Interview with H.E. Dr. Hassan Wirajuda

Dr. N. Hassan Wirajuda (born July 9, 1948 in Tangerang, Banten), was the Foreign Minister of Indonesia from 2001 to 2009. He was a member of the Council of Presidential Advisors of the Republic of Indonesia from 2009 to 2014 and was the editor-in chief of Strategic Review — The Indonesian Journal of Leadership, Policy and World Affairs. He is also founder and patron to the Institute for Peace and Democracy (IPD)–the implementing agency of the Bali Democracy Forum, and was member of the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security chaired by Kofi Annan.

A lawyer by training and a diplomat by choice, Dr. Wirajuda has held several important posts including Director-General of Political Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2000–2001), Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other international organizations in Geneva (1998– 2000), Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Egypt (1997–1998), and Director of International Organizations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1993–1997).

Dr. Wirajuda earned a Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from the University of Virginia School of Law (1988), a Master of Law (LL.M) from Harvard University School of Law (1985), and a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (1984). In 1971, he graduated from the Faculty of Law of the University of Indonesia and in 1975 he spent a year at Oxford University, Foreign Service Program in the UK.

Interviewed by Noto Suoneto

Noto Suoneto is the Director of Special Projects and Institutional Relations of Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI). He is also the Secretary of China Policy Group and one of the Indonesia-Korea Young Leaders 2019. He was the Secretary of Asian Scholars and Experts Delegation to North Korea in 2018 and currently in charge of East Asian Program and Corporate Policy Brief Program under the FPCI institutional partnership department.

NS: Noto Suoneto | HW: Hassan Wirajuda

NS: Pak Hassan, I would like to ask you a general question. What geopolitical/geo-economic changes will take place in the post COVID-19 world?

HW: I think it is a bit too early for us to talk about the post-COVID-19 world as we are still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. And there is no clear sign when the pandemic could end. The number of those who are affected all over the world continues to increase. As of today, the latest record shows there are 26.3 million confirmed cases and 868.000 deaths. All countries in the world are affected by this pandemic without exception. There are countries which are badly affected, some are less, all with a different degree of effectiveness in mitigating this pandemic.

Those who seem to manage the pandemic with a certain degree of success, at least initially, were praised as model for solution. But they suffered a second wave or even a third wave. Epidemiologists cannot predict when the pandemic would end, but as the pandemic is on a global scale, we begin to know its impact on public health and the economy worldwide.

As of now, after only seven months after the COVID-19 virus began to spread, certainly it has brought about tremendous economic damage. The global economy is on the verge to a recession and there’s a sharp drop in GDP per capita. But the coronavirus also threatens to push millions into starvation and hunger, especially in regions or countries affected by conflicts such as Syria, Yemen, Libya, sub-Saharan Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti and many others. And after decades of progress in the battle against poverty and hunger, the job losses, and other economic dislocations caused by the pandemic threaten millions of people into food insecurity and outright starvations. Every government now has to deal with both the health crisis and economic crises, which one of the two should be handled first became a huge dilemma.

I would say the COVID-19 epidemic has strengthened geopolitical shifts that shape the region of East Asia in the 21st century, of good features or bad phases. The COVID-19 virus originated from this region. Even how the virus should be named became a hot political debate between the two superpowers, United States and China, further deepening existing tensions prior to the pandemic.

But COVID-19 has proven that more countries are dependent on East Asian countries, namely China, South Korea, and Japan, on the supply of personal protective equipment, test kits and ventilators.  People talk about global supply chain, but the pandemic has proven that this means greater dependence on East Asia; as China in the past two decades has become a “world factory” for raw materials and final manufactured goods needed in time of crisis. Disruptions in the world supply chain would push countries to adopt a more nationalistic economic policies of self-reliance. The existing trade and investment liberalization initiatives in East Asia and the wider Asia Pacific region (e.g. the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement with its multiple dialogue partners and the East Asia Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) will gradually emerge in the post-COVID-19 world which, in turn, promotes regional economic resilience amid uncertainties of global economic and trade cooperation.

On the geopolitical landscape, clearly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, while the United States is very much preoccupied with multiple domestic crisis, such as on the issues of racism, presidential election in November 2020, economic crisis and the pandemic, China seizes this opportunity by promoting its “wolf-warrior diplomacy” along its border with India, on the South China Sea, in its conflicts with Australia, but of course, also when it imposed a national security law in Hong Kong in tandem with its traditional cross-strait problems with Taiwan.

