I use “unfriend” in the title of this column for two reasons:
First, because it helps to make my point more easily comprehensible by readers, who are mostly Facebook members and internet users, and;
Second, because it could jolt people into the realization that turning US-Philippines relations on its head is a big deal, and not the sole prerogative of President Duterte.
Oxford Dictionary picked “unfriend” as the word of the year in 2009. The alternative term, “defriend,” has not enjoyed as much prestige and popularity; but it is widely accepted as a substitute.
Oxford defines the verb as: “To remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook.”
I realized how serious is the act of “unfriending” when a member of my extended family unfriended her brother some months back, and it became some kind of family issue.
Unfriending or defriending creates an awkward situation. Social networks offer one click to remove a friend, but it doesn’t make the decision any easier or reasonable. Who is better off – the unfriended one, or the unfriending party?
Significantly, “re-friending” has become an in-word in social network terminology. You can restore or be restored to friendly status in this society.
A smoke-and-mirrors exercise
Applying the concept of unfriending then to the real world of Filipino-American relations, I was startled to discover that what we are dealing with here is all just a smoke-and-mirrors exercise, and not a serious effort to recast the relationship.
The sentiment of going independent is delivered with much emotion, sometimes with expletives; but when the talk turns serious toward seeing the US cease to be our friend, members of the Duterte administration, including the President himself, recoil from the prospect.
President Duterte’s gestures of unfriending have consisted chiefly of the following overt acts:
1. Savaging President Barack Obama on the eve of the Asean Summit and East Asia Summit in Laos by calling him “a son of a-whore” for announcing in advance that he planned to take up the human rights issue with President Duterte in Vientiane.
2. Exposing the massacre of some 900 Moros (men, women and children) in Bud Dajo, Sulu in March 2006, at the start of the American colonization of the Philippine islands.
3. Declaring on the eve of his inauguration as the Philippines’ 16th President that he would chart an independent foreign policy and not rely on the US.
4. Declaring that he wanted US special forces, who were advising the Philippine military, to get out of Mindanao.
5. Announcing that the Philippines would depend less on US military assistance, and would consider buying its military equipment from China and Russia.
Focus is on posture, not reality
Within a day of delivering these major policy flaps and initiatives, top Filipino officials, and sometimes President Duterte himself, were walking back his words or waving them away.
As my colleague Kit Tatad has pointed out in a perspicacious column on the “independent policy” theme, DU30 is hard-put to define what he means by an independent foreign policy. Does he mean renouncing our security alliance with the US? Will he serve notice on the US we will not allow nuclear-powered US vessels to enter Philippine waters?
Would it mean waiving the equivalent of the $1.3 billion in economic and military assistance that the US extended the Philippines from 2010-2016?
After declaring that US forces should get out of Mindanao, President Duterte said that the Philippines “will not cut our umbilical cord to countries we are allied with.”
He was careful about the military aspect of alliances; but he insisted on the need to follow “an independent posture and independent foreign policy.”
“Independent posture” is an unfortunate way of describing what is supposed to be a new era of Filipino statecraft.
After the CPP/NDF called for the expulsion of all US forces throughout the Philippines, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana contradicted Duterte openly and declared that US forces would not be asked to leave Mindanao.
For his part, Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay contributed to the smoke and mirrors, by delivering a largely meaningless speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The most he could say was this circumlocution: “We cannot forever be the little brown brothers of America…. We have to grow and become the big brother of our own people.”
Shaping the history of nations
My substitution of the terms of social media for the big concerns of foreign and security policy is facetious. But the point is that “unfriend” gets to the heart of the matter quickly. We realize what should be the proper object of our foreign policy.
It was the historian Leopold von Ranke who laid down the dictum that foreign relations were supreme among the influences that shape the history of nations.
During the cold war, foreign relations were mainly shaped by the rivalry between two opposing ideologies and two antagonistic superpowers locked in quarrel.
In the postwar era, the Filipino-American relationship was largely shaped by cold-war politics. But after 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and international communism, history took a new turn and direction.
Today, statecraft or statesmanship is governed by different challenges and opportunities.
According to Margaret Thatcher, these can be summed up in the term “globalism.”
For her, it comes down to this: “A world of mobile capital, of international integration of markets, of instant communication, of information available at the click of a mouse, and of fairly pen borders, is certainly a long way from the world favored by statists in the past.
“It is nowadays, as a result, more difficult for governments to misrule their peoples and mismanage their resources without quickly running into problems. Unfortunately, though, it is still not impossible.”
When President Duterte and his supporters in Congress and the media lament the interference of the US, the UN and the foreign media in the Philippine war on drugs, they pine for a time that is past.
It was rough growing up and governing during the Cold War. It is just as rough growing up and governing in the age of globalism today.