The hard-won benefits of soft diplomacy

The hard-won benefits of soft diplomacy

Kishore Mahbubani | We could all benefit from learning a lesson or two from Javanese culture and heritage. Doing so would help soothe a troubled world, just as Jokowi did in Bali.

By Kishore Mahbubani*

The world seems like a calmer place after the G20 meeting in Bali in mid-November. The question is why.

We know that US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a three-hour in-person meeting that went well, despite their many policy differences and their countries’ growing antagonism. It was also helpful that Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t show up, and that Russia’s war in Ukraine didn’t overshadow the Sino-American discussions. In fact, the G20 issued a statement declaring that, “Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Xi also had a relatively successful meeting in Bali. The two leaders smiled and shook hands, which was a significant improvement from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in September when they could barely make eye contact.

So, the conditions in Bali were amenable to serious diplomacy, which was more than most observers had hoped for. But how did this atmosphere come about, and does it portend positive results and agreements?

The first question is relatively easy to answer. Indonesia, the host, worked steadfastly – both visibly and behind the scenes – to ensure that the summit would not fail.

Culture matters for diplomacy, and Indonesian President Joko Widodo embodies the “soft” and sophisticated elements of Indonesia’s dominant Javanese culture, which prizes musyawarah and mufakat (consultation and consensus). To prevent the Ukraine war from derailing the summit, he visited both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in their capitals. In the event, this show of respect paid off: by not turning up in Bali, Putin demonstrated a willingness not to make life more difficult for Jokowi.

Western diplomats, too, often fail to grasp or appreciate this intangible side of diplomacy, reflecting a strong tendency toward black-or-white judgments. Zelensky is virtuous, Putin is evil, and all other considerations must follow from those premises. At a time when the West is shunning and isolating Putin, Jokowi gave him the respect that he so clearly craves. Likewise, while Western diplomats tend to draw clear lines between political systems (democracies are virtuous, and autocracies are wicked), Jokowi treated Biden and Xi with equal respect.

Does this softer Javanese approach hold broader lessons for international affairs? The answer depends on our judgments about the world order that appears to be emerging. Since the “End of History” in 1989, the West has assumed that global developments generally flow in only one direction: toward Western-style democracy with Western-style market economies. In fact, we are entering an era that will be multipolar, multi-civilizational, and thus multilateral.

In such a complex world, black-or-white descriptions will almost always prove to be too simplistic. India, for example, is an important ally of the West, even though Modi will never be seen in a Western business suit and complains about the “slave mentality” surrounding use of the English language in India.

It is telling that Javanese shadow plays (which borrow from Hindu mythology) feature a wide range of characters who do not fit neatly into categories like good and evil. One major advantage of this worldview is that it creates more opportunities for rival sides to seek peace or find common ground.

As matters stand, it is politically inconceivable that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken would visit Tehran or Pyongyang to talk directly with Iranian or North Korean leaders, and Europeans are becoming equally allergic to the idea of visiting Moscow. Yet that is precisely the kind of flexibility we need if we are going to maintain relative peace and stability in the twenty-first century.

Beyond the recent G20 summit, the open-minded Javanese approach has also proven effective in the smaller multi-civilizational laboratory of Southeast Asia. No other region on Earth boasts such diversity. Southeast Asia’s population of 685 million has 240 million Muslims, 140 million Christians, 200 million Buddhists, and so on. Yet, owing to the intangible contributions of the Javanese ethos within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the region has remained peaceful.

By and large, the principles of musyawarah and mufakat have prevailed. While one can easily imagine Indonesia treating Timor-Leste as a kind of “Kosovo” – a national territory that has been “lost” – it instead champions that country’s application for ASEAN membership. Such magnanimity is in short supply in our deeply fractured international community. We could all benefit from learning a lesson or two from Javanese culture and heritage. Doing so would help soothe a troubled world, just as Jokowi did in Bali.

Kishore Mahbubani, a distinguished fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, is the co-author of The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace (National University of Singapore Press, 2017) and the author of Has China Won? (PublicAffairs, 2020).

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.