Strategic challenges for US: Democracy and Indo-Pacific

Indonesia's defense minister Prabowo Subianto with Trump's acting US secretary of defense Christopher Miller as they inspect honor guards during their meeting in Jakarta last December as part of a visit to Asia to push Washington's free and open Indo-Pacific policy. — AP

AS the United States prepare for the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president after the chaos and violence on Capitol Hill last week, one question comes to mind: Will the US show greater humility in managing its foreign relations?

Will the US abandon its exceptionalism and begin to engage other nations in a normal way?

President-elect Biden promises to “restore dignified leadership at home and respected leadership on the world stage”.

He has also promised that “the United States must lead not just with the example of power, but the power of our example”.

These are noble objectives indeed. Yet, in light of what the US has become, the challenges it faces in the international arena are enormous.

The first challenge goes to the core issue: the domestic foundation of foreign policy.

As Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations has argued, foreign policy begins at home.

The problem for the US is “home” is having a serious problem at present.

Over the last four years, the US has allowed “home” to be weakened by President Donald Trump, his enablers within the Republican Party, and his supporters.

The consequences have been dire. The US’s standing in the world has declined further.

America’s foes are quick to cite what happens in the US as evidence of democracy’s shortcomings. Allies and partners are eager to welcome the US back into the game.

The rest is still wondering how it has come to this lowest point and whether it will recover soon.

More importantly, it raises the question whether the latest episode in American domestic politics will bring humility to the way it deals with the rest of the world.

It seems that the best course of action for the US is to recognise that it needs to incorporate humility into its foreign policy.

That humility should start with democratic reforms at home, which include electoral reform, voter education and other steps to strengthen democratic institutions.

These reforms are necessary so that another democratic backsliding can be prevented in the future.

At the same time, the strengthening of American democracy will also benefit other democracies around the world.

Here, the plan by Biden to host a global summit for democracies can be a good starting point.

This forum should be a gathering of democracies to learn from each other on how to prevent democratic backsliding as experienced by the US and many other democracies in the world.

It should be a forum where real democracies also work together to strengthen democracy in their respective countries.

It should be a forum of democracies, by democracies, on democracy and for democracies.

The second challenge would be how to integrate substantially into Indo-Pacific and engage the region accordingly.

The US needs to recognise that the Indo-Pacific, rather than Europe or the Middle East, is the geopolitical and geoeconomic centre of gravity of the world.

Here, in this region, the incoming Biden administration should be aware that the majority of regional countries have no appetite to get caught in the middle of rivalry between Washington and Beijing.

This is even true for the closest American allies, such as Australia and Japan. Therefore, the US needs an Indo- Pacific strategy with at least three key elements.

First, it needs a strategy in which the US works with, and stands up to, China at the same time.

Second, Washington needs to seriously engage the Asean-centred multilateral processes, especially the East Asia Summit (EAS).

Third, the US needs to integrate the economic component into its engagement with the region.

Joining the Asean-driven Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) can be a first step toward that direction.

Of course, regional countries need to show a degree of understanding that the Biden administration might need time to focus on domestic consolidation first. He needs to ensure the healing process at home will take place smoothly, even though there is no guarantee that another Trump will not emerge in American politics in 2024 and destroy American democracy.

Indonesia, which will be the chair of Asean and host the EAS in 2023, will be in a good position to help the US in addressing the two key strategic challenges mentioned above.

First, as a country that has experienced both a difficult transition to democracy and the challenge of democratic backsliding, Indonesia stands ready to share its democratic experience with the US.

Second, the US would benefit from its strategic partnership with Indonesia as the largest Asean country and the fulcrum of two strategic oceans in the Indo-Pacific. — The Jakarta Post/ANN

Rizal Sukma is a senior research fellow, CSIS Jakarta and Indonesian ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ireland and the International Maritime Organisation.

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