Able to deal with the pandemic with relative success, China has become a significant donor to countries in Europe such as Italy and France but also to other African and Latin American countries for PPEs, test kits and surgical masks. China’s aggressive political and military postures were equally strongly responded by the United States, as it deployed two naval carries, USS Nimitz and, USS Ronald Reagan last month, thus creating more tensions.

Earlier, United States’ State Secretary Mike Pompeo declared for the first time that China’s historical claim to the most part of the South China Sea has no basis under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and therefore, is illegal. In the past, the United States simply repeated its claim on the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. United States’ strong reaction certainly negates the interacted occupation arguments that China seems to advance to strengthen its historical claim. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed a seed of tension that focuses on East Asia. It is not the pandemic that caused such tensions, as those have already been present even before COVID-19.

NS: How should Indonesia reposition itself amidst this shifting landscape?

How should Indonesia reposition amidst the shifting geopolitical and geo-economic landscape? I think Indonesia should be more focused on its bilateral and regional diplomacy. We have to invest more time, energy and, resources to strengthen the East Asia community-building process. We started in 2005 when leaders of East Asia, the ASEAN +6 consisting of the ASEAN member states along with China, Korea, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand had a meeting.

ASEAN has been successful in maintaining its regional peace and security continuously for 50 years. I think this is the greatest achievement of ASEAN because when we attain regional stability and peace security, then all ASEAN countries are able to focus on their economic development. That made ASEAN successful in the world’s dynamic economy. But the sub-regions of East Asia, and for that matter ASEAN, is too small to be the anchor of peace and security in the wider region. Therefore, Indonesia and its ASEAN member partners should work closely to advance this process of community-building.

NS: So, Pak Hassan, are you saying that we should pivot away from multilateralism and focus on regional or bilateral diplomacy in this time?

HW: Yes, to me, first and foremost, we must admit the fact that the current world order is no longer effective, both on the political and security as well as on the economic and social. But reform is not possible. Why? Because there is no political will to reform. In my capacity as the Director of International Organizations at the Foreign Ministry, I participated at the process of United Nations reform for the first time in 1995. I also participated in the ensuing process of reform at the summit level every five years. But I gave up hope to reform the United Nations and it Charter, the foundation of the existing world order.

In world history, since the birth of Westphalian system in 1664, it took a crisis for reform to happen. The Westphalian system of peace and security relies on the system of balance of power and alliance. The system was inadequate to cope with the rise of Germany in 1900, which led to First World War (1914-1918). Then, following the end of World War I, the world order was reformed under the League of Nations covenant. The new system on the maintenance of peace and security was based on the collective security concept. It means that if one member of the League becomes a victim of aggression, other member countries of the League of Nations would collectively punish the aggressors. But in practice, when Ethiopia was invaded by Italy and Mongolia was invaded by Japan, almost at the same time in 1931-32, the League of Nations did not respond. The national interests of its members were not symmetrical to the collective interest of the League. The inadequacies of the then global order led to another war, namely World War II of 1938 to 1945.

The new UN Charter set a foundation of shared responsibility on the maintenance of peace and security. It means that five countries who won the war were given the privilege to be permanent members of the Security Council. The framers of the UN Charter envisaged the premise that the permanent members of the Security Council would cooperate closely with one another to share their huge responsibility of maintaining international peace and security. It has not always been the case. During the Cold War they were divided by bloc politics, rendering the United Nations Security Council ineffective.

In last decade the division between China and Russia on one hand, and the other permanent members on the other, made the Security Council failed to exercise its mandate in dealing with the proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. Even it failed again this year to agree on the designation of covid-19 pandemic as threat to international peace and security, unlike the case of Ebola pandemic few years ago. Clearly the existing world order is no longer effective while efforts to reform failed. Dr. Kissinger views that in absence of a widely-shared world order, the future of global order would comprise of regional orders.

That’s why I see the importance of the region of East Asia intensifies its efforts to build a regional order. The East Asia Summit, as a main vehicle towards East Asia community building has to balance its agenda: economic, political and security. In the past 15 years it was more preoccupied with its economic agenda.

