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Is Palestine Not Indonesia’s Business? It Depends on Jokowi’s Kind of Realism

By Musfi Romdoni


The rockets rumbled as they flew over the sky of Gaza. A building that housed two international media organizations was hit. Dark smoke mushroomed as the building collapsed in flames and was reduced to rubble. Other structures were pounded with air strikes. People were killed, many of them women and children. Israel, which carried out the carnage, justified it as self-defense. 

The world condemned the attacks, of course. The escalation of conflict in Gaza sparked outrage all over the world. Israel must stop. This is not about religion, but about humanity. 

In Indonesia support for Palestine came in great waves. Speaking for President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi, urged the United Nations (UN) to take concrete steps to stop Israel’s repeated violations of international law. 

Interestingly, amid a wave of support for Palestine, the former Head of Indonesia’s State Intelligence Agency (BIN), AM Hendropriyono, issued a controversial statement. According to him, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not Indonesia’s business. “Indonesia’s business is our destiny and the future of our children and grandchildren,” he said. 

Naturally, the statement brought on criticism and denunciation. But interestingly, the General Chairman of the United State-Owned Enterprises Federation, Arief Poyuono, came to Hendropriyono’s defense. According to him, Indonesia does not have enough influence to be able to pressure the international community to stop the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since the Sukarno era, criticism of Israel’s violent despotism has had no effect. 

The question remains: what makes Hendropriyono so insensitive that he could issue such a controversial statement? What is the basis for that statement? 

The Selfish Actor

If one studies international relations, Hendropriyono’s statement is clearly a demonstration of political realism. Political realists believe that the state cares only about its own national security and interests, and its own struggle for power. 

Realism is skeptical of norms or ethics in international relations. International politics is seen as an arena of anarchy without justice, characterized by actual or potential conflicts between states.

Although political realism looks like a Machiavellian doctrine, W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz, in his writing on Political Realism in International Relations, claims that not all realists are skeptical of or reject the application of ethics in international relations. 

There is a difference between classical realism and radical or extreme realism. Adherents of classical realism do not reject the existence of moral issues in international politics, but instead criticize pure moralism, which is an abstract moral discourse that does not take into account political realities. 

Despite the differences between classical realism and radical realism, both proceed from the same assumption: that the state is a selfish actor. This assumption raises various questions, especially when it comes to certain types of cooperation between countries, such as foreign aid.

How is it possible for cooperation to take place when every actor is assumed to be selfish? Isn’t that contradictory?

To address and resolve that dilemma, we turn to Francis Fukuyama in his book The Origin of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. Using the concept of reciprocal altruism from the findings of evolutionary biology, Fukuyama explains why humans as selfish, self-interested beings can cooperate.

The hypothesis at work here is very simple: humans cooperate not because they are altruists, but because by working together their interests are more easily realized. The same hypothesis was cited by Adam Smith in his famous book, The Wealth of Nations

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” It is not because the butcher, the brewer and the baker are concerned about our need for nourishment in order to live that they supply us with the food and drink but because they need the money that we pay them, which they use for their own survival. 

Logically, if the basic assumption or major premise used is that every actor is selfish, then the state, which is assumed to be a selfish actor, can be understood as practicing reciprocal altruism. Countries work together so that each may realize its own national interest in the course of working as a member of a group or a bilateral partnership.

In realism, especially radical realism, Hendropriyono’s statement is not wrong. If you want to help Palestine, the question is clear: what benefits will Indonesia get? Can it increase national welfare or economic growth? 

Arief Poyuono’s point is also interesting. Indonesia does not have enough influence to exert pressure. It is known that Israel has close relations with the United States (US). In December 2020, the US even offered Indonesia US$2 billion in aid if it opened diplomatic relations with Israel.  

What Is the Real Policy?

In a democratic system, of course, Hendropriyono is free to make such a statement. However, amid a wave of Indonesian support for Palestine and the issuance of an official statement from President Jokowi condemning the Israeli attacks against Palestine, why did the former Head of BIN not consider the sensitivity of the issue? Moreover, as a person close to the palace circle, he has created the impression that he is contradicting the official stance of the government. 

There are two possible explanations for this oddity. First, that is purely Hendropriyono ‘s personal view. Second, there is a possibility that the statement is not contradictory to the government’s foreign policy.  

In the first case, there is no need for further discussion. But the second possibility is very interesting. That is because for a long time, various academics and political observers, both at home and abroad, have deemed Indonesian foreign affairs under President Jokowi to be too pragmatic and focused mostly on domestic politics. 

Ben Bland in his book Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia, for example, said that President Jokowi only sees international politics as a means to fulfill domestic interests, especially the economy and investment.

Evan A. Laksmana in his paper, Civil-Military Relations under Jokowi: Between Military Corporate Interests and Presidential Handholding, writes that during his first term, President Jokowi relied on retired military officers such as Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan and Hendropriyono in running his administration, it is possible that Hendropriyono’s views influenced the way former the mayor of Solo looks at international relations.

There is also another possibility, where President Jokowi has been pragmatic from the start. This, for example, can be seen from his inauguration speech on October 20, 2019. In front of the country’s officialdom and foreign dignitaries, he clearly stated, “Our work should no longer be process-oriented, but must be oriented towards tangible results.” He said that only once. He reiterated, “Again, the main thing is not the process, the main thing is the result”. 

The speech can be read as a message that conveys the core philosophy of the president of Indonesia. He is a utilitarian, a consequentialist to be exact. And he delivered a speech that reeked of pragmatism. 

However, certain recent political moves of the Jokowi administration were not quite consistent with this position. This was the case when Indonesia initiated the Asean Summit to discuss the crisis in Myanmar some time ago. 

So, does that indicate a change in foreign policy? Not likely. It was probably an initiative that Indonesia was in line with the vision of the newly inaugurated US President, Joe Biden, who wants to restore the role of the US as the guardian of world democracy.

This conclusion is reinforced by the release of the US Department of State’s annual report on March 30, which mentions eight human rights violations in Indonesia during 2020. The report can be read as a message from the Biden administration to the Jokowi administration to be more pro-democracy.

Regardless of whether the Indonesian government is a realist or not, what is clear is that Israel has been condemned in Indonesia. Regarding Hendropriyono’s statement, the problem lies in the sensitivity of the issue and the controversy that has surrounded him since he made the statement. 


Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of PinterPolitik.


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