Some Asean diplomats have asked me what I think the Philippine government should do to repair the perceived damage to Philippine-American relations arising from President Duterte’s scandalous and unprovoked attack on President Obama and the latter’s unsurprising response—canceling a previously agreed Tuesday meeting on the sidelines of the Asean summit conference in Vientiane, Laos.
The diplomats fear that one of the most enduring partnerships in Asia Pacific may have been unduly damaged, not by any Philippine policy that offends a crucial US security, economic or political interest, but simply by reckless words of questionable worth, uttered without any justifiable motive or any palpable benefit to the Filipino people or their government.
I have no particular expertise to offer. Neither do I know of anyone who has. But having spent two-thirds of my life, in various capacities, trying to help mold the course of public policy toward the most desirable future for all Filipinos, and having done my share in the last campaign to expose an unqualified alien whom many had wanted to support for President, I am deeply pained by this cockamamie turn of events. So I do not hesitate to offer my two cents’ worth.
Leaving the American orbit
Some parties have rained wild encomiums and panegyrics upon DU30 for cursing Obama during a press conference, and for supposedly taking himself out of America’s imperial orbit by declaring that he’s not an American puppet, and that the Philippines is no longer a colony nor a vassal state. Indeed, ours is a world removed from the one inhabited by Gen. Carlos P. Romulo in the ‘40s or Sen. Lorenzo Sumulong in the ‘60s, who both tangled with Soviet big guns over the meaning of freedom, democracy and human rights.
In 1948, at the 3rd UN General Assembly in Paris, Romulo’s unembarrassed pro-Americanism prompted the Soviet delegate Andrei Vishinsky to call him a “little man from a little country.” To which Romulo replied, “It’s the duty of the little Davids of this world to fling the pebbles of truth in the eyes of the blustering Goliaths and force them to behave.” This silenced the Soviet demagogue. In 1960, at the 902nd UNGA in New York, Sumulong’s gratuitous attack on the Soviet Union caused Premier Nikita Khrushchev to call him “a jerk, a stooge and a lackey of US imperialism” and to bang his shoe at his desk. This silenced the Filipino Cold Warrior.
Unrestrained praise for DU30’s reported attack on Obama obviously came from supporters who were enthralled by our President’s apparent addiction to censurable language. Despite that, there is no evidence that the Philippines has moved a quarter of an inch away from the US sphere of influence, which DU30 reportedly wants to quit. The Philippines has not rejected the US pivot to Asia, which Obama is eager to hand over to his successor.
What about EDCA?
To the contrary, DU30 assures us about the continued validity of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US. Were he still around today, the nationalist sage Claro M. Recto would probably have called EDCA unworthy of a sovereign and peace-loving Philippine state. And yet Recto never used any offensive epithet on any US president. Because EDCA is not a treaty but a mere executive agreement, DU30 can revoke it anytime, if he wants to make a dramatic show of his political “independence.” However, there has been no hint of DU30 considering it.
DU30’s desire to be seen as “independent” of any foreign power is admirable and deserves to succeed. But his words must be matched by deeds. If he is looking for a model who spoke to the US with dignity and honor without, in the least, appearing subservient or servile, he could probably take a leaf from Ferdinand Marcos. At the outset, Washington wanted to treat Marcos as some kind of a “greenhouse plant.” But although determined to be a strong and dependable US ally, he was even more determined to stand on his own as a Filipino leader. And he showed it by deed.
What Marcos did
In October of 1966, at the behest of the US government, Marcos hosted the Manila summit conference of the seven Vietnam war allies. In attendance were Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt, South Korean President Park Chung Hee, New Zealand Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, Thai Prime Minister Thanom Kittikachorn, US President Lyndon Baines Johnson, South Vietnamese Chairman Nguyen Van Thieu, Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky and, of course, Marcos. Accompanied by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and Ambassador at Large Averell Harriman, Johnson tried to bamboozle the allies into sending combat troops to Vietnam.
At one point, Johnson was seen passing a small note to Marcos. Marcos picked up the note, read it, then rolled it into a small ball and put it inside an empty matchbox, which he placed on the ashtray between him and Johnson. Despite LBJ’s rhetoric, Marcos resisted the call for combat troops and sent the non-combat Philippine Civic Action Group (PHILCAG) instead. That same year, Marcos sought the reduction of the term of the 1947 Military Bases Agreement from 99 years to the next 25 years of the unexpired period.
