Commentary: Indonesia’s first lady diplomacy complements Jokowi’s G20 president effort


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 Peng 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.

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 recognised. This is understandable considering that the first ladies usually do not have official constitutional duties other than ceremonial roles.

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