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Indonesia’s audacious Ukraine play is a message from the Global South

Jakarta wants to make sure it's included in any conversation about shaping the future world order.

Analysis | Europe

Indonesia’s Ukraine peace plan, presented by its Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore, has been met with scorn and derision in Europe. 

His Ukrainian counterpart Oleksii Reznikov said it sounded like a “Russian plan.” The European Union’s high representative for foreign policy Josep Borrell, in an apparent reference to the plan, called instead for a “just peace” and not a “peace of surrender.” 

There is no official reaction from Washington at the time of writing, but it is highly likely to be negative. It seems that the Atlantic community members, by and large, just can't let go of the idea that the aggressor must be entirely expelled before any peace conversations can be taken up in earnest — even if such a military outcome may never come to pass, and if it does, it carries within it a high chance of escalation.

But this is not how Southeast Asia, and much of the Global South, sees it. While most ASEAN states have clearly condemned the Russian invasion at the United Nations and prefer Moscow to withdraw (and there should be no doubt that the Russian action was a grand violation of international law), they don’t think their job is to then conveniently go to the back of the class. They know well how a protracted war in Europe affects their people through inflation, supply chain disruptions, and an even deeper global polarization that makes solutions to the world’s common challenges even harder to achieve. And the risk of escalation, in the worst case, could lead to a much more terrible outcome.

The details of Jakarta’s plan — a rapid ceasefire, creation of a buffer zone, and a referendum supervised by the United Nations — are less important. Indonesia, which not insignificantly is also chair of ASEAN this year, probably knows very well that its proposal is unlikely to have much of a life, considering the current mood within the Atlantic community. 

But the importance of Prabowo's speech is not about actions and solutions on the ground that might flow from them. The speech itself is the act. It has the value of challenging the claim of only one morally correct viewpoint of the Ukraine war — that of Washington and its close allies. 

Beyond the generally accepted view that the invasion was a violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity and that nuclear weapons should not be used in the conflict, there is no consensus on how to trade off peace and justice in ending this war. Much of the Global South believes that the pursuit of perfect justice, when increasingly impractical and extremely costly, may ultimately yield neither peace nor justice. Prabowo seemed to refer to that when he spoke of the horrors experienced by the region before the end of the Cold War and the rise of ASEAN mightily contributed to its current prosperity and stability.

Indonesia’s bold play also has another message for Washington — we are here and are not going away. A friend and well-wisher of the United States, Jakarta nevertheless dares to suggest, like Brazil and India have, that middle powers like it in the Global South have a stake in the world order and will not shy from asserting their voice to participate in and shape the conversation. 

And they are right. The United States’ power to shape the future world order single-handedly, or even in lockstep with its closest allies, is less and less in evidence. Nor is any other power, or combination of powers likely to take its place. A solutions-oriented approach, rather than a moralistic, messianic one, demands a spirit of hard-headed compromise in which Global South states will need to be included at the heart of the conversation. Indonesia’s proposal should be seen in this light.

Indonesia's Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto in November 2022. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan/Pool
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