Garuda and Eagle: Do Birds of A (Democratic) Feather Fly Together?

Is the democratization of Indonesia affecting its relations with the US? Yes, but not always in anticipated ways. Indonesia-American relations in Soeharto's time were not always smooth. But the volatility came mainly (not wholly) in the form of NGO and Congressional criticism in the US in response to human rights violations in Indonesia. In Washington DC, the executive branch was not always supportive of the Indonesian government, but many of the occasions when, for example, the State Department criticized events or conditions in Indonesia were prompted by American legislative pressure. Without such pressure, including pressure by NGOs, would the Dili massacre have prompted the US to suspend inter-military (mil-mil) relations with Indonesia? Probably not.

An idealized image of necessarily friendly democracies would extend the negatively phrased "democratic peace" thesis, that democracies don't fight each other, to the positively wishful thought that by virtue of having (relatively) accountable governments, democracies are bound to get along. But such a "democratic amity" thesis is untenable. It was easier for DC to deal with Jakarta when power was concentrated in the hands of a man who, notwithstanding his Javanist style or, at any rate, proverbs, upheld a version of the anticommunist assumptions that drove much of US foreign policy during the Cold War while lifting his country's macroeconomic indicators and welcoming FDI.

Now that both countries are democratic -- a rough likeness that hides many differences -- one could argue that Indonesian-US interactions, far from being smoother, as "democratic amity" would have it, should be more turbulent. For now that power no longer clearly resides in one place in the archipelago, Indonesian as well as American pluralism can contribute to instability in the relationship.