Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Understanding “Million Friends, Zero Enemy”… The Facebook Way

There were a number of notifications awaiting me when I opened my Facebook account, having just finished a Kompas opinion piece criticizing Indonesia’s contemporary foreign policy philosophy. One of the notifications stood out: John Smith has requested your permission to add you as a friend.

I met John the only time a week ago, over coffee. He was introduced to me as the boyfriend of my wife’s former classmates. I guess it was the discussion on last year’s UEFA Champions League Final (I’m a Barcelona fan, and he a Red Devil) that made our acquaintance bearable, if not even enjoyable.

He was a nice chap, someone I would consider sharing duties with on the grill during a picnic. But I certainly wouldn’t regard him as a friend – not yet, at least – in spite of the 20-minute “friendly” chat on the beautiful game that is football. Yet, a week later, he is inquiring to be my “friend”. I had no reasons to hesitate on his proposal. And so, with a press of the Enter button, Mr. John Smith became my “friend”.

This brought me back to Mr. Mohamad Rosyidin’s criticism of Indonesia’s foreign policy doctrine of “million friends, zero enemy”, as frequently shared by President Yudhoyono and Minister Natalegawa. Mr. Rosyidin argues that by labeling every one of our foreign policy counterpart as “friends”, Indonesia fails to see that some may not regard us that of a friend. From this perspective, Indonesia stands to lose if it continues to treat others as friends even when the others behave otherwise.

Mr. Rosyidin used Malaysia and Saudi Arabia as examples of countries which do not deserve to be labeled as “friends”. He identified Indonesia’s relations with Malaysia “lebih diwarnai oleh permusuhan ketimbang persahabatan”, and argued that problems with Saudi Arabia resulting from the Ruyati case should not be approached with a “million friends, zero enemy” perspective.

In the end, Mr. Rosyidin mentions, a friendly outlook of the world WOULD NOT make Indonesia’s foreign policy “lebih berkarakter supaya kita bangga menjadi bangsa Indonesia”.

Don’t take me wrong here. I am one of those people who feel that the concept of “million friends, zero enemy” still require further analysis and public diplomacy (in Indonesian, “sosialisasi”) on the part of the Government.

However, I do not believe that “million friends, zero enemy” is inherently flawed. If anything, our capacity to look at the world in a more optimistic, idealistic fashion (yet remaining attentive of our national interests) is what makes our post-Cold War, post-reform foreign policy that much interesting.

As an underlying, basic principle in our foreign policy, I can’t seem to understand why so many people look down at the concept of “million friends, zero enemy”. A re-interpretation of the aged-old “free and active diplomacy” championed by our nation’s forefathers, “million friends, zero enemy” is an ideal shaped by the liberal internationalism and non-ideological globalism of the post-Cold War era, and the openness and pragmatism of Indonesia’s democratic reform.

A lesson, therefore, can be drawn from our approach in identifying “friends” on Facebook.

Each and one of us are linked to other Facebook account holders as “friends”. It doesn’t matter if they are people whom you know since childhood, your ex-flames, co-workers, bosses, or even recently-met acquaintances, like Mr. John Smith. When others see our Facebook profile, they will see that these links are all listed under “friends”. Of course, there are exceptions, such as your wife/husband/significant other and family members, all whom you’ve identified as such, and others accept as a fact.

No matter the various levels of closeness you have with each of these Facebook “friends”, they are all grouped as “friends”. And although you wouldn’t want to admit it, you strive to have as many “friends” as possible on Facebook; for work purposes, for old time’s sake, or to get some special treatment when applying for a visa abroad.

Of course, you value some of these “friends” more than others. There are some who you allow only to access certain albums or features or notes you posted on your Facebook profile. Meanwhile, there are others who have a more complete, intimate view of your profile, your interest, your desires – this can come in the form of photos of “last night’s party”, or accounts of that vacation you took with a particular group of friends.

