Understanding Duterte (again)

One thing is clear, Duterte has never been for the status quo. He disrupts, sometimes badly communicated, but he makes sure errors of the past are corrected or at the minimum, highlighted so Filipinos see the difference. Duterte showed to all what political will can mean to a country like the Philippines.

Note: This column originally appeared in The Manila Times on September 29, 2020

When President Rodrigo Roa Duterte (PRRD) delivered his United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) speech, many observers noted certain things evolving; in particular, his position on the South China Sea arbitration ruling. Some analysts insisted that PRRD was just reading through without understanding the speech. Some had the impression that it was the first time he saw the speech hence he did not relate to it. One can see things where there are none and come to such a conclusion and one can listen and do a second take to see if he nailed it. If PRRD did not, the reactions to it would not have mattered.

The UNGA session — the 75th this year — is really a day where leaders deliver their key speeches one after the other. New York every September is an extravaganza of diplomacy when leaders from around the world and their delegations flood the city. The tit-for-tat between the United States and the People’s Republic of China were felt by all. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “deplored the lack of multilateral solutions to global challenges” as he opened a summit for the world body’s 75th anniversary. “No one wants a world government — but we must work together to improve world governance,” Guterres said at the rostrum ahead of virtual speeches by world leaders.

Guterres said that “in an interconnected world, we need a networked multilateralism, in which the United Nations family, international financial institutions, regional organizations, trading blocs and others work together more closely and effectively.” Clearly there is a leadership void at the global stage today.

PRRD was direct in his speech. He spoke about frontliners, the West Philippine Sea, OFWs, climate change, terrorism, campaign against illegal drugs, support for the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the role of the country on welcoming refugees, Philippine support for the UN peacekeeping effort and the rededication to multilateralism.

PRRD took the stage to thank frontliners, emphasizing the need for the world to have “coordinated international plans and efforts to pursue a common purpose.” Duterte took a strong stand on availability of vaccines: “When the world finds that vaccine, access to it must not be denied nor withheld. It should be made available to all, rich and poor nations alike, as a matter of policy.” He further stressed that the vaccines should not be a power play by clearly laying down the position of the country. “The Philippines joins our partners in the Asean and the Non-Aligned Movement in raising our collective voice: the Covid-19 vaccine must be considered a global public good.” He was the only one to frame vaccines as public good.

On the geopolitical realm, PRRD took a varying stand but clearly laid out, a “call on the stakeholders in the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, the Middle East and Africa: if we cannot be friends as yet, then in God’s name, let us not hate each other too much.” He further stressed that the country remains mindful of its role “as amplified by the 1982 Manila Declaration on the peaceful settlement of international disputes.” The Philippines “affirms that commitment in the South China Sea in accordance with Unclos and the 2016 arbitral award. It is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon. We firmly reject attempts to undermine it.”

How do you therefore understand a man who does not want to be understood? The critics claim malice in the speech of PRRD before the UN, that he was merely posturing and not really serious about his statements. How can one ridicule a leader when it has been taught in foreign affairs, we speak with one voice and when the leader delivers one, we allow him to do so as part and parcel of respecting the institution of the presidency? How can critics see malice when the speech of the president is laden with policy implications? When in voicing a position on foreign affairs is like leveraging the interests of the nation? When the president is the sole maker of foreign policy. So, is it not his keen sense of brinkmanship that he can swing from one side to another because he cemented a non-aligned position at the start? Is being a pragmatist in diplomacy a wrong move? Is insisting what is good for the nation and building bridges across the political spectrum not a wise move? Still, they cannot accept the fact that “the mayor from Mindanao” can rise above it and deliver strategic and positive points on matters that are essential to us.

One thing is clear, Duterte has never been for the status quo. He disrupts, sometimes badly communicated, but he makes sure errors of the past are corrected or at the minimum, highlighted so Filipinos see the difference. Duterte showed to all what political will can mean to a country like the Philippines.

If Duterte was shallow, as the critics claim him to be, why are we seen as being more independent and non-aligned in just four years? Why can we talk about our doors being opened to refugees, “the White Russians following the 1917 revolution, the European Jews in the Second World War, the Vietnamese in the late 1960s, and the Iranians displaced by the 1979 revolution, among others. The Philippines continues to honor this humanitarian tradition in accordance with our obligations under the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol.” A direct dig at the framing done by the members of the European Commission in relation to what they perceived to be human rights violations in connection with a senator, a so-called journalist and then some.

Indeed, it is hard to understand a leader if one cannot see anything good in him and continues to see things in terms of partisan politics. Sometimes it takes a serious issue to see the depth of a leader. Imagine a political pivot made before the US elections, if that is not strategic, I don’t know what that is.

Is there a president in our history who has not changed any position at all from Day 1? None, but to change a position, taking into account the greatest advantages of the country, and that is geography and its history of diplomacy. The “hillbilly” truly puts to shame the Ivy Leaguers and that to me remains the great divide that has been controlled by many for centuries. Duterte stands out as the least of those expected to succeed, but his is a growth mindset that makes our country much better than the country we had four years ago. Pandemic or not, we will survive this because we have a leader who cares for the outliers.

About the Author
Malou Tiqiua is the Founder/General Manager of PUBLiCUS Asia Inc. A noted political management expert in the Philippines and Asia, she brings over 20 years of professional experience in public, private and the academe combined. Author of the comprehensive book on electoral campaigns in the Philippines, "Campaign Politics", Malou is a graduate of the University of the Philippines with a Political Science degree and a Master of Public Administration. She completed her second master's degree (MA in Political Management) from the Graduate School of Political Management, George Washington University.
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