The way of the vassal

In President Duterte’s world, if a rule or an agreement cannot be backed up by force or coercive power, it would be useless to even call attention to the need for it. Better to keep quiet and leave things as they are. Or, in expectation of concessions, privileges or protection, you could bow to a superior power who would take you as a friend or as a loyal subordinate.

This point of view might pass for realpolitik. But it is not. It is nothing but the feudal mentality of the strongman — the neighborhood bully or thug who understands the world solely in terms of who wields the power to inflict violence and who does not. In such a world, the ultimate source of power would be the nuclear bomb. Nothing else matters other than the power to deter the use of this ultimate weapon, either by developing the capacity for preemptive strike or mutually assured destruction.

Although possession of nuclear capability remains a critical factor in global power relations, the modern world no longer communicates in this vocabulary. There are many other sources of power and influence available to nation-states. They include, just to name a few, the following: the robustness of a nation’s economy, the creativity of its people and their collective contribution to the advancement of human civilization in general, the exemplary character of its institutions, and the ability to use its presence in the world to promote greater cooperation among peoples and to ensure the long-term survival of planet Earth.

These various other sources of national power make it possible for nation-states to productively engage one another in ways other than those dictated purely by the imbalance in nuclear or military capability. To view the world solely in military terms is to be blind to the reality of a globalized and interdependent world in different functional areas like the economy, science, education, medicine and communications, etc.

The globalization of the political sphere may indeed have lagged behind compared to the increasing consolidation of the world economic system. We are admittedly far from having a world government that can promulgate binding rules whose compliance could be secured by a global state. But this does not mean that nations are therefore free to conduct themselves any way they want. The reality is that even the most recalcitrant rogue nation is subject to a variety of pressures from the international community.

And even when governments may, for one reason or another, choose to be silent over an issue, the world can always be trusted to make its voice heard through an emerging transnational civil society that speaks in the name of common humanity. Its language is not that of nuclear arms but of universal norms. Its vision is that of a just world secured by cooperation, compassion and shared prosperity, rather than by the threat of mutually assured destruction.

If the world we live in today understood only the language of military force, there would be no point in convening meetings of world leaders like the Group of 20 (G-20) summit held in Osaka just this weekend. In attendance are the heads of the most powerful countries in the world today, which control between themselves not less than 80 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. They include the United States, China, Russia, Germany, France, Japan, India, South Korea, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, etc. On the agenda of the Osaka summit are contentious issues like trade disputes, global economic risks, climate change, technological innovation and artificial intelligence, and women in the workplace.

Called the “premier forum for international economic cooperation,” the annual G-20 meeting is expected to conclude with an official joint declaration, which may or may not materialize. Interestingly, none of the agreements arrived at during these summits are considered binding. In other words, they are not enforceable.

Yet, every year, these world leaders and finance ministers feel somehow summoned by a moral force to come, if only to be seen and photographed chatting with other leaders about the things that beset humanity as a whole. On this global stage, it is not the nuclear weapon a leader carries that counts but the moral rationality of the solutions he or she brings to the table. In such a setting, President Duterte’s threat to wage war against Canada if it failed to retrieve the garbage that a Canadian firm had shipped to the Philippines would be resolutely mocked or dismissed as an improper joke.

By the same token, a plea for sobriety over an incident like the recent ramming and abandonment of a Filipino fishing boat at Recto (Reed) Bank by a bigger Chinese trawl vessel might be applauded in global forums like these. But it certainly would have also led to the reiteration of the urgent need for a code of conduct of claimant parties in highly disputed and volatile areas like the South China Sea.

A responsible leader of a free country would not tell his people that they ought not to protest an incident like this too much because the other party could “wipe us out” if a war broke out. It certainly does not put the other party in a good light, which makes one wonder if President Duterte himself is not unnecessarily stoking anti-Chinese sentiments among his people.

But all this stems from the fact that Mr. Duterte sees the world only in the naked terms of coercive power. He allows no room for dignified conversation and mutually respectful negotiation in such situations. To him, the choice is between the suicidal path of putting up a fight, or the pragmatic path of beneficial subservience—i.e. the way of the vassal.