The puzzle that is Duterte

By | July 29, 2017


The notion of a Philippine independent foreign policy sounds like a good idea.

But the problem with President Rodrigo Duterte’s idea is that the policy jumps from one giant ally-protector (the United States) to one or two new benefactors (China and Russia). Is that an independent foreign policy?

Mr. Duterte seems to have an industrial-strength allergy toward the United States. The rumor is that he has held the grudge since he was denied a US visa when he wanted to rendezvous with a then girlfriend there. But, whatever animates his dislike for America, it has pushed him to the waiting arms of China and, as a second nanny, Russia.

The most problematic factor in this new equation is the Philippine military, which is accustomed to a close alliance with the United States. This explains Mr. Duterte’s purposeful visits to military camps around the country in order to endear himself with military brass and rank and file.

Has he been successful in proselytizing our soldiers to the idea of switching alliances from the U.S. to China and Russia? It’s hard to tell at this point.

Those who condemn U.S. arrogance and condescension toward Filipinos, including Duterte, may have reason to complain. Americans do tend to be that way toward their weaker allies.

But, would the Chinese and Russians be more benevolent and warm? Actually, the better phrasing would be, would they be less arrogant and condescending than America?

Both China and Russia are known to be heavy-handed toward their satellite states, like Tibet and Cambodia by China, and Russia’s satellite states when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics still existed. China and Russia aren’t exactly meccas for immigrants as America (and Canada, of course) has been for many years. No long queues at the Chinese and Russian embassies take place everyday anywhere in the world.

But, back to the original premise of an independent foreign policy. If Mr. Duterte objects to being dictated upon by the United States, how is being dictated upon by China an independent foreign policy?

It’s inconsistencies like that that puzzle observers about Duterte. Many of those who voted for him were impressed by what they perceived then as his being decisive. My own impression is that he is impulsive rather than decisive. He may appear decisive when he makes precipitate announcements but then he changes his mind the following day. That is not decisiveness.

His in-house interpreters go to work every time Mr. Duterte makes a major statement. They label his statements “hyperbole,” which is just another word for “exaggeration.” Isn’t an exaggeration or a hyperbole a lie?

If citizens who are silent are complicit in the commission of extrajudicial killings (EJKs), the shift in alliance to communist countries, autocratic governance, exaggerated promises that are impossible to accomplish, pathological cursing, disrespect toward other people, anti-women statements, and other objectionable rhetoric and questionable policy shifts, the more that members of Duterte’s inner circle are willing accessories to his behavior and deeds in his first year in office.

Are they not bothered by what their principal is doing? Or, does the end justify the means, as implicit in one Cabinet member’s statement that EJKs are a “necessary evil”? (I mention this statement repeatedly because it symbolizes the callous and heartless character of the current administration.) By working for an autocrat, Duterte’s inner circle supports the feudal orientation of his administration.

What is there to celebrate on the occasion of Mr. Duterte’s first year in office? Whatever happens during his full term, he will be remembered around the world for his EJKs and his uncouth “jokes.” He himself says not all that he says is true and shouldn’t be believed. That’s another way of saying he lies.

Duterte is a puzzling personality. How he managed to make the 16 million people who voted for him believe his exaggerations is a feat, but it has also caused great division in the nation. Another five years of the same? That would be cruel and unusual punishment.