Indonesia's new foreign minister: What does she bring to the table?
JAKARTA, Indonesia – It was around 6pm at The Hague on a Saturday, October 18, when Retno Lestari Priansari Marsudi’s life was disrupted by a phone call.
On the line was Andi Widjajanto, the former deputy head of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s transition team, and he was asking if she – at the time Indonesia’s ambassador to the Netherlands – could meet with the then-president elect immediately.
It was the kind of request you don’t say no to, and so two days later – the day of Jokowi’s historic inauguration – Retno was back in Jakarta. By midnight, she was at the State Palace meeting with the newly inaugurated president.
A week later, on October 27, she would become Indonesia’s first ever female foreign minister.
Breaking the glass ceiling
Jokowi’s cabinet mix of professionals and political appointees has generally received lukewarm to cold reactions, but Retno’s appointment received immediate praise.
'I hope she would increase women’s participation in Indonesia’s bilateral, regional and international cooperations'
Women’s rights activist Sjamsiah Achmad hailed the appointment of the 51-year-old mother of two children as an affirmation of the push for gender equality and women’s participation in the country.
“It’s definitely progress, because it’s a post which women would rarely get the opportunity to occupy,” the chairwoman of Center for Women’s Empowerment in Politics said.
“I hope she can push for more progress in women’s rights in the country. I also hope she would increase women’s participation in Indonesia’s bilateral, regional and international cooperations at a substantial level, so that they can include women’s perspectives in their outputs and policies.”
But the plaudits are for more than just what her gender happens to be. Retno – who joined the diplomatic corps after graduating from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta – has been a respected diplomat for almost 3 decades.
Notably, she was also the first woman to serve as the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s director general for American and European affairs, overseeing Indonesia’s relations with 82 countries. She had also been ambassador to Iceland and Norway, and in 2011 became the first Indonesian to receive the Order of Merit from the King of Norway.
“She knows her job and we need people like her,” said Triansyah Djani, who succeeded Retno as as director general for American and European affairs. “We would support anyone (who can do the job). That’s what is relevant for us.”
In addition, he said Retno was “ngewongke” – referring to the Javanese attribute of being personable and treating people with respect.
This trait, he said, was in line with the pro-people, down-to-earth diplomacy that Jokowi envisions for his administration.
This kind of diplomacy, apparently, translates to one that Indonesian people feel is in line with their interests, one that they don’t feel is foreign to them.
In her first press conference as foreign minister on Wednesday, October 29, Retno laid out the ministry’s new direction: “firm and dignified” diplomacy that provides solutions, that can make a difference, and that opens opportunities to benefit the interests of the country and the people.
“We are firm but we are not confrontational,” she said. “We are firm in achieving our goals and in asserting our national interests.”
This applies, for instance, in protecting Indonesian migrant workers and resolving maritime boundary disputes.
'We are firm but we are not confrontational. We are firm in achieving our goals and in asserting our national interests.'
Consistent with Jokowi’s statements on diplomacy during the campaign, Retno said she would make economic diplomacy a priority – with concrete results leading to opening up business or investment opportunities.
“It’s economic diplomacy in a down-to-earth context and, God willing, with results that Indonesian people can directly feel,” she said.
“Surely, the aim of this economic diplomacy is a self-reliant national economy.”
This goal appears to fit well with the new minister, who, according to lecturer and former ambassador to Poland Hazairin Pohan, has experience in economic diplomacy in her postings in Europe.
However, Pohan said Retno also has limitations. The veteran journalist said the new minister has limited experience in dealing with ASEAN and other “hard issues” in diplomacy, such as international politics and security issues, which cover nuclear and conventional weapons, terrorism, and regional conflicts.
“It would take time for her to learn the complexity of ASEAN’s problems and decision-making process. She would also need to learn a lot about the hard issues in diplomacy, because Indonesia is known for its leadership that voices the interests of small and developing countries,” Hazairin said.
ASEAN, however, is an important area for Indonesia diplomatic efforts, especially given the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015. Hazairin said Retno’s challenge is to maintain Indonesia’s leadership in the ASEAN, in order to ensure the efforts invested and progress made over the past several decades towards greater cooperation and integration are not wasted.
“But she is a fast learner and very organizational. She would need to form a team to assist her in dealing with the internal and external issues, as well as to operationalize the strategy of Indonesia’s foreign policy in the future.
“Despite her limitations, I am sure she can do it.” – Rappler.com