How The Structure of International Political System Influence State Foreign Policy : An Indonesia Case

According to Kenneth Waltz, the structure of the international political system is the main focus of attention in describing the nature of international relations. Structure determines action while actors are less important. This view is different from those of classical realism which mainly focuses on state leaders. John Mearsheimer’s theory of hegemony and ‘offensive realism’ (2001) which states that the goal of a country is to dominate the entire system. Great power always seeks for opportunities to gain over their rivals.

The battle for hegemony in contemporary world can best be described by referring to the Cold War. During the Cold War, US and Soviet Union interfering in many regions of the world to gain over their rivals by exerting influences to other state policy by endorsing capitalism and democracy (US) or communism/socialism (Soviet Union). The increasing tensions between two great powers and their allies also reached Asia and eventually to Indonesia, a newborn state. What will happen to a state that does not willingly align itself to the great power in bipolar system? This is an Indonesia case under the Soekarno’s regime, the country is founding father and first president.

Cold War : Soekarno’s Era

It is has been Indonesia’s founding father commitment which has been stated in its constitution to take neutral position in its foreign policy. Soekarno made his neutral statement clearer by initiating the non alignment movement. In 1955, together with Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser, India’s Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Yugoslavia’s President Josip Broz Tito, and Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah, Soekarno formed the Non-Aligned Movement, with the goal of uniting developing Asian and African countries into a non-aligned movement to counter against the competing superpowers at the time.

This neutrality-promoting action of Soekarno was considered unfavorable by hegemons. Indonesia neutral position is considered to be ‘amoral’ as being expressed by John Foster Dulles, US Foreign Minister in the 50’s. Soviet Union tried to exert its communist influence in Indonesia when it sent Muso, a student of Moscow, to lead Indonesian Communist Party which attempted a failed coup on 1948. But after that failed coup, Soviet Union tend to take milder approach towards Soekarno which later resulted in Soekarno’s bias toward the communist though it is being considered closer to China rather than to Soviet Union.

In the early 1950’s, Soekarno began to accept military aid from Soviet and from Eisenhower administrations, which worried that he might drift into Soviet bloc. But still, Soekarno had choose to remain neutral and instead turn his head to other Asian countries such as China and North Korea and formed Jakarta-Beijing-Pyongyang Axis. Later, he increased his ties to China and admitted more Communists into his government.

As according to Mearsheimer, hegemons will try to ensure that there are no other regional hegemons in any other part of the world. So, the two superpowers did not take lightly the possibility that China might rise as a new hegemon in the Asia and trying to contain China’s influence over other countries. Soviet Union was anxious to reduce China influenced in Indonesia which took form in the Indonesian Communist party while the US was worried about communism per se.

Soekarno relation with the west-pac led by the US was already sour from the beginning and deteriorating in each day. His political views of accommodating marxism/communist into the state system did not rest well with the US which defined all communist government as enemy. He also practically took different ground with the west when he openly announced that the western system of democracy does not suitable for Indonesia.

These differences raised tension with the US and its allies. US considered Indonesia to be strategically important at that time because of it is believe that Indonesia being the world 4th most populous state with greatest number of moslem population could play significant role in the regional stability. The other factors are Indonesia’s geographically strategic location and abundance natural resources. But what had concerned US the most was that the Soviet Union aggressively had approaching Indonesian leader with ‘left’ tendency especially Soekarno thereby increasing communist influence in the country.

Based on the issues above, US concluded that heavier hand was required to handle Soekarno. The US supported the PRRI rebel, a mix of anti-communist and Islamic movement which being supplied by CIA. CIA sent arms and aid to rebel movements on Sumatra as well as Sulawesi. J. Allan Pope, American Pilot was shot down after a bombing raid in northern Indonesia in 1958 during that time. In 1960’s, US backed Netherlands in disputes with Indonesia regarding West Irian issues.

Soekarno anti-west policy also expressed in his opposition of the British and US support towards Federation of Malaysia which he regard only a neocolonial plot to advance British interest. He declared his famous jargon of confrontation with Malaysia ‘Ganyang Malaysia’. This practically ends all of US military aid. When Federation of Malaysia took a seat of UN Security Council, Soekarno withdrew Indonesia from UN, World Bank and IMF membership.

In the height of his disliking and confrontation with the western bloc, in 1966, after a failed coup by Indonesian Communist Party, Soekarno agree to hand over the power to army general, Soeharto. Having controlled the army, Soeharto then launched mass propaganda and declare the dismantled of the Indonesian Communist Party. It is still under prolonged and controversial debate whether Soeharto had orchestrated the coup.
(CIA declassified documents at

Cold War : Soeharto’s Era

After his assumption of power as the second president of Indonesia, Soeharto quickly reestablished the strained relation with the US and UN and ended confrontation with Malaysia. He played important role in the establishment of Association of South East Asian Nation (ASEAN). He also cut diplomatic and economic relation with China. His strong stance against communist won him the economic and diplomatic support of the west. For most of his presidency Indonesia experienced significant economic growth and industrialization.

Ironically he could not be considered as a democratic leader. Under his ‘New Order’ administration, Soeharto constructed a centralized and military-dominated government. He also iron handedly eliminate political opposition and religious fundamentalism. Realizing that the state ideology, Pancasila, endorsed by Soekarno, tend to be biased toward marxism, he used propaganda to ensure public obedience towards government (away from Marxism/communist) also been used massively and systematically. He also held responsible for building corrupt system which in his later year will create tremendous impact on the country’s economy when it being hit by monetary crises which eventually brought him down.

