Real friends do not demand payments for debts of gratitude. These are owed but not openly collected.
Yet this is exactly what the UK Ambassador did when he pointed out that his country was the top contributor to the humanitarian aid during Yolanda.
And that was exactly the same message when the US Embassy enumerated in a video all the help the Americans gave us.
And this is supposed to be that moment when we are expected to apologize for being bold in demanding our fair share in the so-called friendship, and beg for forgiveness, lest we go hungry if they pull out their aid and investments from our country.
This trick may have worked in the past, but not anymore, not now under the presidency of Rodrigo Roa Duterte.
But then again, the President was also unwittingly complicit in the reproduction of this culture of mendicancy and subservience.
Agot Isidro was right in some ways. She was just operating under the discursive logic that the President himself has laid out. Defiant as he may have been, the President nevertheless operated under the assumption that his boldness risks retribution, the consequence of which is hunger that he is willing to be the first one to suffer it.
This is our tragedy, that even in our defiance we are all trapped in this nonsense that the whole existence of our national being is dependent on the permission, and assistance, of others who are stronger, bigger, richer and more powerful.
And equally tragic is that so many people still believe that the US and UK, and all others investing in our country and giving aid, loans and grants are actually our real friends.
If for anything else, the benefit of the confrontational stance of our President is that it became that thunderbolt that was unleashed to jar us from this stupor, as it destabilized the usual and convenient narrative that there are real friends in international relations.
President Duterte is being accused of lacking in diplomatic niceties. Indeed, he lacks such skills.
But these diplomatic niceties are exactly the same ground where the weaker is subdued by the stronger. We have been so nice to a point that the US has taken us for granted, and that we keep on thanking the Americans from the bottom of our unlimited hearts for being so kind in giving us weapons that are second-hand, in making us believe that they will save us from perdition even without the assurance that they will come to the rescue should China invade us.
Friends come to the rescue when you are in trouble, and Yolanda was one of those moments in our history when we were in serious trouble.
In the Filipino worldview, debt of gratitude is owed, and one who has no “utang na loob” deserves collective reproach from society. However, if there is one whose behavior can elicit stronger rebuke, if would be someone who would collect payments for such debt, and call someone “walang utang na loob,” more so on things that were given freely, and supposedly from the heart.
This is the mistake of the UK and the US, when they appeared to have, albeit subtly, reminded us of the debt of gratitude we owed them on things which we thought were freely given to us as friends during our time of need.
As it is, and taking from Representative Joey Salceda, one can even argue that the assistance we received during climate-related disasters from the developed and industrialized countries are in fact payments for their heavy carbon emissions that messed up global climate and whipped killer storms like Yolanda. Hence, such funds are, in fact, restitutive and compensatory forms of environmental justice, kin to environmental blood money.
In the realm of realist international relations, countries do not behave according to friendships but according to interests. Yet, the Philippines, for decades that we have been an independent nation, continued to believe that there are countries to whom we have special friendships that we forgot about our real interests.
His critics lambast the President for his lack of diplomatic skills. On the contrary, I would like to believe that this is exactly the President’s style of diplomacy. He has served notice that those days of being taken for a ride are over, that we are no longer the suckers for this narrative that we have real friendships in the international community of nations.
There are no friends in international relations. Even China and Russia are not friends. They come to us only with their interests.
Our supposed friends have threatened to pull out of a deal with us. It is about time we turned the tables on them. After all, our country is not just a passive recipient of their aid. We are a productive and strategic asset to their interests.
It is about time we told them they had better treat us well, or we could pull away from them.