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Indonesian First Lady Iriana Widodo gives speech at an event held to celebrate Mother's Day.
Indonesian First Lady, Iriana Widodo. Presidential Secretariat Office

Iriana also plays roles: Indonesia’s first lady diplomacy complements Jokowi’s effort as G20 president

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo attracted global attention when he paid a visit to Ukraine and Russia last month. But fewer observers and public noticed that his wife, First Lady Iriana Widodo, also accompanied him on the trip – including to Kyiv, the city currently deemed as the world’s most active war zone.

Iriana became the second First Lady to visit Ukraine after Jill Biden, United States President Joe Biden’s wife, in May.

Over many decades, first ladies from around the world have shown they have important roles to play in diplomatic missions. They often offer different approaches to counter the traditional masculine styles of state leadership, and are able to create a more favourable image of their countries overseas.

The roles of first ladies in diplomacy

First lady diplomacy has a long history and tradition in international relations in many Western countries.

In the US, many past first ladies – from Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, to Michelle Obama – have played active roles in public diplomacy.

The recent presence of Ukrainian First Lady, Olena Zelenska, at the US Capitol to call for more weapons to be sent to her homeland has proven the more pronounced role of first ladies in peace missions.

In Asia, China’s First Lady Peng Liyuan has taken an active role in diplomacy to support President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy since 2013. For China, the friendly, charismatic presence of Liyuan in Chinese diplomacy has been significant to create a counter perception against Xi’s assertive diplomatic style.

The first ladies have not only accompanied their husbands on overseas trips, but also made solo trips to a number of countries for diplomatic missions. One example is Michelle Obama’s trip to China in 2014, which has been praised for its success in showing US’ goodwill amid its complex relationship with China.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and First Lady Iriana Widodo arrives in Kyiv, Ukraine. Laily Rachev/Presidential Secretariat Office

In general, there are still limited academic research about first lady diplomacy. Studies about women and their roles in international affairs mostly examine female diplomats and foreign ministers in terms of their diplomatic and negotiating abilities.

Diplomatic efforts and effects by the first ladies, as well as their merits for their countries’ national interests, have not been widely reported and recognized. This is understandable considering that the first ladies usually do not have official constitutional duties other than ceremonial roles.

According to a 2012 paper by US communications studies lecturers Keith V. Erickson and Stephanie Thomson, there are at least three aspects to the diplomatic roles of first ladies.

First, managing the credibility of the president, such as by playing the role of companion and surrogate. Second, encouraging international relations, especially through cultural diplomacy. Third, engaging in social activism, such as promoting humanitarian issues.

The presence of first ladies in diplomatic activities shows the existence of feminine norms in the midst of masculine and male-dominated arena of international politics. The more feminine or maternal styles of first ladies can be perceived as helping to “soften” the hard-line styles of their husbands.

First ladies also contribute to the construction of national image of a country. Some studies say that the intellectual ability and charm of the first ladies are believed to be able to bring their figures closer to the international public.

There have been some first ladies who have huge impacts on advancing women and human rights issues in the international stage. Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, after finishing as first lady, became the chairperson of the drafting committee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Michelle Obama also led a global campaign through “Let Girls Learn” program to empower young girls across the world to secure a quality education.

Their experiences have demonstrated how first ladies could play beyond their ceremonial roles and create a huge impact for society.

Iriana’s roles: what does it mean for Indonesia’s diplomacy?

The presence of First Lady Iriana accompanying President Jokowi to a war zone and providing humanitarian assistance to a hospital in Ukraine has been applauded by many Indonesian people on social media.

Indonesian First Lady Iriana Widodo gives humanitarian assistance to a hospital in the Ukraine. Laily Rachev/Presidential Secretariat Office

Many international relations and law experts see her presence as a symbolic message that Indonesia can bring the hope of friendship, which can be a first step to open peace talks.

Indonesia and Ukraine have significant differences, both geographically and culturally. While Indonesia is an Asian country with a Muslim majority population, three-fourths of the Ukraine’s population adheres to Orthodox Christianity as the predominant religion.

Thus, Iriana’s diplomacy is an effort to introduce Indonesia’s identity to the Ukrainian people, and to shape the image of Indonesia as a country that is open and friendly. This is important for Indonesia, which holds the G20 presidency this year. In doing so, Jokowi aimed to project himself as a peace-broker who invited both Ukraine and Russia to the G20 Summit in Bali this November.

Indonesia needs to ensure that the G20 summit in Bali in November 2022 runs smoothly. One indicator for that is the in-person attendance of all G20 members.

Even if the effect of Jokowi’s trip on overcoming the global food crisis caused by the Russia-Ukraine war remains uncertain, at least the presence of Iriana on the trip can bolster Jokowi’s image among Indonesians and help him build a legacy before he leaves office in 2024.

At a whole, the first lady diplomacy can complement conventional diplomacy by heads of states as the authoritative representations of countries. First ladies can play significant roles in diplomatic strategies to increase friendship between countries.

First ladies should no longer be considered voiceless and only carry out ceremonial roles. They should and deserve to be active actors in international diplomacy. In addition, to make it more meaningful, first ladies must have the power to amplify the states’ commitment to uphold women empowerment and advancement.

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