In ensuring state internal stability in 1976 he dispatched troops to put down separatist movement in Aceh where he declare martial law in the area and naming the province ‘military operational area’, and forcing several leaders of Aceh Separatist Movement into exile in Sweden. In 1975, he sent troops to invade East Timor, which just declare its independence from Portuguese. The ruling party in East Timor is a left wing party, Fretilin. The US which feared of another communist domino in Southeast Asia gave green light to the invasion (declassified US government documents on President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visits to Indonesia in 1975 at NSAEBB62/). Though the UN passed two resolution which demanded Indonesia to withdraw from East Timor territory, Soeharto insisted Indonesia’s sovereignity over East Timor.

Despite raising concern over Indonesia human rights under Soeharto’s regime, the US was seen as supportive of Soeharto because he was seen to serve US interest especially because of his consistent anti-communist stance and deregulated Indonesia economy thereby opening up to foreign especially western investor.

End of Cold War Era

Waltz (1979: 161-93) argue that bipolar system provide better stability because. First, the number of great-power conflicts is fewer. Second, it is easier to operate an effective system of deterrence because fewer great powers are involved. Third, the chances of miscalculations and misadventure are lower. Mearsheimer (1993 : 149-50) builds on Waltz that in the Cold War, two rival superpowers can keep their eye steadily fixed on each other without the distraction and confusion that would occur if there were a larger number of great powers.

But until another great powers arising, the system will operate as unipolar system with the US as the only great power. If in the Cold War era there were always some calculations of Soviet Union reaction on US foreign policy, after the Cold War such measure will not be at the most concern. The US might take more prompt and heavy handed approach towards any country with the minimal consequences of being retaliated.

After the end of Cold War, the western concern over communism has reduced and this put realist policy on hold. The new policy tend to regard human rights issues as well as economic, democratization and environmental. In Indonesia case, this new approach has Soeharto human rights record especially in East Timor came under greater scrutiny. In 1993, Clinton administration helped passed The UN Human Rights Commission expressing deep concern over Indonesia human rights violation in East Timor.

After Soeharto overthrown following a deep economic crises in 1997-1998, his successor, BJ Habibie under tremendous international pressure led by US and Australian started to take different approach in East Timor problem. Under the threat that the west will not provide financial support to help alleviate the country from financial crises, he allowed INTERFET (International Force for East Timor) led by Australia to enter East Timor under the peace keeping force and finally a referendum in 1999 which resulted in the East Timor separation from Indonesia.

More and more intervention of the great power now takes in the name of humanitarian intervention as been driven by the concept that statespeople first and foremost are human beings and as such they have a fundamental obligation to respect human rights not only not only in their own but in all states around the world (Jackson, 2000).

But one should never neglect the importance of power and security issues. Though human rights might be gaining importance, there might be selection against the application of humanity reason to supports the intervention. For example, US approach towards Aceh, another separatist region in Indonesia is different than its policy toward East Timor.

Different with East Timor issues, US policy toward aceh issues tend to be weaker. It is true that US Congress blocked military to military ties because of the way Indonesian government handling Aceh and refused to place GAM (The Aceh Separatist Movement) in the international terrorist organization, but in the broader picture the US states that the Aceh issues will not derail broader Indonesia-US Relationship. During Megawati presidency, the Bush administration still regarded Indonesia government as a vital partner in the war against terrorism and consider. In 2002, US even lifted the restrictions imposed on military training program with Indonesia and considered to lift the embargo on non-lethal defense equipment sale.

The strong reason behind this policy is that Aceh is a moslem province and has a strong based Islamic influence which could turned into fundamentalist which has never been allowed by the government of Indonesia. Though it still concern with the human rights issues, the approach is clearly different than toward East Timor issues while the communist tendency in East Timorese is no longer a concern.


By above discussion it is clearly illustrated that the structure of international politics dictates the states foreign policy. Not only weak states are affected by such structure, but the great power also being influenced by the structure. During Cold War with its bipolar system, the main concern is revolving around the change in international political condition has its effect in the relation between states. In the Cold War, the dominant issues are security, ideological and military issues. Almost every aspect in relation between states is translated into ideological war context. After the Cold War, though the ideological and security are still considered important it is becoming less dominant by the emerging of new issues such as human rights, political economy and democratization.

In the future we can expect changes in structure in international politics is effected by most recent issues. The war against terrorism will be a major influence to western foreign policy as Islamic movement which in the Cold War was supported by the west to deter communist, now being viewed as a threat. Other issues which will also shape future international policy are the emerging of China which might rise in to the new hegemon not only in Asia but in the world, the move away from democracy such as happened in Venezuela and Bolivia, changes in the economic structure which demand greater role of government (depart from market mechanism) and environmental issues.


Jackson, R. and Sǿrensen, G.(2007). ‘Introduction to International Realtions’, Oxford University Press.
Waltz, K.N. (1979). ‘Theory of International Politics. New York : McGraw-Hill; Reading: Addison-Wesley.
Mearsheimer, J. (2001). ‘The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: W.W. Norton.
National Security Archive. (1964-68). ‘Foreign Relations of The United States Volume XXVI : Indonesia; Malaysia-Singapore; Philippines’.
National Security Archive. (1975-76). ‘East Timor Revisited. Ford, Kissinger and the Indonesia invasion’. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No.62.
Suryohadiprojo S. (2006) ‘Hubungan Indonesia Amerika Yang Tidak Mudah’. Makalah, Opini.
Sudarsono, J. (1996). ‘State of the Art Hubungan Internasional: Mengkaji Ulang Teori Hubungan Internasional dalam Perkembangan Studi Hubungan Internasional dan Tantangan Masa Depan’. Jakarta, Pustaka Jaya.


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