An edited version of this opinion piece first appeared in the 14 July 2022 issue of The Jakarta Post.
How preoccupied is America with its own domestic problems? To the point of impairing the ability of President Biden’s administration to give Indonesia and Southeast Asia the foreign-policy attention they deserve?
The Group of Twenty’s meetings are now at or near the top of the Indonesian foreign ministry’s list of things to do. Foreign minister Retno Marsudi has worried, amid talk of boycotts, that Moscow-Washington animosity over Ukraine could ruin the G20 summit in Bali this November, to the embarrassment of its Indonesian host and chair. Presumably to her relief, Secretary of State Antony Blinken flew to Indonesia to attend in person the preparatory G20 foreign ministers meeting that she hosted and chaired in Bali on 7-8 July 2022, and he did so despite the participation of his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. In addition to holding a one-on-one session with Marsudi, Blinken also met with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi for a discussion of US-China relations that reportedly lasted five hours. Indonesia can take pride in having made that lengthy interaction possible.
The foreign ministers’ meeting was not without drama. Twice, in response to criticism of Russia, Lavrov walked out of the room, and he left the conference altogether before it ended. Perhaps he forgot that in democracies, praise is not required. But things in Bali could have gotten much worse, and in that sense America’s presence throughout the event helped save Indonesia’s face.
Biden’s administration has not neglected Indonesia or Southeast Asia, as recent diplomacy shows. In May he accommodated the priority on economic development favored by Indonesia and other Asian states by traveling to Japan to announce the formation of an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Its 14 founding partners, including Indonesia and six other ASEAN members, account for 40 percent of global GDP. Earlier in May, in Washington, DC, Biden hosted a special summit with Indonesia and other ASEAN states. Their Joint Vision Statement with the US, as in IPEF, emphasized economic cooperation.
None of this diplomacy, however, could temper the strident political polarization that continues to disrupt America. Understandably, that frenzy of distrust and dissension has led some Indonesians to wonder how reliable a partner the US will turn out to be in years to come.
The splitting of many Americans into rival partisan camps is in part structural. For example, compared with better-educated urban and suburban dwellers, less well-educated rural and small-town Americans are more likely to hold right-wing Republican views. The reasons why those views have become more extreme include the popularity of Donald Trump and his anti-democratic if not proto-fascistic campaign to re-install himself in the White House after losing the free and fair election of 2020. His effort, Republican complicity in it, and the backlash against it have widened the separation of often coastal or near-coastal Democratic states from Republican ones more or less clustered in middle and southern America. Political scientist and statistician Simon Jackman goes so far as to argue that the US has not been this divided politically since the Great Depression of the 1930s—or possibly even since the 1860s Civil War.
The Vanderbilt University Project on Unity and American Democracy chooses the longer timeline. “Not since the Civil War,” it concludes, “have so many Americans held such radically opposed views not just of politics but of reality itself.” The project’s own findings, however, undermine the caricature of a country fatally hobbled by national schizophrenia and group delusions.
The Vanderbilt Unity Index combines quarterly data from 1981 to 2021 on five variables—presidential disapproval, congressional polarization, ideological extremism, social mistrust, and civil unrest—to calculate changes in American national unity across those four decades on a 0-to-100 scale, from least to most unified. Over that period of time, the index has fluctuated in a close to middling zone between 50 and 70 on that 100-point scale.
The index shows deep plunges in unity only twice since 1981, and both of those dives were linked to the uniquely calamitous presidency of President Trump. In contrast, the average score during the first five quarters of the Biden administration has been 58, a sharp improvement from the average of 51 under Trump. Heartened by that betterment, two of the Vanderbilt scholars surmise that America’s “disharmony may be dissipating.”
That could be an overoptimistic guess. Unity is one thing, victory another. Legislative elections will be held on 8 November this year. As of the end of June, prominent forecaster Nate Silver gave the still largely Trump-beholden Republican Party an 87 percent chance — a near-certainty — of replacing Biden’s Democrats as the majority party in the House of Representatives. The race for a majority in the Senate was too close to call. But even if Republicans control only the House, they will likely use that platform to undermine Biden’s administration during his final two years in office.
As if likely losses of legislative power were not enough for Biden to worry about, maneuvers by Republicans to stack the Supreme Court with right-wing partisans have tilted that juridical balance steeply in their favor. The court’s new reactionary 6-to-3 majority has already made two shocking decisions. They have, in effect, denied women their long-standing right to abortion and made it easier to carry a concealed gun in public. Republicans claim to support individual rights. But they and their court appointees have deleted the long-standing constitutional right of a pregnant woman to decide whether to give birth or not, thereby depriving her of assured responsibility over her physical body and personal future.
Regarding gun violence, in barely five months from 1 January through 5 June of this year, America has experienced 246 mass shootings — incidents that kill or wound four or more people. That puts the US on track in 2022 to match or exceed its record of 692 mass shootings in 2021, more than in any year since the Gun Violence Archive began counting them. The Republican-majority court’s unconscionable impulses seem to be to make women make more babies, wanted or not, and to make murders more likely as well.
There is good news. First, a massive popular backlash against these Republican decisions has either begun or is likely. Second, a nationally televised Congressional investigation of the violent attack on the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 has displayed the complicity of Trump, and by association the Trump-infected Republican Party, in an insurrection that killed at least seven people and injured roughly 150 more. Third, although Trump may not end up where he belongs, namely, in jail, at least he faces Republican rivals for the party’s nomination to run for president in 2024. Conceivably those rivals could come to include a candidate who is politically more moderate and personally less criminal, corrupt, and narcissistic than he.
President Joko Widodo will host the G20 leaders in Indonesia merely one week after the 8 November 2022 midterm legislative election takes place in the US. Will Biden go again to Bali? Not if at that time right-wing fanatics claiming election fraud are destabilizing America. For long-term interactions between Jakarta and Washington relations, however, what will matter is not who will attend the 2022 G20 summit in Bali. It will be the names and plans of the Indonesians and Americans who will run and win in the national elections to be held in their respective countries in 2024.
Donald K. Emmerson heads the Southeast Asia Program at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. His recent publications include an edited volume, The Deer and the Dragon: Southeast Asia and China in the 21st Century.