The President said it in no uncertain terms.
“I announce my separation from the United States both in the military, but economics [terms]also.”
But when pressed on whether he would allow for joint ventures and explorations in the West Philippine Sea with China, the President responded:
“This has to be with the consent of Congress and everybody, every Filipino involved. At this time, I am not empowered to do that.”
Yet, traditional media screamed with headlines that the President has boldly abandoned our ties with the United States, and pivoted toward China in complete disregard of our treaty obligations with the former. The anti-Duterte and/or pro-American social media followed this up with posts condemning the President’s stance as irresponsible and ill-advised. Some even sounded so cataclysmic as if it is the end of days.
They miss the point that what we have is a President who is fully aware of his prerogatives as Chief Executive even as he is conscious of the limits to such power.
This is because his critics continue to judge him on the basis of the usual rubrics. They expect the President to have a fixed template from where he draws his narratives, and such should possess definite and unequivocal meaning.
They keep on misunderstanding the first person “I” in the President’s universe of meanings.
The problem is rooted in the manner political science has constructed the occupant of the Ofice of the President as one whose speech is automatically coded as public policy. Modern liberal democratic theory has denied one who is President the right to autonomy. The “I” in every President becomes subordinated to the “we” of the sovereign people. This leads to the irony that one who is so elevated in the realm of state politics ends up so objectified in the domain of identity politics. This leads to a situation where any President is now denied entitlement to an opinion, or even the freedom to express his emotions, for everything he says, every curse he makes, every frown on his face, takes a public meaning and is bound to be taken as expressions of public policy.
No wonder it is said by many that a position of public power like that of the President is also a position of private loneliness. Presidents are expected to follow protocols, acquire a new speech pattern, even a new vocabulary, and read prepared speeches in front of cameras, things that may not be their own but one crafted by their advisers and consultants. Even their family lives do not escape public gaze and expectations. And the only time they get to be themselves is when they are alone.
Thus, in this context, the “I” no longer becomes them but is now forcibly equated to be that of the Republic.
This is a box in which President Duterte appears to resist confinement. After all, he was a local public official for most of his entire career, only interrupted by a short stint in Congress. He is more known for being organically rooted and raw. His “I” is one that speaks loudly as one comfortable with himself, one that celebrates his identity.
He is recalcitrant and slippery, refusing to be subjected to the usual expectations. He asserts his “I” as his own, even as he is cognizant of the fact that he is just one player, albeit the most powerful, in the public sphere that is the affairs of the Republic.
And this is nowhere more illustrated than in his pattern of speech vis-à-vis US and China. He is aware of his prerogatives as Chief Executive and that he has power over executive agreements, such as bilateral trade in economic and military goods. That was the “I” who spoke of separation from the US.
However, he is cognizant of the power of Congress to ratify treaties, and to abrogate these, and to approve agreements that involve national sovereignty. This is the “I” of the President who deferred to Congress on the issue of joint ventures with China in the West Philippine Sea. And this is the “I” that should douse the fears of those who think that the Philippines will cede our sovereignty to China and sever our ties with the US. The President’s “I” who separated from the US is also the same “I” who knows he is bound by our treaty agreements with it.
In the end, the President is a beautiful reminder for everyone to go beyond words and look into meanings and context. He challenges all of us, especially journalists and social media denizens, to get out of our usual lenses, move out of our comfort zones and begin looking at the President as the “I” we will never own, and could never appropriate in our headlines, posts, tweets and biases the way we want him to be.
And had we been more discerning of that “I,” we would have known that separation and severance are, indeed, differently nuanced.