Shortly after the vote, UN Watch, a lobby group, tweeted a “list of shame” consisting of the 15 countries that voted “no”, which also included North Korea, Cuba, Syria and Belarus. This provoked a reaction from Indonesian netizens, with many criticizing Jakarta’s position and condemning the nation’s ambassador to the UN. The storm raged even before the Indonesian government could explain its position – a no vote on arcane procedural grounds.
Another example of the Twittersphere erupting over a foreign policy issue was the reaction to Indonesia’s response to the escalation of the maritime dispute with China in the North Natuna Sea, a southerly zone of the South China Sea between Sumatra and Borneo. In early 2020, there was a standoff between Indonesian law enforcement and the Chinese Coast Guard. Soon after the incident, angry Indonesians flooded social and mass media, demanding a more robust response to what they regarded as provocation by Beijing. This prompted President Jokowi to conduct a cabinet meeting on board a navy warship in the contested waters. His government was forced to signal that it had taken the incident – and the subsequent public reaction – seriously.
In the early years after Indonesia's independence in 1945, then president Sukarno was very much the steward of country’s foreign policy. His own world view set the course of Jakarta’s international relations – from closer ties with Communist countries including the Soviet Union and China to its violent konfrontasi or confrontation with Malaysia from 1963 to 1966. With the low level of education and the difficult economy of those days, the Indonesian public had neither much interest nor a major voice in foreign policy.
During the three decades of authoritarian rule under Suharto, elites continued to drive foreign policy. As historian and political scientist Leo Suryadinata observed, in the New Order (Orde Baru, or Orba), the president, the foreign ministry and the military were the chief managers of Indonesian foreign policy. During this period until the fall of Suharto in 1998, Indonesia had a series of foreign ministers with strong personalities and sharp intellects who were well regarded internationally from Canberra to Washington: Adam Malik, Ali Alatas and Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, who died in June 2021.
Since the start of the reformasi, Indonesia has become a democracy, and foreign policy discourse is no longer restricted to the conventional elites. Public concern over foreign policy issues has grown over the time. And the government has made efforts to have consultations with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other stakeholders, which has become a common feature of modern foreign policymaking in many countries. Under Hassan Wirajuda, who served as the country’s chief diplomat from 2001 to 2009 under presidents Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno’s daughter, and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the foreign ministry became known for its engagement with NGOs, academia, think tanks, religious leaders, and the media, to get input and suggestions and to learn what were the key concerns of the public.
But this was before social media platforms took off. At that time, public engagement was undertaken through seminars, focus group discussions and meetings. Today, conditions have changed dramatically. The public at large can voice their concerns not only at formal discussions but also through digital channels.
The minister is not the only one in the mix. Indonesian ambassadors and other diplomats have taken social media engagement seriously. Through its Social Media Awards, the ministry recognized heads of mission who have distinguished themselves in their use of online channels. Kemlu itself received recognition for its efforts at the Government Social Media Summit in 2020.
Veteran diplomat Dino Patti Djalal, who served as Indonesia’s envoy to the US from 2010 to 2013, has spearheaded efforts to corral citizens into foreign policy debates. With political scientist Dewi Fortuna Anwar and businessman Peter Gontha, who served as ambassador to Poland from 2014 to 2019, Djalal launched the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) as a non-partisan, apolitical platform for discussing international relations and global issues. Its annual conference has become an important event on the calendar of the local foreign policy community, attracting a few thousand participants and a lot of public attention, particularly among youth.
While it remains the case that Indonesian foreign policy is primarily shaped by experts, bureaucrats, politicians, the military and other elites, today input from the broader community of stakeholders delivered through multiple channels new and old are having an impact on decision making. The government has to analyze social media to take the pulse of public opinion before making moves abroad which it hopes will then have strong support at home.
Bringing an awareness of the views expressed on social media into the decision-making process is not without consequences. Policy makers including even diplomats of all levels of experience have had to approach their consumption and their own use of these digital tools with great care. Expressing a personal opinion – even a seemingly innocent comment about a small matter – could lead to trouble. A tweet may be considered by some to be the equivalent of an official statement or articulation of the government’s position. Comments on sensitive issues such as Papua or religious affairs could become a career-killing misstep if it triggers an uproar.
The discussion of foreign policy on social media is typically not at the expert level and not well informed. The most frequent users are usually the most ardent, loud voices driven by emotion or personal interest. Many are motivated by hate. Officials must be wary when digesting public concerns expressed on social media. Listening to the Twitter mob may be good politics but could well result in bad policy.
The widespread use of social media in Indonesia has undoubtedly created a two-way channel of communication on policy issues including international relations. Governance will never be the same. As the population of digital natives who have grown up as avid users of social media grows, the role of these platforms will only increase. The government will have to continue to adapt to this challenging marketplace of ideas. This will require more officials in the ranks who are themselves adept at wielding online tools and keeping up with the latest high-tech trends and methods of communication.