Lessons in diplomacy
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - May 20, 2016 - 12:00am

It looks like incoming president Rodrigo Duterte has washed his mouth with soap and is paying more attention to his grooming.

His next makeover should be in his attitude in dealing with the international community. It’s a global economy and global village, with nationalistic pride strong everywhere including in the worst conflict zones.

Like the Philippines, all other nations regardless of size or population density want respect. A Philippine leader should lead by example in showing that respect. It’s not a sign of weakness but maturity on the world stage.

Duterte needs a seasoned diplomat to advise him against unintentionally making intemperate remarks before representatives of foreign governments. I don’t know if Perfecto Yasay will fit that role, considering that the Duterte camp has made it clear the incoming foreign affairs chief is just warming the seat for a year for President Rody’s running mate Alan Peter Cayetano.

If Duterte wants to be deliberately abrasive, that’s another story. There are times when a Philippine president needs to talk tough to uphold sovereignty and national interest. But under normal circumstances, someone should prep the nation’s chief executive about diplomatic protocol and niceties.

It’s not clear how much Duterte listens to advisers. A strong president usually turns to his official family mainly for inputs, and then sets his own targets and clears the path for their attainment. Duterte looks like someone who will be hands-on in crafting foreign policy.

Insularity can be dangerous here. It takes a long time even for career diplomats to navigate with ease through diplomatic minefields.

Diplomacy may seem remote to ordinary folks, but it’s crucial for a nation with a tenth of its population working overseas. Duterte, a former prosecutor, should realize that in certain cases, utterances of a Philippine president can and will be used against Filipinos working abroad. Intemperate remarks by Philippine officials, apart from putting Filipino migrant workers in harm’s way, can also affect the billions of dollars in remittances that account for much of the country’s positive economic figures.

We need to maintain healthy ties with the world as we struggle to compete with our neighbors in attracting investments that will create meaningful jobs. We need to entice more foreign visitors. In Southeast Asia, we’re ranked at the lower end in these departments.

And we remain heavily dependent on foreign aid for development efforts, poverty alleviation and even emergency disaster relief.

* * *

Being president is different from campaigning for the post. As a representative of 101 million Filipinos, President Rody, for example, will have to think before he opens his mouth and asks aloud who would want to go to Mexico with its violent crime and drug problems – raising the question with the Mexican ambassador seated in the audience, to boot.

Who would want to go to Mexico? Last year alone, a whopping 32.1 million foreign tourists did – in contrast to the 5.4 million arrivals in the Philippines, way below the 10-million target of daang sarado. Mexico was last year’s ninth top tourist destination in the world, according to the United Nations World Travel Organization, after France, the US, Spain, China, Italy, Turkey, Germany and the UK. The 32.1 million was an increase of 9.6 percent from tourist arrivals in 2014.

Apart from this detail, Mexico in 2013 and 2014 was the largest single direct investor in the Philippines. As of 2015, Mexican investments in the Philippines stood at a hefty $6 billion, with bottler and beverage giant FEMSA alone providing thousands of jobs to Filipinos.

The Mexicans are here because of our historic ties dating back to the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade. Like the Spaniards, the Mexicans see the Philippines as a sentimental gateway to Southeast Asia. But the Indonesians in particular have been moving to get a chunk of that Mexican business.

No country is safe in the age of the Islamic State and international drug cartels. We have to be careful about denigrating the peace and order situation in other countries, particularly because we have the highest homicide rate in the region, and particularly because our homegrown IS sympathizers are beheading foreign hostages in Mindanao while Duterte’s kindred spirits in the Left keep bombing telecommunications and power transmission towers.

A Philippine president should never be afraid to tell foreigners publicly meddling in local affairs or occupying our islands or talking down to Filipinos to shut up.

As Winston Churchill famously said, however, “diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”

* * *

Duterte is still growing into the role of President Rody, and has so far shown capability to transform himself. Perhaps in time he will imbibe some lessons in finesse.

Heads of government who behave like brats on the world stage tend to fall by the wayside or see their countries isolated.

Respect is a two-way street. Unless he intends to be deliberately offensive before the global community to advance our national interest, Duterte the mama’s boy may want to heed a common advice from mothers: if you have nothing good to say, don’t say it.

Being a loose cannon won him the presidency by a landslide, but now Duterte has a country to run. A big mouth won’t win the nation friends. And we need all the friends we can get.


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