Rodolfo C. Severino, Jr.
FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - January 10, 2020 - 12:00am

I have received word from the president of Ateneo University, Rev. Father Jett Villarin, SJ that he has agreed with my proposal for a professorial chair in honor of former ambassador Rodolfo C. Severino, Jr. who passed away last April 2019.  The chair is for diplomacy and international relations for undergraduate students. It is a perfect fit because nobody embodies the art of diplomacy and deep knowledge of ASEAN as Rod did. I thought it would be timely to recall his outstanding accomplishments and so I have requested Howie Severino, the son of Rod and Evan Garcia, our ambassador in Geneva, who worked closely with him as a junior officer, to share with our readers their impression of him from their respective perspective.

Quintessential Diplomat by Howie Severino

It’s been said that a diplomat is a man who thinks twice before he says nothing. It was meant only half in jest and in half grudging admiration for the diplomat’s self-control and ability to rein in his ego in the interest of duty.

Rodolfo Severino Jr. has been described as the quintessential career diplomat, never calling attention to himself, but behind the scenes working tirelessly for the country as an architect of foreign policy both to champion Philippine interests and to build a regional community of Asian nations.  He followed his father, Rodolfo Severino Sr., into the foreign service in 1966.

Among Rod’s proudest achievements in the foreign service was his involvement as a young diplomat in the normalization of relations between the Philippines and China. He had recalled drafting on his kitchen table the communiqué that the leaders of both countries signed. He was then assigned as one of the first Philippine diplomats to serve in Beijing and was Charge d’affaires from 1976-1979.

He was deeply involved in developing the regional dialogue infrastructure that enables Asian countries to discuss common issues.

In 1992, he took early retirement and was promptly politically appointed by former president Fidel Ramos, as undersecretary for policy. Six years later, he retired from a 32-year career in the Philippine foreign service, where he served three presidents and mentored many of the nation’s current diplomats. That was followed by a stint as an international civil servant when he was appointed to serve as Secretary General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from 1998 to 2002.

After his four-year term in Jakarta, he poured his energy into a new career as an author and public intellectual, first teaching at the Asian Institute of Management before accepting a position as research fellow at ISEAS, or the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, in Singapore. While at ISEAS, he helped create and then headed the ASEAN Studies Centre, becoming widely known internationally as a leading voice on Southeast Asian affairs.

RCS by Evan Garcia

We junior officers always looked up to former undersecretary Rodolfo C. Severino, or RCS as he was otherwise affectionately known.  He was something of an institution. Well-known for his hard work, his attention to detail was feared and respected. He inspired all of us below him to do more than just the minimum of work, to not settle for the easy way out, to think things through carefully.

But perhaps his greatest gift lay in his ability to present the strategic imperatives of our country’s foreign policy in clear and understandable terms. Although I found him to be a pragmatist in foreign policy, I did not find his realism in the least bit Machiavellian. Everything he said and did could, I felt, be related to some facet of the national interest that could be expressed in moral or ethical terms.

It was because of him that the Philippines was able to make its greatest contributions to ASEAN under the leadership of successive presidents and Secretaries of Foreign Affairs. His sense of regional balance with ASEAN in a central position, and his unswerving faith in working through the ASEAN way, have been imprinted into our policy consciousness as the best means of building a safer, peaceful and progressive regional community.

RCS was among the group of Southeast Asian policymakers who encouraged the expansion of ASEAN to the communist states in Southeast Asia. His preferred instrument was dialogue and cooperation. He wanted all interested parties to have a policy space wherein to share their views and concerns without entangling ASEAN in competitive regional power plays.

It wasn’t just his substance that was awesome. His style was cool, calm and highly effective in terms of being able to communicate complicated ideas simply. Nowhere was this sangfroid put on better display than during times of crisis, such as what happened when the Chinese illegally occupied Mischief Reef. His firm hold on policy cooled down tempers without conceding our claims to the area that remains under illegal Chinese control.

Professorial chair

Between Howie’s and Evan’s piece, I believe they give the readership a snapshot of Rod’s career. Of his outstanding accomplishment as a diplomat and international civil servant, Rod will be remembered most for helping develop ASEAN’s nous (common sense) in navigating a more complex geopolitical and economic landscape than when it began. He did so first as a diplomat representing his country, and then as ASEAN Secretary General, and after his retirement as a thought leader on ASEAN. More will be written later from his peers in Singapore.

The professorial chair is meant to deepen the scholarship on international relations, but more particularly on ASEAN and Southeast Asia. ASEAN is such a complex and nuanced network unlike any other in the world that it deserves specialization.

 I invite Rod’s friends and admirers to make a pledge addressed to to help develop the next generation of diplomats and foreign policy scholars in his mold.

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