Duterte is difficult to retract jack-in-the-box

Is Rodrigo Duterte the Filipino Trump? Brash. Vulgar. Homicidal. And now allied to America’s traditional foes?


Or is it that America’s monotone rhetoric of free trade, and its supposed benefits, has worn too thin, at home as much as in its colonial outposts?

Follow the money.

Duterte, like all recent Filipino politicians, is backed by local money. The plutocrats he’s indebted to reckon it’s time to redistribute the profits from drugs, so Duterte takes his job a little too literally, setting up death squads to cull the independents. Neither the plutocrats nor Duterte are particularly concerned about the collateral damage of innocent bystanders being murdered in the process. Moneyed interests are predictably distant from the concerns of people without money.

Next, the local plutocrats don’t think they’re getting much value for being such predictably loyal allies to the American imperium. Is that because they’ve been lining their own pockets just a little too much, or because being an American imperial base on the Pacific Rim really doesn’t pay that well?

So what are the empire’s options?

If Wikileaks amounts to a lesson, it’s that international relations isn’t conducted according to some sophisticated, nuanced set of intricate chess moves. Instead it seems to be just as much subject to bar room posturing and trash talk as … bar room posturing and trash talk. To be more precise: holding foreign relations positions doesn’t make princes of yokels.

There’s talk in Washington international relations circles of ‘the playbook’. A set of predictable principles neatly divided as dovishness and hawkishness. Dovishness avoids bombing as a first resort and places some faith in closed-doors negotiation and formal dispute resolution processes. Hawkishness starts with America’s adaptation of Teutonic sword-in-hand diplomacy: Bismarckian ‘Realpolitik’ moving into Kissingerian territory of ‘regime change’ and genocidal war crimes.

Right now the American response to Duterte has been invisible. That could mean closed-doors diplomacy, or just incredulous paralysis engendered by an unexpected turn of events. While everyone is focused on Syria, Iraq, and the rearguard actions of America’s ‘war on terror’ elsewhere. Blinkers on.

Was there no analysis of what the Philippines election might bring to centre stage? Or were such reports snorted at dismissively by intelligence chiefs selected more for political malleability than brains? It’s a fair question to ask: is anyone in Washington actually working on this issue?

And what can we expect after the paralysis of American presidential changeover is done?

There’s no point in speculating on a President Trump’s intentions, which could be about embracing Duterte as ‘my kinda guy’ or ‘nuke the sumbitch’ depending entirely on his ‘medication’ and mood on any given day.

A President Clinton, though, would come to the job having worked hard at cultivating a Hawkish profile while Secretary of State. She might be inclined to use the Bismarckian iron fist, if not a blunt policy of ‘regime change’.

Neither prospect would likely include any consideration of Australian interests, not least because the present Australian political establishment has little idea of what the nation’s interests ought to be.

The last serious diplomatic foray into SE Asian engagement was Kevin Rudd outlining a grand vision for a key Australian rôle in the Asia Pacific region far beyond its economic or military weight. It was a policy ambition tied more to vainglory than the pragmatic realism of Paul Keating in the 1990s.

Rudd’s successors seem to have limited Australia’s focus solely to preventing refugees reaching Australia by sea, establishing concentration camps in neighbouring countries, and marginally meddling in the US-led pursuit of regional radical Islamist groups.

In toeing the imperial line, the present administration has also been comfortable in pandering to bigotry as cause for rejecting Chinese investment overtures. It’s not that we shouldn’t carefully evaluate what such overtures really mean in the longer term, but it would seem less embarrassing, as provincially parochial, without the bigotry with which a large part of the nominally conservative governing Liberal-National Party Coalition is too comfortable.


Australia, too, is an imperial outpost, with successive governments that have regurgitated American corporate propaganda that doesn’t even fly in America anymore: let us do what we please and you will get some benefits … somewhere, sometime. It’s hard to quantify the net benefit of toeing the US corporate line, but it has an increasing number of detractors in Australia. So, unless we consider ourselves as riddled with plutocrat corruption too, we can’t really point to it in the Philippines as the cause of turning to potentially more generous allies.

While we’re at it, what is Australia’s interest in the alignment of the Philippines? Do we care? Would it matter if the military bases there were Chinese, or Russian? The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade estimates the value of Australian investment in the islands at around $7 billion, but doesn’t break it down. Is it material to know whether this extends to capital holdings that might be undermined by Chinese hegemony, or sweatshop labour that would become suddenly more expensive?

But the point isn’t that we don’t really know what Australia’s interest is. The point is that we must at least suspect that our government doesn’t know either. The current executive seems to have the weakest foreign affairs credentials in a generation. I suspect the department and ministerial staff are badgering their US contacts for advice on how to respond to Duterte’s Sino-Russian overtures, and drawing a blank.

If I were an American observer, the conclusion would be simple: the benefits of loyalty to the empire have to be more obvious and substantial. That probably means curbing the aggressively extractive activities of US corporations. And that might be a hard sell in Washington. The effort would require convincing American plutocrats that the sustainability of the empire is still in their interests, and enough so to deserve hard cash support in the imperial provinces. This might involve the resurrection of a modified domino theory, and almost certainly burying the TPP, which represents an unashamed ambition to impose corporate policy on national governments as a means to further skew global profits in favour of US-based corporations.

In Australia it would be easy for the opposition to capitalise on the obvious gap between the present government’s panegyrics to Washington policy pronouncements, and the lack of real benefit to the Australian economy for that fealty. So far the Labor Party has done nothing of the kind.

Recent public dialogues in Australia have revealed that the population does not see tax avoidance and US consumer goods at higher prices here than elsewhere as particularly beneficial. Moreover, while these are talking points, there is also an increasing scepticism about the mantra of free trade with its supposed benefits that just haven’t been forthcoming for anyone but the one per cent. Not forthcoming for 30 years. That seems long enough to declare the rhetoric of trickle down a continuing series of deliberate lies.

The effect, then, of Duterte’s new foreign policy on Australia might be to soften the virtual Cold War moratorium on exploring the benefits of closer ties to China and Russia. If only to compare what’s on offer to the known benefits of an American foreign policy. Sure, new friends might dazzle us with one-off largesse that can’t be sustained. But perhaps old friends have taken us too much for granted to put any real effort into maintaining the friendship.

Whichever way we travel as a nation, let’s hope we can do it without our own Duterte; we already had a taste of Trump with Abbott, and the bitter cyanide aftertaste of it has not yet subsided. Even for his own party. Perhaps especially for his own party.

This should be a wake-up call for the ALP to dust off its own foreign policy capabilities. Can Penny Wong be a pivotal asset for the country as a catalyst for foreign policy change? Wong is a capable and seasoned politician. With the right support from her leader, she could hardly do worse than the present team, which appears to have no focus on Australian interests. Or, to put it more simply: no focus.


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