Duterte and an Independent Foreign Policy

Richard Heydarian

Posted at Oct 13 2016 04:10 AM | Updated as of Oct 17 2016 02:36 AM

Time and again, President Rodrigo Duterte has called for an “independent” foreign policy. But what does it exactly mean? Can a mid-sized, developing country like the Philippines ever achieve it? Does it even make sense to talk about such in our globalized world?

To better understand the issue, it behooves us to take a glance at contemporary history, particularly the experience of other independent-minded developing countries, whose leaders sounded not too different from our own Duterte. 

Back in the Cold War years, a number of audacious leaders from the post-colonial world envisioned a new path for their nations -- one that was marked by self-reliance, independence, and reflexive pursuit of self-determination.

Critical of Western imperialism, represented by the “First World” capitalist democracies, and appalled by Communist tyranny, represented by the “Second World” Soviet bloc, they opted for a third way. This gave birth to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), with the 1955 Bandung Conference serving as its foundational meeting. 

The titans of what would later on be termed as the “Third World” were Sukarno (Indonesia), Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egypt), Jawaharlal Nehru (India), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), and Josip Broz Tito (Yugoslavia). These leaders collectively served as the conscience of the majority of human population, who were unwilling to be embroiled in the destructive rivalry of the superpowers. 

What they cared about were not world domination or vanity of universalism, but instead the particularity of national development. They dreamed of an independent, autarkic and prosperous nation for their countrymen. Yet, it didn’t take long before a painful realization settled in. 

The sheer asymmetry of material and ideological power between these post-colonial nations, on one hand, and the capitalist and communist blocs, on the other, were too large to ignore. It was impossible to be fully independent in a valley of giants, which had enough capabilities to turbocharge your national development as well as reduce your country into ashes. 

So eventually, many of the Third World’s most ambitious leaders ended up playing a dangerous but inevitable game. To preserve their room for strategic maneuver and a semblance of national independence, they had to play one superpower against the other. 

While Tito of Yugoslavia constantly resisted an overbearing Moscow and maintained a non-confrontational relationship vis-a-vis Western Europe, Nasser opted for a strategic alliance with Moscow in order counter Western imperialism in the Middle East. 

For them, independence was not about jumping from one superpower camp to the other. That would have nullified the whole point of pursuing national independence. Instead, it was about building friendly relations with the lesser evil in order to keep the bigger threat at bay.

For some post-colonial nations, the Eastern power of Soviet Union was the bigger threat, while for others it was the Americans. The end of the Cold War, however, created an illusion of democratization in global affairs. 

Yet, it soon became clear that nations faced two stark choices: Either accept American supremacy and embrace democratic capitalism or, instead, be branded as a rogue state. Given America’s full-spectrum dominance, whether in military or economy and culture, most nations toed the line.

The rapid ascent of China, however, has revived memories of Cold War and a binary competition between the East and the West. Once again, we are talking about the battle between the West and the East. We are again talking about ideological competition, or at least that is what Duterte has invoked, when he threatened joining the “other side of the ideological barrier” with no point of return

Yet, our world is fundamentally different from that of Nasser’s and Tito’s. We live in a highly integrated, globalized world, where the prospect of war between the two superpowers is comparatively lower, if not unthinkable. We live in a world where it is hard to talk about full self-reliance, that is to say autarky, even if you come from the Hermit kingdom of North Korea, which heavily relies on Chinese assistance. 

This is not the world where you can play Moscow against Washington, because there is no Cold War between the giants, at least no yet. We live in a world where pure “independence” is impossible, unless you’re the global hegemon, which can shape global financial markets, dictate agreements on weaker nations, and command a globetrotting military.  

Mid-sized, developing countries like the Philippines, however, can pursue a foreign policy that is not subservient to one superpower or aligned to one against the other. It can pursue a strategy, whereby it has equi-proximate relations with all major forces, so we can benefit the most out of each and every one of them. 

This is easier said than done, but as the recent experience of countries such as South Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam shows, it is doable. Yet, we can’t also deny that not all superpowers are the same. There are always more benign ones, while others could be more vicious and exploitative. 

The question now is whether we are Yugoslavia or Egypt, because that will help us to appreciate which superpower we should be kept at bay more than the other. 

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Editor's note: 

Richard Heydarian is an academic, internationally published author, and a widely consulted policy adviser, focusing on Asia-Pacific affairs. This is his first regular blog/opinion piece for news.abs-cbn.com. He will soon be appearing regularly on the ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC) to give in-depth analyses of current affairs. 

As an academic, he has taught at De La Salle University as well as Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, and been invited to talk at conferences in leading universities around the world. His latest book is Asia's New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific (Zed, London). 

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.