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Australia and Indonesia in partnership for democracy

Author: R M Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia

Can democracy deliver? This is the question currently being asked in all corners of the globe. If we look at Indonesia’s transformative democratic journey — today it is the world’s third-largest democracy — the reply can only be resoundingly affirmative yes.

More importantly, democracy must deliver.

Yet as democratisation has unleashed promising reform in some countries, it has triggered conflict and convulsions in others, inflicting violence, carnage and suffering on the most vulnerable and forcing people in their millions to seek refuge across borders and continents.

Even where we might celebrate more lasting democratic transformation, we are reminded too that democracy is a process prone to ebbs and flows, progress and regress. A case can be made of recent signs of shifting dynamics — of democracy adrift, or even in retreat.

We are becoming increasingly cognisant of the implications for democracy of new technologies. Some are positively transformative, making information available with unprecedented speed and scope, promising a more informed electorate armed with new avenues to express their democratic preferences, voice their expectations of elected representatives and hold their leaders to greater account.

Yet the same technologies can be — are being — exploited, with damaging consequences for democracy. More abundant information has not produced a more informed and open-minded populace. Rather, rising signs of intolerance permeate in a time of particularly divisive identity politics. Inconvenient facts are denied and false information is spread.

Often, the challenges to democracy are decidedly more fundamental, such as when an absence of peace and prevalence of conflict suspends hope for the exercise of democratic rights, while people grapple with the basic task of survival. Elsewhere, populist authoritarianism surges when leaders instrumentalise democracy to acquire power, then systematically dismantle it to entrench their rule. Around the world, countries once on the path to gradual reform now appear to have stalled or reversed their democratic transition.

Amid such complexity, managing the nexus between the internal and external milieu — between so-called domestic and international affairs — is more critical than ever. Indeed, in the contemporary world the distinction between internal and external domains is increasingly tenuous, such that for all practical purposes they have become one.

Such deep links between nations’ internal and external environments have been the driving motivation to promote ASEAN’s democratic architecture.

As Indonesian foreign minister, I deliberately shared the various problems and challenges Indonesia was facing internally at ASEAN meetings. The objective was clear: to alter the dynamics and introduce state practice within ASEAN, such that it becomes more attuned to principles of democracy, human rights and good governance. Further, it reflected Indonesia’s confidence and conviction in a democratic response to the various issues it was facing.

There is another manifestation of the nexus between democracy and foreign policy that requires careful and thoughtful management. That is the democratisation of foreign policy, a phenomenon to be much welcomed. Diplomacy and foreign policy cannot be the exclusive preserve of a few. In a democracy, their conduct — as in other fields of government endeavour — cannot be divorced from the public at large. Our democratic leaders must be more willing to consult with constituents on matters of foreign policy and work with greater transparency.

For diplomacy, this sometimes means that already complex issues of mutual concern can be further complicated by domestic interests on both sides. One example of this is the irregular flow of people across borders, seeking protection from conflict and political upheaval. Too readily, such issues have become enveloped by domestic political dynamics in the countries of destination, transit and origin, making resolution of the issue even more elusive.

On these and other issues, it is important that policymakers demonstrate constructive leadership and partnership, to seek mutually acceptable solutions. Rather than scoring political points off the other with one eye on domestic politics, we must demand that our leaders demonstrate the best of our humanity and respect for principles of democracy. They must exhibit the courage and resilience to inform the public of complex issues, of the hard choices requiring common undertaking and the search for a common solution.

The pursuit of a narrow populist agenda — however convenient — must be discouraged.

The need for collaborative action that transcends domestic considerations is most evident in the Rohingya crisis on the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh. With more than 600,000 Rohingya crammed into Bangladeshi refugee camps, a humanitarian catastrophe looms. Clearly, this is yet another litmus test for ASEAN and other regional institutions like the Bali Process. The challenge is for those institutions, and the countries leading them, like Indonesia and Australia, to demonstrate relevance. To be part of the solution.

As with any neighbours, Australia and Indonesia do not always have a common view on issues of mutual concern. The tasks for leaders of both countries is to navigate such challenges with a view to protecting and building the broader relationship. Ultimately, Australia and Indonesia’s respective dedication to democracy has made the bilateral relationship stronger, more resilient and robust. But we cannot be complacent. In a world where dialogue and diplomacy are seemingly in retreat, Australia and Indonesia — as democracies — can provide a different narrative. Our democracies can continue to deliver, but will only thrive by working together.

R M Marty Natalegawa served as Indonesian foreign minister from 2009–2014.

This article was first published here in The Australian Financial Review.

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