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When Barack Obama entered the White House in January 2008, it was heralded as a momentous shift in the US’s global standing. Eight years of George W. Bush had left America near the bottom of global favorability ratings. Obama, almost instantly, changed that, revitalizing America’s global image.

In few places was this shift as dramatic as the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia, which also happened to be Obama’s childhood home between the ages of six and ten. Here, the new president was quickly christened Anak Menteng, referring to the leafy Jakarta neighborhood that was his old stomping-ground, and expectations were high that his leadership would herald a new era of relations between the two countries.

There was a reason for that. In 2008, US-Indonesia ties were at a low — the legacy of both Bush’s perceived Christian-crusading image, which named Indonesia alongside Iraq and Afghanistan in the “War on Terror,” and also the painful legacy of the Southeast Asian state’s recent past. The country had only held its first democratic elections in 2003, after three decades of autocratic rule under General Suharto. Relationships between Indonesia and the West had been seriously strained by the 1999 independence referendum in East Timor and the gross violence and human rights violations that followed in its wake.

The US, among other Western nations, was upset at the refusal of the Indonesia’s civilian government to hold the military accountable for what occurred in East Timor, while Jakarta was bitter at the West helping to wrench away part of what it considered its “sovereign territory.” Even as late as 2008, the US still had sanctions in place against the Indonesian military.

It can only be said that President Donald Trump does not inspire the same aspirational feelings as either Widodo or Obama himself eight years ago

Obama’s inauguration was as close to an 180-degree turnaround as was politically and socially possible. Overnight, America’s popularity in Indonesia soared.

This was not just a matter of optics, but rather a thoroughgoing sea change, as the first few years of Obama’s presidency saw rapid progress. With a willing partner in Indonesia’s globally-minded President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a framework called the “Comprehensive Partnership” began to be put in place within a month of Obama becoming president.

The Comprehensive Partnership is one of the lesser-known achievements of Obama’s first term. It was quite possibly the Obama doctrine at its finest — broad and ambitious. It covered several wide-ranging areas — from democracy, civil rights, environmental issues, energy, education, and security matters, to, crucially, trade and investment. Working groups were formed for each thematic area, and regular exchanges of experts between the two countries has now become commonplace. Under this framework, both economic and cultural trade between the two countries has grown markedly. In addition, the deal focused on long-term cooperation between two of the world’s three largest democracies.  

In 2010, Obama visited Jakarta. There, he expounded on the virtue of Islam, and praised the state as a model of how Islam and democracy could be compatible. He even spoke a few lines in the little Indonesian he remembered from his childhood. It was not long before bars, restaurants, and even a full-length feature film were named after Obama.

The president’s second term was far less focused on Southeast Asia’s largest economy.  Instead, Washington turned its attention to countries facing civil turmoil, such as Libya, Syria, Egypt, and nearby Myanmar. It was easy to pass over Indonesia when so much progress had been made in such a short time, and Obama’s attention was drawn to other parts of the world.

However, that may be more a testament to how much Indonesia has grown as a state. It is now a stable democracy with relatively competent leadership, and has far less domestic conflict than during the previous decade. Indonesia’s growing relationship with the US is a testament to the country’s progress, and it is only when taking a wide-lens perspective that the change becomes evident. Indeed, it was as recently as 1997 that the country was facing a major financial crisis and suffering the effects of numerous separatist movements. Few expected democracy to survive so long.

In 2014, that stability was underscored by the surprise ascendancy of Joko Widodo to the Presidency. In 2008, he was a little known-politician in the small city of Surakarta, but rode a populist wave all the way to the highest seat of power. He was also the first Indonesian president with no ties to the military or the old, post-independence political oligarchy.

Fast forward to today, and it can only be said that President Donald Trump does not inspire the same aspirational feelings as either Widodo or Obama himself eight years ago. In fact, Trump is already stoking fears in Indonesia. There are concerns that his recent partial ban on immigrants from seven countries may at some point be extended to Indonesians. However, it must be said that Widodo has thus far refused to criticize Trump’s controversial move. Unsurprisingly, it is likely that the US’s high approval ratings in Indonesia  – which rose from 30% to 70% upon Obama’s election and have stayed consistently above 50% ever since — will fall sharply.

Trump has already been connected to one Indonesian scandal. In September 2015, former parliamentary speaker Setya Novanto appeared at a Trump rally where the presidential candidate brought Novanto onstage to rhetorically ask him “do they like me in Indonesia?” Back home, his cameo appearance was roundly mocked. Setya was soon embroiled in an even bigger impropriety: alleged shady deals with the gold and copper mining company PT Freeport Indonesia. This ultimately led to his resignation.
Certainly not a good sign for what might come.

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About the author

NITHIN COCA is a freelance journalist who focuses on social and economic issues in developing countries. His work has been featured in Al Jazeera, Quartz, Atlantic Cities, SciDev.Net, Southeast Asia Globe, The Diplomat, and various other publications.