By: Duncan Graham
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is a dog’s breakfast. The weird grouping of 10 Southeast Asian nations with little in common other than a loosely defined geographical location and a history of rule by foreigners is easy to mock.
There’s no one market, currency, defense force, local language or position on Chinese adventures in the region of around 650 million people. Asean’s infrequent communiqués are bland wish lists, not firm demands.
Members include communist states, military dictatorships, emerging democracies and feudal regimes. The tiniest is Brunei with only 420,000 people; the giant is Indonesia with a population 600 times greater.
Despite its size and strategic importance, Asean has little clout when measured against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato); the European Common Market; the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (Anzus); and the other defense and trade pacts dominated by the US and European powers.
After half a century its achievements are hard to catalogue. Although not for former Indonesian Foreign Minister Dr Raden Mohammad Marty Muliana Natalegawa; he sees the group as far more than an expensive chatathon for elite bureaucrats.
“Asean is indispensible,” he told Strategic Review. “Without it divisions and distrust would still rock the region. It has been resilient – I think indispensible.
“However it could become irrelevant if it doesn’t initiate policies and see these through. Indonesia has the responsibility to lead and must do so.
“If we go AWOL [absent without leave] then Asean projects on human rights would stop. There’s a need to prod. We can’t let things just drift, nor can we throw our weight around. At the same time it’s not good enough for us to do all the heavy lifting.”
Before becoming emissary for the world’s third largest democracy (after the US and India), Natalegawa was the Ambassador to the United Kingdom and later Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York,
The career diplomat lost his job when President Joko Widodo took office in 2014 and gave the position to little-known Retno Marsudi, the former Ambassador to the Netherlands.
She’s also an Asean fan, although she warned against “failures to maintain unity and centrality”. In a recent op-ed for The Jakarta Post she claimed this could lead to the group becoming “a proxy ground for major powers”, but didn’t back this with names and details.
Unlike his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, President Widodo has shown little interest in foreign affairs, preferring to repair his nation’s crumbling and over-stressed infrastructure and its clumsy and often corrupt bureaucracy.
For five years Natalegawa was the voice of reason during the regular crises that bedevil foreign affairs everywhere, but particularly among nations with widely differing histories, and ambitions.
That includes Asean – but Natalegawa sees great potential where others observe inertia. He likes to talk about “waging peace, prosperity and democracy” without the phrase sounding trite.
A favorite term is “transformative” which is sufficiently ill defined to be a handy tool in any diplomat’s word kit – but again it is use that matters. Natalegawa can even deliver clichés with enough conviction to smother cynicism.
The gist of his message is that Asean is a place where key ministers get to know their foreign counterparts – hopefully well enough to count back rather than count down when philistines start threatening.
For taxpayers funding the junkets/seminars that all seems nebulous; but like British wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill said: “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.”
Although only 54, Natalegawa claims to be enjoying life in retirement with his Thai wife Sarnia Bamrungphong. The couple have three children and a new grandchild. However, he’s now an appointed member of the UN High-Level Panel on Global Response to Health Crises and has seats at other forums.
He doesn’t appear to suffer from the post-power syndrome that infects many high flyers and dismissed suggestions that he’s now an eminence grise doing the campus circuits. He doesn’t tweet instant advice.
This interview was held during a lunch break at a closed-door session on Indonesia-Australia relations run by a local think-tank at the University of Western Australia.
Here Natalegawa has extra expertise. He graduated from the Australia National University in 1994 with a doctorate and in 2016 an honorary degree from the same campus for his “visionary leadership.”
He dedicated the award to his children and journalist wife for their support during his career. The couple met at the London School of Economics.
While a student in Canberra, the hothouse of Australian politics, he refined his understanding of the Anglosphere cultivated as a teen at the Anglican Ellesmere College in Britain (motto – Striving for one’s country).
These insights have been valuable as he handled the regular tensions that trouble the neighbors, from terrorist outrages through animal welfare issues and even personal insults.
In 2013, Liberal Party strategist and pollster Mark Textor criticized Indonesia's outrage at reports Australian spies were bugging the phones of President Yudhoyono and his wife Ani.
Textor tweeted: “Apology demanded from Australia by a bloke who looks like a 1970's Pilipino [sic] porn star and has ethics to match.”
In reality the urbane Natalegawa comes across as the consummate diplomat too sophisticated so swat flies. Also absent is the aloofness donned by lesser lights in his old department.
“We have yet to find equilibrium, but we must keep trying,” he said. “Both sides need to listen to each other more. The era of Australian megaphone diplomacy identified by the late President Gus Dur [Abdurrahman Wahid] no longer applies.
“All the Australian academics and public officials I meet seem committed to an honest and sterling effort to improve relationships. Most are polite to a fault; they have genuine empathy and are well informed on Indonesia and the questions from history.
“That’s not always the case with Indonesians. We have yet to find the equilibrium so there’s a need for us to know Australia better. That means improved education so we can communicate and explore issues through two ways.
“We should not be afraid of policy failures; the new normal is uncertainty. We do need to recognize the importance of ideas with an open mind using creativity and integrity. That’s also an individual responsibility.”