Starweek Magazine

US Ambassador Philip Goldberg: A 21st century partnership

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, Boston native Philip Goldberg longed to see the world.

His parents, a lawyer and social worker, however, were not the traveling types and rarely took Goldberg and his two sisters on trips.

“I was fascinated by government and politics. I wanted to see the world. I hadn’t traveled all that much as a kid. I was of a generation where we stayed at home and our parents didn’t take us on airplanes or things like that,” Goldberg told STARweek. “They didn’t even take us to restaurants.”

The part about the restaurants may be an exaggeration, but the urge to see the world was among the reasons that prompted the young Goldberg to pick the Foreign Service over a career in law like his father.

Another reason, he said, is that he wanted to be involved “in trying to help.”

When Goldberg told his parents about his decision to join the Foreign Service, he joked, “they didn’t even know what it was.”

“My mother was hugely disappointed because I would be leaving, and my father was grudgingly very proud,” Goldberg recalled.

He has not regretted his decision. Not even when Bolivia’s President Evo Morales declared him persona non grata, ordering the US ambassador expelled from the country within 72 hours for consorting with the political opposition and trying to destabilize the government.

Reports reaching the US government at the time, Goldberg explained, pointed to the fact that in Morales’ Bolivia, “democracy was going in the wrong direction.”

Elected in 2006, Morales was and remains president of Bolivia’s coca growing federation. Morales, the country’s first indigenous leader, has said the coca is used by indigenous people to fight altitude sickness. Goldberg says approximately 90 percent of the coca goes directly to cocaine manufacturing.

“We didn’t have a great history over time with him and he didn’t have a very positive view of the United States,” Goldberg observed, adding it was “unfortunate” that Morales decided he did not want America’s extensive aid and cooperation program with Bolivia.

After a long period during which the two countries did not appoint ambassadors, efforts are underway to mend fences.

“Countries need to be mutually respectful, need to understand each other,” Goldberg said when asked what lessons he learned from that chapter in his diplomatic career. “We were trying to be respectful.”

Intelligence chief

For a year following his expulsion, Goldberg served as coordinator of the implementation of sanctions approved by the United Nations Security Council against North Korea.

In February 2010, he became assistant secretary for intelligence and research (INR) at the State Department. At around this time, the WikiLeaks scandal erupted.

Goldberg emphasizes that INR is not involved in collecting intelligence. What it does, he explains, is analyze data gathered by the collecting agencies and from open sources such as newspapers, so that State Department and other government officials will get proper advice in crafting US foreign policy.

WikiLeaks, he said, “really was not an intel matter.”

“That’s not intel collection. That’s people talking. It’s all aboveboard. We always write up the notes,” he explained. “Your diplomats do it. Everybody does it.”

And so, contrary to some local speculation, there will be no increased cloak-and-dagger activities by the US embassy under his watch.

What will increase is bilateral cooperation, particularly on humanitarian assistance as well as security matters, as Goldberg takes on a hot spot in America’s pivot to Asia.


Building for resilience

A powerful typhoon blew Goldberg ASAP to Manila, as Washington decided that its embassy needed an ambassador for the massive assistance needed in the areas devastated by monster howler Yolanda.

Nominated on July 31, the eve of the Senate summer recess, Goldberg’s confirmation was further delayed by the government shutdown. But when Yolanda struck and the images of devastation filled American living rooms and YouTube, Goldberg was confirmed by the US Senate in record time. He presented his credentials to President Aquino shortly after his arrival in Manila, and rushed immediately to Tacloban and Palo, Leyte.

The extent of the devastation was so grievous it reminded him of the war zones in Kosovo and Bosnia where he was posted previously. The difference, he said, is that survivors do not return to war zones to rebuild their lives.

In contrast, in the Eastern Visayas, he said, “there’s a lot of self-recovery going on. People are rebuilding on their own.”

Goldberg reiterated Washington’s commitment to assist in long-term rehabilitation and disaster resilience, and refused to comment on ongoing controversies in the construction of temporary shelters.

He also avoided comment on the Philippines’ brand of democracy, patterned after the US system but made fragile by weak institutions.

“If you look at statistics, at Gini coefficients, the Philippines is not that much different from the developing countries. All democracies develop in their own way,” Goldberg noted. “This is a very vibrant democracy in many ways.”

He emphasized that democracy “is also a project. It’s a destination that you never truly get to, you’re always trying to perfect.”

Goldberg expressed support for President Aquino’s focus on the problem of corruption, which the diplomat said is “corrosive to any country.”

He noted that one of the strengths of Chile was the lack of corruption. He was posted in Chile when it reached a free trade agreement that has been a boost to its economy.

Goldberg generally looks with fondness at his overseas postings. He worked with the urban guerrilla group M-19 in Colombia as its liaison with the US embassy during the time of drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar.

In Kosovo and Bosnia he was involved in conflict resolution and efforts to stop ethnic cleansing. He worked with Richard Holbrooke on the breakup of Yugoslavia and with the team that worked on the Dayton Accords. In South Africa, among Goldberg’s last acts was to attend the inaugural of Nelson Mandela, as part of the support group for then US first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“How can you do that working for…” Goldberg began to ask, but he checked himself before he could make comparisons.


21st century partnership

As the US began its rebalancing in Asia, he hoped for an assignment in the region. Goldberg asked for the Philippine posting as he saw Asia rise in importance in US foreign policy.

“I’m also intrigued and fascinated by the history of Philippine-American relations, some of it good, some of it not so good going back before World War II, and the richness of it,” he explained.

He swept his gaze across his office, overlooking Manila Bay, and recalled his impressions the first time he walked in.

“You have an embassy that the Japanese held during World War II, that we together took back, we rebuilt. Corregidor is out that way,” he said. “I’m not dwelling on history and the past but you can’t ignore it either… we have tremendous amounts of interest here historically but also for the future. So I thought this would be a good place to come.”

That history is replete with incidents, even after the US had completely turned over governance of its former colony to Filipinos, of American intervention in Philippine internal affairs.

Asked if he saw this happening again, Goldberg replied, “The US is not going to support any non-democratic government here.”

But he added quickly, “You have a very firmly rooted democracy. So I’ll let you put two and two together. I reject the premise of the question.”

“Are we involved in internal affairs? No we’re not. But we are involved in protecting the values around the world that we believe in, and don’t make any apology for it,” he explained. “We have to be sensitive about local conditions, as we are here.”

Among those universal values are human rights and stopping human trafficking, which will be among his priorities as ambassador. The US State Department releases an annual report on those two issues for every country, which Goldberg emphasized is a congressional requirement.

His other priority is the pivot, which is redefining US security alliances in the region. Negotiations are underway for increased rotational presence of US troops in the Philippines – a development that Manila has generally welcomed as China aggressively stakes its territorial claims in disputed waters and air space.

Goldberg echoed Washington’s position that China is seen as a partner, although Beijing will continue to be criticized for its unilateral acts in the region.

He also clarified that the increased rotational presence will not mean a return of permanent bases in the Philippines.

“What we’re talking about is a partnership of the 21st century. We’re not trying to rehash the 20th century,” he said. “What we’re talking about is moving forward and dealing with problems and issues the best we can.”

Goldberg looks forward to forging that new relationship with a country where he says he has felt most welcome.

“It’s wonderful to represent your country overseas, especially when you’re so proud of your country in many ways. There’s really no greater honor,” he said.

Goldberg also stressed that for an American Foreign Service officer, “an ambassador to the Philippines has and continues to be one of the great appointments.”

Now he’s seeing the world, and playing a key role in delivering a lot of help to an old ally.










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