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Is Indonesia, like the US and China, Imbued with Exceptionalism?

This Southeast Asian country with a population of 270 million may not have the military and economic resources of the Major Powers and yet it played a significant role on the world stage in earlier times.

By Alfin Zulfikar Rizky


“Exceptionalism” has been a frequently recurring word in the realm of international politics for a long time. In its most familiar context it refers to the global role of the United States, thus: American Exceptionalism. 

Even the online New Oxford American Dictionary gives a nod to the word’s American connection, as it defines exceptionalism as “the belief that something is exceptional, especially the theory that the peaceful capitalism of the United States constitutes an exception to the general economic laws governing national historical development.”

But the United States is by no means alone in the ranks of Exceptionalism. There is such a term as European Exceptionalism, a throwback to the Industrial Revolution when the nations of Europe were the wealthiest and the most powerful in the world. And these days, in the discourses on geopolitics, you come across the term Chinese Exceptionalism quite frequently, as a direct result of China’s rise as a global power.

At the end of the day, however, all nations are imbued with a sense of being exceptional. According to Nicola Nymalm of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and Johannes Plagemann of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, as a nation builds its identity, it also creates a sense of exceptionalism. In their paper titled, “Comparative Exceptionalism,” Nymalm and Plagemann offer the view that this sense of Exceptionalism can influence the political dynamics and policies of a country—especially its foreign policy.

The constructivist view

The exceptionalist discourse subsequently develops to differentiate one country from another—giving each country an identity that is unique when compared with other countries. This is very much in line with the constructivist view of international relations, in which the sense of national identity creates an intersubjective understanding between countries, ultimately determining how relations between them will work.

Although a sense of Exceptionalism may be shared by most if not by all countries, no other country is as closely identified with the term as the United States. A sense of Exceptionalism is built into the DNA of the American nation, its founding and expansion having been linked to the idea of liberty, while much of humankind languished under oppressive regimes. 

The American Declaration of Independence of 1776 was loaded with rhetoric about all men being created equal, and on God-given unalterable rights. It is a common understanding among Americans that their nation has an obligation and a mission to spread these values to the rest of the world.

Another country that has made a strong claim to Exceptionalism is China. This Exceptionalism may be partly explained as a rebound from “the century of humiliation” that the nation suffered from 1849 to 1949 when Western Powers, Russia and Japan trampled on China’s sovereignty by seizing and colonizing parts of its territory, while its people suffered extreme poverty. That protracted humiliation etched on the Chinese psyche a “never-again” mentality.

Middle Kingdom under heaven

But that is only a partial explanation. To a greater extent, Chinese Exceptionalism is the product of a consciousness of that Chinese civilization stretches through five millennia during which it was the undisputed greatest power in Asia. Thus Chinese Exceptionalism, as Nymalm and Plagemann point out, revolves around the concepts of Zhongguo (Middle Kingdom) and Tanxia (Under Heaven). In effect, China has been claiming the hub around which lesser kingdoms orbit, and that it has a mandate from heaven to dominate these lesser kingdoms.

Two other nations that are widely regarded to boast a sense of Exceptionalism are India and Turkey. 

India has often been cited as manifesting a moralizing tone in its diplomacy, contrasting itself with other nations steeped with realpolitik. Nymalm and Plagemann observe that this was especially true during India’s early post-independence era.

Now comes the question: Does Indonesia have and manifest its own kind of Exceptionalism? It would seem that Indonesia’s sense of Exceptionalism has been expressed through its foreign policy, but the way it has been expressed has varied according to the presidential eras that the nation has gone through.

During the tenure of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), for example, Indonesia positioned itself as a country fully committed to democracy and to human rights values. This could be seen in the way Indonesia strongly pushed for the adoption of an ASEAN Charter and ASEAN institutions that emphasized the regional organization’s commitment to human rights and the rights of women and children. 

A forum for democratization

It was also during the tenure of President SBY that the Bali Democracy Forum (BDF) was launched as an international platform for exchange of experiences among nations that are striving for greater democratization. The BDF was premised on the idea that a democracy is always “work in progress” and that each country must find its own way toward achieving and running a more fully democratic system.

At the same time, Indonesia promoted an international image of itself as a nation where Islam and democracy can work and thrive together. For this purpose the SBY administration collaborated with moderate and tolerant Islamic organizations such as the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the Muhammadiyah.

At an earlier time, during the incumbency of President Suharto, Indonesia was also regarded as evincing a sense of Exceptionalism on the basis of its historical past, particularly the heyday of the Majapahit Empire. In his paper titled, “Wendt Meets West,” Stefan Rother claims Indonesia’s history and its identification with the Majapahit became the basis of Indonesia’s foreign policy, particularly its role in the founding and development of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

According to Rother, the Majapahit engendered in Indonesia a culture of cooperation, which the country eventually promoted in ASEAN in the form of values such as deliberation, consensus and non-interference.

That was Indonesia under President Suharto and President SBY. What about Indonesia today under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo? In his book, “Man of Contradictions,” Benjamin Bland notes that President Jokowi emphasizes pragmatism and practicality in his foreign policy. This means that the focus of his foreign policy is on domestic development.

Power and prestige

And even if President Jokowi had the will to implement a more activist foreign policy, observers say that Indonesia’s limited power would prevent it from becoming in any way Exceptional like such countries as the United States and China. One such observer is Yuen Foong Khong, who wrote a paper, “Power as Prestige in World Politics.” He argues that power—such as military power—is a major determinant of a country’s prestige on the global political stage.

Such prestige, or lack of it, shapes a country’s sense of identity, according to the constructivist notion of interstate politics. If Yuen is entirely correct, it is therefore not possible for Indonesia to have a sense of Exceptionalism that is comparable to that of powerful nations like the United States and China. 

And yet the fact remains that even without the military and economic resources wielded by more powerful nations, Indonesia was able to play, at an earlier time, a significant role on the world and regional stage as an advocate of democracy and human rights values, and as a proponent of a global partnership between the developing and developed worlds. 

It is also a fact of history that Indonesia was a pillar of the decolonization movement that saw a tremendous expansion of the membership of the Non-aligned Movement and the United Nations itself. It is also a demographic fact that there are more Muslims in Indonesia than in the entire Middle East, and yet it has generally adhered to a Pancasila ideology marked by religious tolerance.

Indonesia was able to do all of these without ever associating itself with the term and the notion of Exceptionalism.


Editor’s note: This article is not a piece of reportage but a commentary. Although the writer Alfin Zulfikar Rizky is a member of the Pinter Politik editorial staff, the views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Pinter Politik.


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