I GOT excited when I read the term “subaltern realism” in Richard Heydarian’s new book The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy. It’s a term that Mohammed Ayoob, professor of international relations at Michigan State University, has used to engage critically with international relations theory applied in developing countries. With that background, I expected to see how Heydarian would pull off an Ayoob. However, it turns out that “subaltern realism” is just a rhetorical ornament rather than a lens to understand our country’s foreign policy choices.
Heydarian mentioned Ayoob once, in the first chapter, which was the subject of my reflection in my column on January 9 (“The shadow of Mussolini”). He said that Duterte’s “equibalancing” foreign policy strategy, which he found “sensible” given that the Philippines is sandwiched by two superpowers, follows Ayoob’s strategy called “subaltern realism.” After that, the term was only mentioned again as a title of the third chapter, “Subaltern Realism: Duterte’s Art of the Deal.”
That chapter deals with Duterte’s foreign policy maneuvers. Heydarian analyzed them in three-levels of analyses: great power rivalry between China and the United States; individual behavior of Duterte; and regime behavior.
Heydarian adequately succeeds in exploring the first level of analysis. Well, it’s the easiest one to do. The last two are more demanding. While the second one requires studying Duterte’s political subjectivity as a Mindanaoan, which I emphasized in my January 9 column. As I argued, Heydarian left it out in favor of using the “fascist” trope, which is essentially what he tries to do in his third level of analysis.
In the second level of analysis, he mentioned some key moments illuminating Duterte’s skepticism towards the US. One is Duterte’ rejection of US drone operations in Mindanao, which was supposed to be established in Davao City. The other is the Meiring Affair. It involved an American suspected of being a CIA agent, who got injured after a bomb he was making exploded in his hotel room in Davao City. The FBI secretly whisked him away from the hospital, never to be heard from again, angering Duterte, who felt disrespected by it.
Meanwhile, the ideological foundations of Duterte’s American skepticism stemmed from his coming of age “during the Vietnam War era, when anti-American/anti-imperialist sentiment ran high across universities the world over.” Yet again, Heydarian left out Mindanao’s history.
Heydarian did mention the time Duterte reminded America of the atrocities they committed in Mindanao, when the Old Man lashed out at Obama in Laos during the Asean summit. Yet that pivotal moment was just treated in passing by Heydarian rather than explored more intimately. That moment tells us that more than the atrocities in Vietnam, it’s the cruelties America inflicted in Mindanao that made the US despicable to Duterte.
As a student of Mindanao history, Duterte knows for sure that China and Mindanao’s leaders have had cordial relations for centuries, interrupted only by the West’s intrusion into Southeast Asian polities. In the context of Mindanao’s history, America is a colonizer, while China has always been a good neighbor, since the time the rajahnate of Butuan traded with the Song dynasty, around 1001AD. This disparate historical experiences of Mindanao in relation to these two current superpowers will help elucidate why Duterte gravitates more towards China than the US.
Heydarian’s third level of analysis is quite wanting. I can’t find any example of how Duterte is “suppressing transparency and accountability demands from other power centers…in the realm of foreign policy.”
The president is the chief architect of our foreign policy. The Supreme Court made this very clear in its 2016 decision on the petition questioning the constitutionality of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA):
“As the sole organ of our foreign relations and the constitutionally assigned chief architect of our foreign policy, the President is vested with the exclusive power to conduct and manage the country’s interface with other states and governments.”
I was looking for any incidents showing how Duterte overstepped this constitutional mandate. I found none. Well, to begin with, Heydarian didn’t even discuss the mandate at all. That third level of analysis is simply forwarding Heydarian’s framing of Duterte as a strongman who wants to perpetuate himself to power.
Unlike Heydarian, Ayoob is more charitable in understanding the behavior of leaders of developing countries. If there’s any lesson Heydarian should have taken to heart from Ayoob’s Inequality and Theorizing in International Relations: The Case for Subaltern Realism, which he referenced, is the distinction between “state repression for consolidating state authority…[and]the purely predatory activities of self-seeking rulers who are interested not in consolidating state authority but merely in privatizing the state to enrich and empower themselves.”
Ayoob asserts that for developing countries, the key driver of their foreign policy behavior is nation/state building. In that sense, the strongman who consolidates powers may not be doing it for his own good but for strengthening the State and reclaiming it from forces that retard its further development.
If Heydarian had listened better to Ayoob, he could have seen more the telos of Duterte’s subaltern realism — nation and state building—that drives the Old Man to destroy transnational drug cartels and their government protectors that turned our country into a narco-state, assert our foreign policy independence, and seek historical justice for the Moro.