Where is Duterte’s diplomacy taking us?

- The Philippine Star

Paris, France – After a short visit to Luxembourg, I’m back in Paris. While in Luxembourg, I met several officials from the Ministry of European and Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Economy and the Chamber of Commerce. They were all very fruitful meetings that gave us an opportunity to discuss potential investments particularly in the area of communications technology. I also had discussions with executives of the Jan De Nul Group, a global leader in maritime infrastructure, dredging and reclamation services. At the end of those meetings, it was inevitable that the subject would turn to what is happening in the Philippines and President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial remarks.

There is no question that the hardest job in the Duterte Cabinet today is that of the Secretary of Foreign Affairs including perhaps the Presidential Communications team, particularly the presidential spokesman. Over the past week and a half alone, there has been a series of provocative statements made by the president, among them his reference to Adolf Hitler’s extermination of six million (not three million) Jews, which enraged many especially the Jewish community. It was good that he immediately apologized when they censured him for the Hitler remark (described by many as insensitive), but his tirades have been continuous against the United States, the United Nations and the European Union.

It is absolutely challenging nowadays, to say the least, to be a Filipino diplomat anywhere around the world especially within the European Union and of course, the United States. One needs to have the ability to decipher the president’s colorful language. Our friend, Secretary Jun Yasay, experienced this while he was in Washington, DC where he had difficulty interacting with some US senators.

Just very recently, the president dared the EU, the US and the UN to “go ahead” and withdraw their assistance to the Philippines, adding that the country will not beg like mendicants for “crumbs.” We don’t know what will be the impact of all these pronouncements, but they are rather strong words and many people including the president’s supporters are expressing serious concern. After all, many Filipinos are grateful for the assistance that the UN, the US and the EU have been extending especially during times of disaster, with the Philippines one of the countries most vulnerable to disasters due to climate change.

These entities that the president has been slamming gave critical aid in the aftermath of super typhoon Yolanda. The UN family of organizations donated over $81 million and the US, $90 million. Some 58 nations including those from the European Union donated more than $618 million to help Yolanda survivors and rehabilitate damaged areas. To this day, help still continues to pour in.

Lets face it, without the assistance we received from all these nations especially the US, the casualty count would have been much higher. Volunteers came not only with food, water and disaster relief goods and items; they brought emergency medical teams and equipment for the sick and wounded. Even a small country like Luxembourg gave major assistance by quickly dispatching an emergency team to restore communications by installing a satellite-based telecommunications network that was used by thousands of relief volunteers across Leyte.

Due to President Duterte’s repeated pronouncement about cutting ties with the US – traditionally our closest ally – comparisons are already being made that the situation will turn us into another Venezuela, recalling the Latin American country’s late leader Hugo Chavez who became infamous for his anti-US rhetoric, at one time even likening then president George W. Bush to the devil. Chavez used to deliver televised speeches where he would berate people including his Cabinet officials, and waged a war against private businesses. Venezuela was the richest Latin American nation because of its oil reserves but today, its economy is in shambles, with people going hungry and the inflation rate at an unbelievable 470 percent.

The president says he wants an “independent foreign policy” where ties with the US will be limited while heightened relations with Russia and China will be pursued. Former national security adviser Joe Almonte whom I consider to have a good grasp of our strategic foreign policy unequivocally advises that as an independent nation, we should maintain friendship with old allies, yet still be friends with other nations even if they are enemies of our allies. Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario totally agrees that “you try to get as many friends as possible.” In short, it’s not a zero-sum game.

After being in office for a little over 100 days, the president has succeeded in elevating the Philippines before the world’s consciousness – but not without a lot of controversies particularly coming from human rights advocates from around the world. This was accomplished with a lot of negative vibes coming our way. In fact, Belgium has already indicated that it will reconsider the planned royal visit of Princess Astrid to the Philippines next year.

The big issue nowadays is the challenge faced by the president’s Communications team to manage the situation – if not the president himself – and contextualize Duterte’s pronouncements. Palace spokesperson Ernesto Abello has advised the media to use their “creative imagination” to understand where the president is coming from. Short of creating a Department of Translation, the media is obviously being put on the spot by being made to interpret what the president says. Ironically, President Duterte gets very angry every time media makes its own interpretation on what he says.

One thing is clear – there is a lot of confusion with our foreign policy today and the question begs to be answered: Where is the president’s foreign policy really taking us?

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