A Million Friends? National Interest Trumps Friendship

When I first heard the phrase, “A million friends, zero enemies,” I thought it was just another sound byte, probably fashioned by some advertising copywriter, and not a policy.

The phrase is, of course, a hyperbole, a case of runaway inflation of language. How can you have a million friends? That’s hardly possible even on Facebook. So what are you talking about when you invoke the phrase?

I was soon assured that it was indeed a sound byte that served as the chapeau of a policy statement in an inaugural speech of then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. I haven’t been able to find the text of that speech. I have had to speculate on the context behind “a million friends and zero enemies.”

Thus it occurred to me that this may be just a reaction to the Cold War mindset, which compels middle and small-sized nations to take sides when the big boys square off in the geopolitical ring. Rejecting that mindset, Indonesia can tell the United States: “OK, I’m your friend. I think you’re no friend to China, Iran and Russia. That doesn’t mean they can’t also be my friends. They are.

“You are all my friends if there are a million of you.”

Given that kind of interpretation, a policy of “a million friends, zero enemies,” looks like a fairly reasonable one. But I’m not quite comfortable with it. Maybe it’s because it gives government human qualities that they don’t really have. And makes no distinction between governments and people, between governments and the human beings who serve them.

When diplomats talk with each other, they sound as if the only thing in the world that matters is the friendship abloom between them. The friendship may indeed be genuine—I have witnessed what I think is genuine friendship between diplomats who serve governments that are at odds with each other.

But friendship is never the end of diplomacy. At best it’s a means.

To governments, what matters first and ultimately is the national interest—understood as the sum of what’s good for a national society. This is the first and last business of government and therefore also the first and last business of makers and implementors of national policy, including foreign policy.

People may—and should—have friendships. But governments have only national interests or raison d’état. A foreign government may be described metaphorically as “friendly” if its pursuit of its national interest is in harmony with that of your government. But only metaphorically.

It helps if the leaders of governments personally like each other. Personal friendships ease negotiations: each side doesn’t have to agonize to appreciate and reconcile with the position of the other.

And it helps if the constituencies of governments—their peoples—have positive historical and cultural affinities with each other. Conversely, wounds inflicted or sustained in the historical past have to be healed to smooth the diplomatic process.

But in the end, diplomacy is not about making friends. It’s about governments adjusting to each other’s pursuit of national interest in a spirit of pragmatic give-and-take. It’s about governments seeing to it that their aspirations don’t clash with each other, and if possible complement or support each other.

Whether it involves a million friends or just a few selected ones, a policy that’s based on friendship and not on the national interest can’t possibly work. Conversely, a foreign policy driven by personal dislike of a national leader is just as useless, and could be pernicious.

You wouldn’t be wise to reject Russian gas and oil just because you don’t like the smirk on Putin’s face.

Friendships are precious, useful and enjoyable. But they’re not the beef in the sandwich of foreign policy. They may only be the ketchup.

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By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

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