By exercising the option of managing your “friends”, Facebook allows you to group people according to your comfort level. You would share photos of your family with your bosses, but certainly not photos of a drunken night out, particularly when the possibility of incriminating comments is abundant. Your “friends” will not know in which category you’ve put them into: “workmates”, “high school buddies”, “ravers”, etc. They will not know the restrictions you’ve imposed on each of their status as your “friend”. They will not know that you value one “friend” more than another “friend”.

While you may want to appear open to friendships across the board, Facebook actually allows you to categorize according to your individual interests and need. In the world of Facebook, all friends are equal, but some friends are more equal than others. This Animal Farm-like saying has very strong resonance in our lives.

And this is how we should view “million friends, zero enemy”. In speeches, bilateral meetings, and other state activities, it is imperative that President Yudhoyono emphasize this perspective. In a flat world no longer divided along ideological lines, it is counterproductive NOT to identify other countries as friends.

Friendship provides a basis for international relations; it provides the means for communication in this freer, more globalized era. National interests, however, determine our level of friendship with other countries. Therefore, when Indonesia encounters conflicting issues with Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, the question raised should not be “Have they stopped becoming our friends?” Instead, the question should be, “Have they become lesser friends?”

Upholding the principle of friendship allows countries to continue dialogue and mediation in the face of conflicting issues, such as border disputes and the treatment of citizens abroad. If at the onset we identify a relationship on the basic status of “friends”, we establish an environment that is conducive for conflict-resolution if or when conflict does erupt.

How does one de-“friend” another? It seems impossible, unless you seek war. But aren’t we now living in a world that is better than that? Isn’t it better to solve conflicts as friends, no matter how tattered the friendship could be? Xavi Hernandez and Iker Casillas overcame their heated differences as captains of Barcelona and Real Madrid, and worked together to take the Spanish national team to overcome Lichtenstein, based on the fact that they’ve been “friends” for 15 years. Anything is possible, when ones are friends.

I can’t understand Mr. Rosyidin’s claims that our relations with Malaysia is dominated more by conflict than friendship, when the truth is that our bilateral relations are overall good, except when it comes to issues related to maritime borders and the treatment of Indonesian citizens in Malaysia. RI-Malaysia bilateral trade in 2010 reached over US 18 billion. And from 2004 to 2009, Malaysia invested $1.5 billion in Indonesia, becoming the second-highest country-to-country investor among Southeast Asia countries. I don’t think we even need to discuss our close ties within the framework of ASEAN.

Just as its antecedent (“free and active diplomacy”), “million friends, zero enemy” is a basic principle. It underlies our overall approach to bilateral relations and international affairs. It should not be regarded as a refined foreign policy directive, something that Indonesian diplomats, policymakers, analysts and pundits develop vis-à-vis each country, organization, issue, and case we face every day. However, do that we must.

It is up to us diplomats to identify how much of a “friend” is a particular foreign country. It is up to us diplomats also to engage other domestic stakeholders, such as Mr. Rosyidin, in deciding on the level of friendship with which we feel comfortable engaging other countries. Only then will there be a sense of belonging to (and hopefully, better understanding of) this principle of “million friends, zero enemy”.

And importantly, it is up to us to make sure that none of these “friends” actually know how their friendship status is categorized and valued by us. Our interests and needs are not things to be casually shared. Well, maybe to some of our closest “friends”. Then again, what gains can we make by sharing such intimate perspectives?

That’s just the way… the Facebook way.


  1. I love Santo's explanation on "million friends, zero enemy" as a basic principle. I think it is not very difficult to understand about "friends" in most common sense. Not all of them are close or very close to us. As Santo said, maybe some of them are particularly close to us. But, I believe none of us likes to declare in public that X or Y or whatever are enemies. This analogy helps us understanding the anatomy of "friends" in the dynamics of Indonesia's foreign relations.

    So, what is the border between friends and not friends? Santo's argument is is up to us to identify, to engage and to make sure... Perhaps it is up them too to identify us. Fair

  2. Thanks a lot for your kind words... Surprisingly there's been a number of debates on my take on Indonesian foreign policy the Facebook Way... I have to admit, some don't seem to understand my ideas the way you have, tho... :D


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