Obama in Indonesia

As an American who has been living in Indonesia for 33 years, I am delighted about President Barack Obama's visit. While Indonesia-US relations basically have been very good for a long time and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono also had an excellent relationship with Obama's predecessor, George W Bush, no American president has been as warmly received into the minds and hearts of the average Indonesian as Obama.

This puts him in a unique position to broaden, deepen and elevate a relationship that has often performed at subpar levels since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis dramatically reduced the American business presence here.

The two-day visit will be full of practical, pragmatic politics and vivid symbolism.

One of the most important aspects of the visit is that it will provide a strong, public demonstration that relations between our two countries are much deeper and broader than the antiterrorism cooperation that tends to dominate the headlines in today's troubled world.

This desire for deeper engagement and fuller cooperation is being brought under the broad umbrella of what is called the Comprehensive Partnership, which was first suggested by Yudhoyono more than a year ago.

The pact gives formal structure to a relationship that has been steady and multifaceted for decades, but sometimes seems too random and unfocused to achieve maximum impact.

The Comprehensive Partnership highlights a number of priority areas of cooperation: higher education, climate change, maritime security, trade and investment, and counterterrorism.

In specific terms, on the business front the US Export-Import Bank has already announced a US$1 billion credit facility partnership with 11 Indonesian banks to assist with bilateral trade deals and there is talk that an announcement will be made of a several-hundred-million-dollar program to meet the challenges posed by rapid climate change.

To help Yudhoyono meet his G-20 pledge to reduce Indonesia's greenhouse gas emissions by up to 40 percent by 2020, the United States is committing US$136 million as part of a three-year program of Environment and Climate Change cooperation.

The two presidents are also expected to take specific steps to increase educational exchanges between the two countries. These vital intellectual bridges have languished over the past decade due to tighter visa restrictions brought on in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a lack of funding and more competitive programs available here in the region.

According to some estimates, the number of Indonesians studying in the United States has dropped from about 14,000 20 years ago to around 7,000 today. And the flow of American students coming to Indonesia has slowed to a trickle.

Both countries have pledged to reverse this disturbing trend. Under the Partnership, six US universities are being paired with Indonesian institutions as part of the US-Indonesia Partnership Program for Study Abroad Capacity. This program should be a welcome addition to the Fulbright – American-Indonesian Exchange Foundation that has carried much of the bilateral education program on its poorly funded shoulders for the past 20 years.

These are just a few examples of actual programs that provide the muscle and sinew that are necessary to bind countries together in lasting, mutually beneficial relationships.

Beyond all of these important programs, there is the dramatic symbolism of the visit.

This goes beyond the fact that we have an American president who has lived in Indonesia, as important as that is in ensuring that Obama will receive an especially warm welcome here.

Obama is the first multicultural, biracial president in American history. The young men and women of my generation came to political awareness during America's civil rights struggle in the 1960s. We were thrilled and excited by the speeches of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. Surely we were also frightened and intimidated by the passions and crimes that were laid bare in those turbulent days.

In the short space of 40 years, America moved from a place where blacks were not allowed to vote, to a place where a man with a black father and a white mother could be elected president.

This seems to capture not just something special about America, but about the human condition. Fundamental change really is still possible. In today's world, it is easy to despair of bridging the gaps between countries and religions. The oppression and the prejudices that are destroying the hopes of so many people – in Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Burma – seem immutable and unyielding.

But are the divisions that tear countries and people apart deeper and more fundamental than the prejudice and bigotry between black and white that existed in America just 50 years ago? Are they that much harder to confront and overcome?

The larger meaning of Barack Obama is that our deepest fears and hatreds can be overcome. Yes we can.

James Castle is the president of Castle Asia and is a past president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Indonesia. This first appeared in the Jakarta Globe, which which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.