One positive thing that emerged within the first few months of the Duterte administration is this: a nation and a body politic forced to discuss foreign relations. As the nation debated on the proposed pivot to Russia and China – and away from our traditional allies – the issues and the positions raised were depressingly unenlightened. Mr. Duterte wanted to get the best of ideas, the most in-depth analysis of the issues. He got drivel.
He probably announced the “separation” of the Philippines from the US, and the pivot to China and Russia, without a well-argued, well-written paper on that historic announcement. It was more gut feel than realistic rationale.
It was very rare for our usually keyboard-happy public intellectuals to get muted by an issue. But on the proposed pivot, they did.
For the first time, our mic-happy bloviators with the broadcast media, usually know-all types, avoided a really complex issue. The blowhards would not dare enter, intrude rather, into a policy territory where ad hominem does not apply. What can you expect of a telebabad culture that nurtures anti-intellectualism?
From our political leaders, what we got was this: Is that to our national interest? They raised, naturally the peso and dollar angle. Pragmatic, yes, but hardly deep and profound.
It is easy to talk about massive infrastructure build-up by China at the West Philippine Sea. Or, about fishermen being driven out of their traditional fishing grounds off Zambales. But it is quite hard to fathom the general motivation that drives China’s ruling princelings into their aggressive territorial ambitions.
Was it merely for control over strategic shipping routes that handle $5 trillion worth of global trade a year? Or, is the driving force larger and more ambitious than control over very strategic sea lanes? Are its acts of aggression an intimation of China’s conquista – moving along parallel lines with Mr. Putin? On this, the usually voluble public intellectuals – who have yet to see a microphone they do not love – are uncharacteristically silent.
Where have you gone Carlos P. Romulo? The nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Or, where have you gone Blas Ople? That a former stevedore like Ka Blas could better explain the world and geopolitics to us than most self-proclaimed public intellectuals of today forced me to borrow a question from Simon and Garfunkel.
Indeed, where have you gone, Sage of Hagonoy?
The Gary Johnson-like response, “What is Aleppo,” while not forgivable in the case of Johnson who is running for US president and who is presumed to be equipped with a basic knowledge of the world, is probably not the same case with most Filipinos, even its so-called or self-proclaimed public intellectuals. Having been a stagehand on the global stage from time immemorial, our cluelessness on foreign relations may be quite understandable. Our last perplexing foreign relations issue before the “ pivot” question under Mr. Duterte was the Sabah question.
Even on the question of Sabah, a natural resource-rich territory which definitely belongs to us, the prevailing Philippine stand was one that vacillated between timidity and treason. The heirs of the Sultan of Sulu, the owners of Sabah, could not even make a scholarly, expansive, persuasive disposition on why Sabah should revert to us – to the joy of Kuala Lumpur .
The heirs showed deeds, payment of meager retainers, documents on the East India company. But the presentation of a paper on the long arc of history – and why Sabah should revert to us despite the vote of the populace to overwhelmingly stay with Malaysia – under the ambit of that long arc was missing.
On the China issue, on why Mr. Duterte moved the country into its power orbit despite the territorial aggression, I kept searching for scholarly but reality-grounded papers on how the pivot to Beijing would serve our national interests. A paper that would show that China’s ruling princelings can mix a sense of pride and triumphalism to demonstrate benevolence, more so toward countries like us that have been their trading partners from time immemorial. And whose heroes (Rizal), cardinals (Sin) and presidents (the two Aquinos) partly carry their ethnicity.
The fact that Mr. Duterte’s delegation to China was offered “megadeals” and generous loans was not a display of that benevolence. It was in keeping with China’s relations with the world (mostly business propositions), like the natural resources deals it had inked with resources-rich but poor African countries.
And the cluelessness on our foreign relations extends to the overtures of Mr. Duterte toward Mr. Putin. Mr. Putin is a strongman presiding over a failed petrostate. From the decadence of the Romanovs to the unfulfilled utopian dream of the 1917 Bolsheviks, then to Gorbachev and Yeltsin, the humanity in Russia was found only in its literature, but was totally absent from its governing and civic culture.
What Mr. Putin is doing to his political enemies is a reprise of the gulags and confinement in Siberia.
We can’t put Mr. Duterte’s foreign policy shifts in the context of broad and superimposing needs because there is no scholarly tradition to go by.
We are not even asking for intellectuals like George F. Kennan. We just need well-thought and well-written papers just like the stuff we see on the magazine Foreign Policy. Or the papers that emerge out of the think-tank Council on Foreign Relations.
Alas we have none. On foreign policy paradigms, our possession of such is zero or lower.