In Duterte, superpowers confront a new kind of leader
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is thriving on controversy at the moment because those with whom he picks his fights are more controversial than he is. His chief recent targets have been the United States, whose century of colonial rule over the Philippines was marked by blood and violence, and the United Nations, where the US and other superpowers hold sway. Duterte, democratically elected on June 30, has lashed out at them both, and his people love it.
His threat to withdraw the country from the UN and perhaps spearhead the formation of a new global organization has sent other top Philippines officials scrambling to deny there is any such intention. His verbal attack on an American ambassador might be seen as hitting below the belt, but it drew an intense international spotlight that will likely be the first of many.
At home, Duterte’s anti-corruption drive promises to result in multiple high-profile sackings and his anti-crime campaign many more dead bodies. But it’s his tough stand against Western interference that’s drawing the most attention, and a key question that’s arisen is whether the likes of Duterte will soon be the rule rather than the exception among national leaders around the world.
He has scored points in assailing America, for example, because of the very evident fact that it is in no position to be preaching about principles to any other nation. Duterte is certainly not the only leader of a smaller country to feel that way, but he is currently atop the crest of defiance. Whether Washington realizes that a trend has begun or not is another question.
Independence struggles against US adventurism overseas and against shackles imposed by the US congress and American financiers have left countless dead and have crippled economies. Quite justifiably, Duterte doesn’t want the US preaching to his country.
On the United Nations, again he might have overreacted. But again his words only reflect this bitterness over the UN turning a blind eye to the superpowers’ deplorable actions overseas. In Duterte’s perspective, drug-related crime has ravaged his homeland and his duly elected government should be allowed to handle the problem as it sees fit. Importantly, he surely believes, the Philippines is dealing with its own issues and is not causing trouble for anyone else. It’s not as though it’s invading foreign lands with armed troops or government-sanctioned computer hackers.
At the heart of this tumult is Duterte’s war on drugs, in which security forces have summarily executed 600 alleged traffickers since early last month. The government’s justifications – that death is the best deterrent and that Duterte was elected, after all, with this policy in his campaign platform – have horrified right activists and is now coming up against local dissent as well. It was a formal statement by the UN condemning the policy that triggered his furious reaction this week.
If the UN had been in any way effective in curbing the rights abuses of its superpower members, perhaps its criticism of the Philippines would carry weight. Instead it plays the role of a mother crab telling its offspring to walk straight. For all the controversy he courts, Duterte is speaking on the behalf of many other leaders of smaller nations.
Filipinos will decide whether they want to abide by Duterte and his policies. They are not unfamiliar with colorful political language and are aware that it takes more than linguistic bluntness to rule the country. The targets of Duterte’s outbursts, on the other hand, must ponder the reasons why their show of concern has met with such a contemptuous response. - Inquirer