On the economic global governance, efforts to reform the Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Regional Banks) faced similar fate. The Bretton Woods institutions failed to cope with the 2008 global financial crises, hence –admitting their weaknesses and flaws–the West to invite other emerging economies to the establishment of G-20 in 2009. At the first G-20 summit in Washington DC, and subsequent Summit in London and Pittsburgh, they spoke highly and agreed to reform the Bretton Woods institutions in order to make it more efficient and effective and at the same time make it more merit-oriented. As those who monopolize power at the global economic institutions agreed to reform, I thought if it is successful, could create a good precedence on the reform of the United Nations.  After 12 years the reform of the Bretton Woods Institutions, the key pillar of the global economic order, has not been successful.

As a result, both on the world’s political-security as well as socio-economic and social governance, we must realistically admit that we can’t rely on the process on the existing ineffective world order. A recent article that Foreign Affairs even blatantly said that “the emperor has no clothes”. It was said that even before COVID-19, the emperor has only simple clad, not even clothes.

So, then it is rather a cosmetic to talk of using our position as a non-permanent member of the Security Council to champion the independence of Palestine? Likewise, what would be our proud achievement by securing a position at the Economic and Social Council while it was already missing its economic wing –due to the establishment of the Bretton Woods Institutions — since the U.N. was founded? It would be good to maintain our ideal but at the same time. realistic and pragmatic in promoting our national interests. Then we should save our time, energy and resources for issues that are directly confronting us especially post Covid-19 pandemic when countries need to promote their national and regional resilience. 

NS: I’d like to move onto something that you have told us about, it’s the shifting direction of global economics and the geo-economic challenges that we have now. What’s your take on the President Jokowi’s economic-centric foreign policy agenda, in particular the business and economic diplomacy? How do you see the future of Indonesia’s economic diplomacy, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic?

HW: Of course, for developing countries like Indonesia, economic diplomacy has always been an important aspect of our diplomacy. In time of COVID-19 pandemic, as the impact of pandemic has greatly affected our economy negatively, it’s normal that we should also focus, put our resources and energy for our economic gains. But the impact of the crisis is not only on the economic. It’s also on the public health. It’s time for us to review the state of inadequacies in our public health system. In time of crisis, we felt that our hospitals are not well-equipped. In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we struggle to get access to PPEs, rapid tests and surgical masks. And it is in time of crisis that we witness the true nature of nation-states, which for the past 350 years, are very competitive by nature. In this time of crisis, in the name of state’s survival we are seeing more naked competitions.

We know of the story of health equipment delivery to one country being “hijacked” and diverted to another powerful country. From this experience, I think we need to not only focus on our economic recovery, but also the total diplomacy, to cover all aspects of diplomacy which will help strengthen our national resilience or kemandirian, not only in economic terms but also in other areas – political, security, social, ideology and socio-cultural.

NS: So, are you saying that it is missing under President Jokowi’s foreign policy agenda? You said it’s only economy, we should focus on politics, security and so on. Do you see that it’s missing under the president’s agenda?

HW: In my view, President Joko Widodo is very pragmatic as he always asks a hard question “what do we get in return”? It seems for that reason he is more interested in economic issues and rather less on high politics such peace and security cooperation and on soft power including the establishment of a regional order. Although, in his absence, a war could happen and affect our economy. I said earlier that in the post-pandemic world, Indonesia has to invest our time and energy for community building process, because we know of the danger of living in a world having no effective global order– a new trend that post-covid countries tend to…. It is a new challenge to build our region’s smaller umbrella of regional order which in the end, all countries of the region could benefit from.

NS: Pak Hassan, pre-existing tensions between major powers, especially that of the US-China relations, are argued by experts to be situated within a lose-lose outcome, more so during this pandemic. What should Indonesia do in the middle of escalating US-China tensions? Can Indonesia, in your view, plays bridging role for China and the US?

HW: First, I would say yes, there is a lose and lose situation but as of now, I think the United States loses more. Earlier, I said that when the United States is beset by multiple crises – the pandemic, economy, racism and the presidential election in November, China has freely roamed the world to increase their influence. But at the same time, China is becoming more aggressive in dealing with conflict situations along the border with India, and on the South China Sea. But when there is a lose and lose situation, normally in the stalemate, parties may be more acceptable to compromise, meaning both parties have indirect negotiations themselves.

