Foreign policy under Duterte

Thrown into the larger social world outside the comfort zone of family, friends, and local community, we are torn, in Steven Pinker’s words, “between the desire to fit in and the desire to be unique” (Pinker, “The Stuff of Thought,” 2007). Nowhere is this more observable than when a new head of state enters the international stage for the first time as chief representative of his/her country.

Many leaders will try to “fit in,” presenting a sober and friendly persona befitting a statesman.  Only a few might attempt to make a splash by issuing combative statements, or by doing something dramatic.  Fewer still might be those who, at their international debut, would categorically declare where they are coming from and where they stand on sensitive issues.

There is always good reason to maintain “strategic ambiguity” especially in international affairs. A new leader might need more time to build support at home among the various state actors who may be pursuing disparate programs, before making any pronouncements abroad.  Nothing is more disconcerting than to see a new administration project institutional incoherence. We have seen this a little too often in the last three months, when President Duterte’s men have tried to soften, explain, or even contradict their principal’s pronouncements on a range of issues.

There can be no doubt that Rodrigo Duterte is unique among all our presidents. He is blunt, unrestrained, and provocative in his language—whether in front of compatriots, the press, or the diplomatic corps, or in the company of other heads of state. He is a nightmare to any official spokesman or protocol officer.

Some leaders might communicate with their people by talking the way they do and by resonating their frustrations and resentments.  It’s part of their charisma. But, they would be guarded in their speech and demeanor when dealing with foreign leaders.  Not President Duterte.  He does not care about being politically correct.  Indeed, he seems allergic to the idea of being polite and proper to people and institutions he does not like.

In his desire to make a difference, Mr. Duterte acts and talks as if he is running short of time. This is palpable in his explosive temperament, his routine recourse to righteous swearing, cursing, and coarse language, and in his penchant for making outrageous statements.  (The latest of such statements is his threat to “slaughter” three million drug addicts the way Hitler exterminated the Jews in Germany.)

Next to his brutal campaign against drug users, traffickers, and protectors, no other topic seems to bring out his darkest irascible moods than the Philippines’ relations with the United States.  I don’t think anyone was ever aware of the depth of his feelings about US imperialism before he became president.  He appears to draw these from a distinctly nationalist reading of Philippine history.  Yet, one gets the impression that the strident anti-Americanism seems to spring less from ideological conviction than from an abiding personal anger.

Members of his official family admonish his critics not to mind the rough language and to focus instead on the substance of the President’s pronouncements.  That seems fair. But, in President Duterte’s case, it is impossible to winnow the official pronouncement from the harsh language in which it is often couched.

His foreign policy utterances are a case in point.  Mr. Duterte’s language is direct to the point and needs no interpretation. He seeks a foreign policy that is independent from America. He wants American troops and military contractors out of Mindanao.  Clearly, he disapproves of the treatment of Mindanao as a theater in the US-led war against terrorism.

He refuses to authorize the Philippine Navy to undertake joint patrols of the South China Sea with the US Navy as these only exacerbate our relations with China.  He seeks to terminate the joint military exercises with US forces that have served as the cover for the prolonged stay of American troops on Philippine soil.

Mr. Duterte has also said that while he does not think highly of the US-PH Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), he is prepared to honor it—even as America itself has not been forthcoming in acknowledging its obligations under this treaty.  Still, he must know that, even after the Philippines rejected the renewal of the Military Bases Agreement in 1991, the MDT and the Military Assistance Agreement have continued to provide the rationale to send Filipino military and police officers for advance training in America. These US-trained officers constitute the core of America’s continuing influence in our armed forces.

Their views and perceptions of the threats to the country’s security will likely differ from those of their commander in chief.  I wonder if the President has a full appreciation of the Cold War ideology that continues to underpin the world view of the officer corps.  I am sure he has heard of the grumbling in the camps triggered by his decision to release top leaders of the Philippine communist movement so they may participate in the peace talks.  Most likely, he also knows that his friendly overtures to China are not exactly in sync with the strong pro-US sentiments of the Philippine military and the public in general.  He will need to redouble those visits to the camps and conduct serious lecturing if he is to win over the nation’s security forces to his policy initiatives.

Under Mr. Duterte, foreign policy has acquired an emotional dimension and a sense of passionate obligation it did not have in previous administrations. But, any effective shift in policy would need the support of a committed constituency.

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