Later, Marcos asked that the bases be known as Philippine military bases, under the command of a Filipino commander, and over which the Philippine flag alone should fly, except in front of the US barracks where the Stars and Stripes may also fly. Finally, Marcos demanded that the “rent-free” provision of the agreement be re-interpreted to allow the US to provide an Economic Support Fund to the Philippine government.
In 1975, Marcos accepted the “One-China” policy and opened diplomatic relations with Beijing—well ahead of the US. In 1976, he normalized relations with Moscow.
The cost and consequence of independence
Ultimately, this nationalist and independent posture had its consequences. Marcos was toppled in a 1986 civilian- and US-backed military mutiny after it became clear that he would not extend the term of the bases agreement after its expiration in 1991. One of Cory Aquino’s bravest acts was to conclude a new treaty extending the bases by another 10 years, but this was rejected by members of the Senate, majority of whom had been elected in 1987 largely, if not solely, because they were Cory’s candidates.
The defeat of Cory’s treaty prompted her son PNoy, who became president in 2010, to exclude the Senate from participating in the EDCA, despite the clear provision of the Constitution that after 1991, “foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and, when the Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum held for that purpose, and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting state.”
Then the Supreme Court declared the EDCA “constitutional” despite this patent violation of the Constitution. This is consistent with the High Court’s practice of never voiding any law or agreement in which the US government has a declared interest or involvement. “Political independence” from the US would concededly manifest itself not only in policy decisions by the Executive but also in judicial rulings by the High Court. This has not yet come to pass. So the White House has reason to insist that despite the Duterte-Obama muddle, Philippine-US relations stand on solid rock.
Independent yes, but no need to go down the gutter
Philippine-US relations need not hit the rocks just because DU30 wants to be independent vis-à-vis the major powers. We are, as DU30 puts it, no longer a vassal state. But there is no need to create personal antagonisms and animosities between heads of state on non-state issues. No particular group, whether in the US or in the Philippines, should be allowed any reason to see DU30 as an obstacle to the most civil and constructive state-to-state relations.
There is now an attempt to make it appear that DU30 never called Obama the “son of a whore” and that it’s all the media’s doing. This search for a scapegoat and finger-pointing is normal and inevitable, but the media, for all its faults, cannot be made wholly responsible. What is clear is that DU30 uses gutter language rather casually, without premeditation, and the White House is convinced he had insulted Obama and that Obama’s cancellation of their Vientiane meeting had caused some foreign investors to pull out from the Philippines, and stock prices to tumble. Those who have watched the Philippine economy ride the global storm are now jittery: is a politically orchestrated credit downgrade in the horizon, and what will be its final effects upon the nation?
No one is saying that DU30 cursed Obama because of what Obama had said about him. Obama had said absolutely nothing about him. Rather DU30’s reputed cuss word arose in the course of answering a newspaperman’s question on what Obama might say to him during their proposed meeting. The question did not deserve an elaborate answer; he could have simply said the question was hypothetical and that one did not answer hypothetical questions. But he did answer the question, and he said more than a mouthful.
Talk less, behave better
There are several lessons to be learned here. The TV camera and the microphone may have become DU30’s Achilles’ heel. Since there is no way to ban them, DU30 must read everything he says in public, like Lee Kuan Yew when he was prime minister of Singapore. Lee had the best academic credentials among the prime ministers of the British Commonwealth; he could deliver a lecture on almost any subject without a written paper. But he never said anything on behalf of his government without reading a text. This was to avoid any misquotation or misunderstanding of his statement. This would help the President avoid all the expletives and gutter language that have become the source of so much unnecessary trouble.
And he should also learn to deal with the press better. I once sat with Prime Minister Lee when he presided over a news conference during a state visit to the Philippines. He did not answer questions that did not deserve any answer, and he virtually chewed off the head of a foreign correspondent for asking a rather stupid question. DU30 should not hesitate to do the same. He should help educate the media on what issues to discuss in press conferences. But he should be less hesitant to keep his peace whenever he has very little to say on serious questions.