system, where the focus was on the economy, the merging of the economic division with other sectors under the Hassan system means diplomats are expected to master significant amounts of economic policy too.
To leave a strong legacy to the nation, Jokowi should now expand and enhance the authority of the Foreign Ministry. His successor, whoever he is, will be grateful to inherit his economic diplomacy.
The writer is senior editor at The Jakarta Post.