We’ll see what would happen after the US presidential election in November. But certainly, a third party may have a role in this situation. Earlier, I said that those 18 countries that sit together at the East Asia Summit at the Presidential/Prime Minister level should be a good forum. It should discuss sensitive issues among ourselves. But of course, what you talk about among us has also affected the world. So, I think us, Indonesia, together with other ASEAN members who try its best, we are in a good position. Because so far, we are able to resist the expectations from either China or the United States to sign with either one of them.

I think we may recall that even during the heights of the Cold War for 40 years, at least Indonesia was able to maintain its independent and active foreign policy for the benefit of our national interest likewise, the ASEAN Joint Statement on the Indo-Pacific.

Beforehand, there was a discussion whether a group of countries should contain China or siding with the US and its allies. I think ASEAN has made a very principal statement that ASEAN would be dictated by its own regional interests and for that matter, ASEAN would be in a better position because with an independent-active foreign policy they collectively pushed, they would be acceptable to both. After all, in the past 50 years or more, ASEAN has been playing an important role as a bridgebuilder, not only with its dialogue partners but also with its big partners. So, when we talk about ASEAN who would take the lead, I strongly believe, I think Indonesia should.

I think Indonesia should exercise its intellectual leadership. Of course, we should have concerns, we should have ideas that we can confidently sail to both sides of the equations. There’s a chance for us to play – depending on us, of course – but for me, it’s good to take that responsibility.

NS: Pak Hassan, as someone who has been very active in promoting democracy in your times as the Foreign Minister, what do you see in terms of how Indonesia should revive the advancement of democracy globally? We know that COVID has posed significant challenges to global democracy, so what can Indonesia do?

HW: There was a claim that authoritarian governments are most successful in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and democracies tend to fail to cope with this pandemic. I think it’s a myth. Yes, there are successful authoritarian countries like China, Vietnam, Singapore but we should not forget that other democracies such as Taiwan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand are equally successful. So, to me, whether or not a country, on both sides of the equation – authoritarians and democracies – would, depend on number 1) good leadership, number 2) effective governance, number 3) discipline and loyal citizens. These are the views of Dr. Francis Fukuyama and I quoted him from his recent articles at the Foreign Affairs magazine.

Of course, major democracies like the United States is the subject of the debate on whether they should mess with such simple issue. Europe were struggling, countries such as Italy, Spain and France did not get help from their fellow EU members in the beginning, but rather from China. That gives authoritarian regime a better face – a good face than democracies.

But to me, the declining democracy has been there even before the COVID-19 pandemic. In Europe, it began with the rise of nationalism in a negative sense, rise of right-wing political groups that promoted anti of everything – of foreigners, foreign migrant workers, globalization, along with the promotion of Islamophobia and many others. Those are negative trends. But likewise, in the United States, the second largest democracy, since the 2016 presidential election, we witnessed that the Republican Party exploited the anti-establishment, anti-elitist system including the grievances against globalization. It was successful and that’s why Trump was elected.

In many ways, not only if we look back at the process of democracy that is taking place, the work-in-progress since 1998-1999, I think Indonesia has made considerable progress, we were able to transform ourselves from an authoritarian system into a full-fledged democracy. In April 2019, multiple elections (Presidential, Legislative and Local Elections) were very successful. There was no single incident during the election campaigns nor also the political climate. Interestingly, we witnessed that the two opposing groups joined in the end in one government coalition. So, the situation is very much peaceful and we can expect that the December 2020 local election will be as peaceful as so many elections that we had in the past 20 years. I would say Indonesia is a shining example.

While some countries debate whether they should postpone elections in the middle of the pandemic I think we have no debate on that. So, yes, we experienced, like others, the pandemic. But at the same time, we must commit ourselves to promoting the democratic agenda. In other words, we have to continue to promote democracy in our immediate region, namely the ASEAN, by the ASEAN Charter.

It’s not easy, but it is a commitment that we in particular should continue to promote, likewise in the larger Pacific region. Now, perhaps some would think that while democracy has declined and there is no good environment to promote this. To me, contrary to the fact that democracy is declining all over the world, Indonesia has become a shining example and hence we should continue to put democracy in our agenda.

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