Newsmaker Interview: Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Former US ambassador looks back on his time in Indonesia
By A. Lin Neumann
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Robert O. Blake, Jr. served as US Ambassador to Indonesia from 2013 until his retirement from the US Foreign Service in July of this year. During his time in Jakarta, the affable diplomat, who invariably told guests to “call me Bob,” made many friends in Indonesia. For AmCham Indonesia, he was an invaluable partner in our efforts to enhance the role of US business and to formulate ideas and raise concerns with the government.
Given his range of experience – he had previously been Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs from 2009-2013 and was Ambassador to Sri Lanka 2006 to 2009 – he seemed genuinely unflappable no matter the situation.
He has now begun a new career course, joining us in the private sector as the new head of the India and South Asia practice for McLarty Associates in Washington, DC. He will also contribute to the McLarty work on Indonesia.
We interviewed “Bob” by email recently to discuss his posting in Indonesia and to reflect on where the future will take him.
AmCham Indonesia: Let us start with your time in Indonesia. What lasting lessons did you learn during your tenure here as Ambassador? It was quite an interesting time for Indonesia.
Robert Blake:It was a fascinating time and I feel privileged to have been in Indonesia during this period! After 30 years of work in the State Department, often in very difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances, I found the adjustment to work in Indonesia to be quite straightforward to begin with. But the more you learn, the more humble you become about the many layers of understanding one must develop in Indonesia. I was pleased to find that most of my Indonesian interlocutors were excited by the opportunity to work with the United States. The biggest surprise was how President Jokowi, who did not come from one of the traditional elites, was able to win the presidential election. It was also a concrete demonstration of more deep-seated change now underway. For example, some of the most innovative work in Indonesia is now being done by mayors such as Ridwan Kamil in Bandung, a good sign for the future.
Did you feel that there was work still to be done at the time of your departure?
Certainly. For the sake of brevity, let me mention two priority areas. First, despite the progress we have made building business ties, there is still huge potential to do much more, both because of Indonesia’s young population and the economic reforms President Jokowi is putting into place that are likely to sustain higher growth for years to come. Second, as Indonesia targets growth in the digital and creative economies as well as information and communications technologies, it needs world-class higher education faculties to train the young workers who will drive this growth. Two steps that would help to develop such faculties would be allowing foreign universities to establish campuses in Indonesia, as Singapore and other competitors already do, and empowering universities to establish partnerships with university faculties so courses are structured to meet the needs of the job market in these areas.
You have now retired from the State Department after a long and distinguished career. Looking back after a bit of relaxation and recharging, what are your fondest takeaways from your diplomatic career?
A tough question! Whenever I would speak to young Americans considering a career in the Foreign Service of the State Department, I would tell them I loved [almost!] every day of my career because each day brought new challenges for which we were encouraged to suggest creative solutions; each day brought new opportunities to help others, whether they be American businesses looking to export or invest; American citizens affected by natural disasters or other crises; or guiding students or others who wanted to visit and study in the US; and each day was a chance to serve our great country and put forward ideas about how to develop relations with friendly countries like Indonesia.
With a Trump presidency now becoming a reality, we have been watching developments from afar with keen interest. What do you see unfolding under the new administration in terms of foreign policy? Do you have any advice for the new US government?
I would tell our Indonesian friends to keep your faith in America. Certainly President-elect Trump will be making important changes, such as not proceeding with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, at least not to begin with. But in other ways, the United States has enduring interests in Asia that transcend any administration: maintaining the strong web of alliances and partnerships that have underpinned stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific for decades; sustaining our support for a rules-based order; and continuing to build business partnerships that will provide jobs and opportunities for the young people of all our countries.
I urge the new US Administration to sustain the growth that has occurred in our Strategic Partnership with Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority democracy, which is playing a role of growing importance in areas such as combating violent extremism, international peacekeeping, climate change; and a country whose best days still lie ahead.
We understand you have jumped the great divide and are moving to the private sector. Tell us about your new role and the kind of things you will be doing.