Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo made his first visit to Washington last month as leader of the country with the fourth-largest population in the world and the sixteenth-biggest economy on earth. Indonesia has made a dramatic transition, in just twenty years, from the decades of dictatorship to one of the most vibrant democracies in the world.
Jokowi himself signifies that political change. Raised in a middle-class household, he had no ties to Indonesia’s traditional elites but worked his way up from mayor of a medium-sized city to mayor of Jakarta to, in 2014, president of the sprawling archipelago. And during his visit to Washington, Jokowi and Indonesia were hailed by President Barack Obama, who praised Indonesia’s “tradition of tolerance and moderation” and welcomed “the next level” of partnership between the two nations.
Yet in reality, most in Washington, and the rest of America, paid little attention to Jokowi’s visit—far less attention than might have been paid to the arrival of leaders from the Philippines, Myanmar, Vietnam, or other nations with smaller populations and tinier economies. Jokowi held no sessions before Congress, like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He was not welcomed by a phalanx of New Economy titans, the way former Chinese president Hu Jintao was received during a visit to Seattle in 2006. Jokowi’s trip received a smattering of coverage in the American media, but nowhere near as much as the reporting of the arrival of Myanmar politician Aung San Suu Kyi in 2012.
Despite Indonesia’s impressive numbers, the lack of broader interest in Jokowi’s visit was not surprising. The Global Country Brand Index is a study compiled by FutureBrand, a consulting group, of countries’ comparative perception, using a range of factors. In the most recent study, Indonesia’s “country brand” ranked 66th in the world. Indonesia is not unique: A number of large and theoretically powerful countries like Indonesia, such as Bangladesh, Kenya, and Mexico, suffer from “unknownness” on the globe stage, a lack of recognition from people around the world. Bangladesh ranked 72nd on the Country Brand Index, while Kenya ranked 65th and Mexico ranked 55th, behind minnows like Costa Rica and Panama. (In contrast, tiny Singapore ranked fourteenth on the FutureBrand study.)
Why a country labors in relative obscurity varies from place to place, but many unknowns face similar struggles—a lack of a large diaspora, few global ambassadors, shortages of big consumer brands. And being relatively off the radar can have ramifications that go far beyond national pride. Unknownness can dramatically undercut these nations’ strategic power, hinder diplomacy, hamper their companies, and make it difficult to attract global interest when they face serious crises.
For more on why Indonesia’s country brand has remained weak, see my new Boston Globe Ideas piece.