“Without freedom you will have continuous conflict and animosities between one group and another,” said Yahya Cholil Staquf, who is the general secretary of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world’s largest Muslim organization. In a discussion hosted by the Hudson Institute between Staquf and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the speakers shared their concerns and reflections of what it would mean to pursue a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Both men are strong advocates for religious freedom and discussed the need for an established set of consistent, coherent, and shared civilizational values that would enable the promotion of a freer and safer world. Staquf noted that if we allow the continuing conflict between religious groups to succeed, then “there will be no future for us but the destruction of the whole human civilization.”
According to Staquf, the unequal relationship between actors and unbalanced exercise of power endanger states’ sovereignty in the Indo-Pacific. On a trip to Indonesia in 2020, Pompeo pointed out the country’s unique capacity to show the world the way forward because it exhibits the viability for peaceful coexistence and mutual respect between religious communities. The former secretary of State observed that there continues to be a need for religious tolerance and organizations like the NU, which works against extremists who try to co-opt religion.
According to Pompeo, a free and open Indo-Pacific “requires much more than government-to-government cooperation around security and economic interests,” as crucial as those may be. This is why the approach that seeks cooperation around shared values is so necessary. Indonesian and American history are very different. However, Pompeo argues that their foundings have a lot more in common when it comes to “how we treat our fellow citizens, and how institutions can mediate against worse conflicts and reduce risks.”
In assessing the region’s current situation, Staquf sees the need for both a short-term and long-term response. “What we need in the short term,” he says, “is to seek a balance of power, to be present in the region so that there will be no single domination over the whole region by a single power.” Imbalances are not inherently negative, according to him, but they can potentially threaten the sovereignty and integrity of the surrounding countries in the Indo-Pacific. In the long term, there must be a stronger framework to guarantee the region’s peace, freedom, and openness, including with religion. States can pursue this goal by fostering a rules-based order throughout the global community. In Staquf’s words, “we should… improve and finish what the international community had begun after World War II, namely fostering the emergence of a new order that is more just, more peaceful for the whole global community.”
Such a new order would rely on the aforementioned framework of shared values, the pillar of which needs to be the value of unalienable rights. Pompeo explained that, even though the US and Indonesia will have different commercial interests, identifying what all people value, “the core rights that every human being has,” can enable regional coalitions that wouldn’t otherwise develop.
When it comes to the role of America in such endeavors, Staquf insisted that “we need a strong America. The whole world needs a strong and coherent America.” He believes that the world cannot afford to have identity politics break up or divide America. “We cannot continue demanding vengeance for whatever happened in the past,” he says. He points out that there will always be reasons for people to hate one another, so they must put all animosity aside and think instead about a future together and pursue a future that is not built upon the destruction of others.
The speakers did address how China and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) affected the possible creation of a free and open Indo-Pacific. But ultimately, when looking at an atrocity like the ongoing Uighur Genocide in Xinjiang, China, Pompeo insists that the world community should ask some basic questions: Would anybody think this was an acceptable way for any government to treat any human being? Would anybody accept the treatment of another class of human beings in this way?
Pompeo declared that once “small-p politics” is stripped down to what really matters, nations can foster policies for freer and more open societies. Governments are constantly changing, so society must be responsible for determining a consensus that compels citizens to demand consistent policy in government, regardless of who is in power. Staquf suggested that an international congress of strong societies could involve different civil society actors who can cultivate a consistent set of values that would lead to political aspirations. This organization could then develop coherent policies for the promotion of a rules-based international order.
Both men reflected that the United States has a role to play in the promotion of such a world order. Pompeo asserted that while the US can sometimes get it wrong, “we are a force for good in the places we go, and we show up with noble intentions every place we go.” Nevertheless, America has to get it right at home, by recognizing its founding in Judeo-Christian history, that it has served America well, and that “the founders had it largely right” that such institutions have and will persevere and flourish and are worth protecting. Otherwise, America risks damaging our international standing and the capacity of what it has been for a long time—“the true vanguard in building up human right institutions across the world and structural institutions” for creating peace.