[OPINION] The Filipino tragedy: The significance of a true pivot

Edmund Tayao

Posted at Oct 14 2019 04:06 PM

As we are schooled in the Western tradition, we are familiar with the giants of Western literature, history and philosophy. While there is renewed scholarship in world history, this time, learning more about eastern history, we have yet to know more about ourselves and our place in the bigger scheme of things. We seem to have become stuck in a moment.

It's such an irony if we try to reflect. We have our share of great things and people who have contributed so much to what and how the world is today. Jose Rizal is well known around the world, in America, Europe and even here in Southeast Asia. He didn’t only learn so much from Europe together with many of our founding fathers, but also made an impression, especially as a representation of colonialism, of the significance of freedom and independence to the rights of man, issues that dominated the Enlightenment period.

We would then become the first constitutional democracy in Asia. Of course, this would be short-lived, thanks to our friends who supposedly freed us, only to learn in the end that it was a ruse to take over and control. Nonetheless, we learned a lot from them and, despite everything, we gained from them too. Whether what we learned and gained is as comparable to how much they benefitted from us is, of course, another question.

We are such staunch believers in democracy that we’d again show the world how to fight for freedom and do away with a dictatorship. People power seemed to have become a template that led to peaceful revolutions in many countries, especially in Europe. Of course, recently, it has allowed many to look back and ask how the so-called Edsa revolution actually turned out, and whether its significance has to be rethought owing to current or recurrent issues in politics and governance. What cannot be denied is that there was a dictator and he had to be kicked out. As we reflect now, we also realize we could have had real change then and make the most out of the revolution or change of leadership.

The point is, whether it was contrived or not, limited only to Edsa and therefore only to Metro Manila or not, there was really a popular uprising. In fact, we would do it twice, as many participated in another popular move against a sitting President in 2001. Many would say, it only goes to show that we really are ardent democrats, but it is also undeniable that there would not have been a need for another Edsa if we had the right set of public institutions and political processes to choose the right leaders and keep them right, and resulted in a government that we could support all throughout. But no, all we have and all we have seen so far is a constant, where the same players participate and take turns in running the government.

Good thing is, we’re not dumb. In fact, that’s more frustrating. The fact that we’re not dumb but fail to put our country in order is an anomaly. It could have been a riddle but the fact that up to now, the answer remains forthcoming is already strange. And the world is changing; it is not going to wait for us to change. By all indications, a shift is happening. It may not be a categorical shift as a pendulum does from one particular point to another, that is, from west to east. but it is showing to be a significant shift. The question now is how and what we will make out of it. We have shown that we’re capable of reading and understanding events, but we have yet to show we can act decisively and gain something out of it, instead of just contributing to the gains of another.

The pivot is already happening, and it is just right for us to respond and do our own pivot. We have already shown loyalty, even dependence from America. It is right to finally acknowledge and act on what we have learned for sometime now, that we could have had more and been treated better as a real friend than we really are in their eyes. We have read and heard so much about how the renegotiation of the US military bases agreement took place in 1991. Recently, with the continuing impasse in the West Philippine Sea, we know that we are in a precarious situation, that it is wrong to rely on our Mutual Defense Treaty. It is about time that we come up with a foreign policy that is truly our own, and really give much thought on how we can effectively move forward.

There is every reason to support exploring relations with non-traditional allies like China and Russia. Perhaps, we’d like to also consider looking at Africa and Latin America and really expand options in trade and to a certain extent, even security. Interestingly, on the other hand, our purview seemed to have really been effectively delimited by American colonial legacy. Even those who are supposedly anti-America have failed to transcend biases and still look down at Africa. Yes, it only shows ignorance at how much change has already taken place in many countries in the continent, of how much we can actually learn from them; that which only shows prejudice. The only possible explanation is they could hardly find any reason to read about these countries precisely because of their lingering assumptions.

Regardless of one’s political color, what cannot be denied is we have already shown we have other options other than America. In fact, we have shown that we have to have other options other than America. It should not just be about options, however. We cannot just change allegiances and ingratiate ourselves with another country. That may be a pivot but not necessarily pursuing a real independent foreign policy. 

Now that we have established we are not dumb, we might want to at least start learning about how different countries are now doing their own pivot, how leading countries are positioning themselves and the reasons or objectives for it. The repositioning that is now happening in the world is something that can be understood best if we learn from history. In the first place, we should know and start with the thought that the leading protagonists, China and Russia, are in fact taking cue from their history, especially on how they view their history, that is, regardless if it is, in fact, history or fiction as the basis for their recalibrating their presence and position in the world. And it is, in this regard, that we have to be careful and learn a lot more than just recalibrating.

Many of our leaders already know about China’s nine-dash line and the bases for it. There has been much talk about China’s debt trap as it was in some countries in Africa. Our leaders have been quick to declare that it is something that they are much aware of, that there is no reason to be concerned with our dealings with China. Most recently, on the other hand, we are reminded that there is Russia, and it is as much a world player like China. We have much to learn about them though, especially as far as their Eurasia project is concerned.

There are two things that hopefully we can gain from this so-called pivot. One, the most paramount is to really gain much from it. There are indications that we have, in fact, gained already from such pivoting; we have already expanded our market and, at the same time, built up our significance in the eyes of our traditional ally. Two, and this is dependent so much from how we understand what kind of gain we intend to achieve out of this pivot, is not be caught in between ramming boulders in international politics. The gain we intend to achieve should not amount to being dependent on a particular ally.

There is one most important thing we should know about all these. How we project ourselves in the international arena and how much we gain out of it, which can only be as much as we are able to work on our domestic concerns. We cannot hope to achieve much internationally if we cannot do anything significant domestically. And this is the Filipino tragedy. The Filipino, without doubt, is endowed with outstanding qualities but always falls to a disaster due to his own failing, a failure to deal with circumstances.

(The author is the Executive Director of the Local Government Development Foundation and a professor of Modern Local Governance at the Ateneo School of Government.)

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