September 14, 2022
JAKARTA – President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s decision to be absent at this year’s 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA77) has conjured regret among international relations observers, with some saying his absence will strip Indonesia of many opportunities to progress its regional and global agendas.
On Monday, the Foreign Affairs Ministry confirmed that Jokowi will be absent at the UNGA77 and will instead be represented by Foreign Affairs Minister Retno LP Marsudi. Per a UN directive that only physical attendants are able to make any speech, there will not be a prerecorded address by the President at the event.
Instead, Retno will be giving the address on Jokowi’s behalf, said Tri Tharyat, the ministry’s director general for multilateral cooperation. Speaking to reporters, Tri said that the cause of Jokowi’s absence will be clarified by the Presidential Palace.
“An official explanation will be given by [the Palace]. What is clear is that [the Foreign Affairs Ministry] had informed [Jokowi] about several scheduled events. We have tried other methods, but what matters is that his message is relayed well,” said the official.
At the UNGA77, Tri said Indonesia will focus on progressing its mission under the presidency of the Group of 20’s (G20) biggest economies, which comprises three primary agendas – sustainable energy transition, inclusive global health architecture and digital transformation.
With Indonesia holding this year’s presidency of the G20, as well as next year’s ASEAN chairmanship, experts and observers alike for the past several weeks have firmly suggested Jokowi’s attendance at the global assembly would not only be momentous but also necessary.
Not only would Jokowi be able to meet leaders of G20 member states ahead of the summit in November to secure their attendance, but he could also start laying the groundwork for solving ASEAN-related troubles like the Myanmar coup and the South China Sea dispute, which will be his responsibility to tackle next year, they argued.
“[Jokowi’s attendance will] ensure Indonesia’s readiness at organizing the G20 Summit in Bali this coming November. This will be the moment to share Indonesia’s vision for a just, peaceful and orderly world,” said international relations expert Teuku Rezasyah of Padjadjaran University, to The Jakarta Post recently.
However, there may be some good reasons to justify Jokowi’s absence from the multilateral event, international relations expert Dafri Agussalim suggested on Monday.
“His absence may be attributed to the current domestic economic situation. Protests are going on and the situation has turned precarious. He was perhaps advised to stay,” Dafri said.
One official informed the Post that the instability caused by the recent fuel price hike was not conducive to Jokowi’s travels.
On Sept. 3, the President announced that he would increase the price of subsidized fuel by 30 percent to alleviate the burden borne by state coffers in what he described as a “last resort”. Over the past week, protesters have flocked the House of Representatives complex, the National Monument area and the Jakarta City Hall in the hundreds to object to the policy.
In spite of the growing pushback, there is also an historical trend of President Jokowi choosing not to attend the UNGA even when the domestic situation allows him to, Dafri noted. Since the beginning of his presidency in 2014, Jokowi has never gone to New York to attend the assembly, only occasionally addressing the meetings through virtual means and sending an aging VP in his place.
“I do not think Jokowi has a clear vision on what roles and leadership positions he should take at the international level. There may be an element of him feeling inhibited, but compared with [former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono] or Sukarno, he does not seem to focus on international relations,” he said.
In missing the UN’s week of high-level meetings, Jokowi will also be absent at an event celebrating his global exploits. The Atlantic Council, a Washington DC-based think tank focused on international relations, has named the President a recipient of its Global Citizen Awards.
Moreover, the UNGA77 may be unattractive to Jokowi, said Dafri. Unlike his tour of East Asia where he secured US$13 billion in investments, or his visits to Ukraine and Russia where he took on the role of mediator for their two leaders and persuaded them into providing Indonesia scant resources, the UNGA77 offers little but a chance to increase multinational dialogues.
“This is a very pragmatic way of thinking. A nation’s struggle at the international level is not always about money. […] We ought not to think short-term. Some of Indonesia’s interests can only be achieved through long-term efforts such as [the UNGA],” the scholar asserted. He noted that Indonesian leadership on the global stage is of paramount importance, echoing previous appeals by others.
“Jokowi should have attended […] While Minister Retno has my utmost respect, Jokowi’s physical presence would have achieved more. The most important aspect of leadership is not only effective implementation, but also the ability to set the agenda.”
The Presidential Palace confirmed Jokowi’s absence to the Post on Monday but did not give further details on the matter.
The UNGA77, themed “A Watershed Moment: Transformative Solutions to Interlocking Challenges”, will commence on Sep. 13 to address “complex and interconnected crises” such as COVID-19, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, climate change and threats to the global economy.