Few countries are as poorly understood as Indonesia, especially in the United States. The largest Muslim and fourth most populous nation in the world, with a population of 210 million, Indonesia is not well represented by large expatriate communities living overseas, nor has it figured prominently in international affairs. Given this situation, teaching about Indonesia is particularly challenging: while students may have some familiarity about China or Japan, they are likely to have no basis with which to approach Southeast Asia’s giant. This article argues for the use of world-systems theory to reveal Indonesia’s historical construction in a manner that is likely to capture students’ interest. The world-systems perspective argues that Indonesia can only be understood by embedding it within the dynamics of an international system. Although this point is abundantly evident with regard to the long Dutch colonization, Indonesia’s external ties long precede the Dutch colonial occupation. Indonesia today is a palimpsest reflecting the imprints of many cultures over a long period of time, and it can only be understood meaningfully in those terms.
This article first briefly summarizes a pedagogy revolving around world-systems theory. Second, it traces the contours of the long period of Indonesia’s history prior to colonialism. Third, it focuses on the impacts of Indonesia’s incorporation into the capitalist world system under Dutch rule. Fourth, it offers some observations about the nation’s contemporary status, particularly its growing prominence among the “new tigers” of southeast Asia. While the notion that external linkages are important determinants of the events within a particular place is not new, it has been given substantial theoretical rigor through its formalization in terms of world-systems theory.