[OPINION] All cracked up

October 17, 2017 at 14:54

All cracked up

A diplomat who watched President Duterte perorating against the European Union last week said the remarks were so incredible he felt like cracking up.

It was not an uncommon reaction. There was the President of the Philippines, his trademark rudeness on full display, ranting at the wrong group over a call that was never made even by what should have been the target of his rage.

Others were aghast, especially after Duterte told EU ambassadors that they could leave the country “within 24 hours” and China and Russia would take up any slack in trade, aid and other areas of cooperation that might be affected.

China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have so far kept silent, but they must be bemused by Duterte’s mention of their countries backing the Philippines each time he feels slighted by western states. There’s this “us against them” scenario playing in Du30’s mind that may not be shared by his idols.

Duterte has a good sense of humor – it’s priceless in his job – and it’s fine if people think the President is simply joking. But it’s bad, both for himself and the country, if the international community starts dismissing him as a lightweight and buffoon.

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President Duterte has said his principal adviser is himself. In reality, it looks like he does listen to others, and he acts on what he hears. Since taking office, he has convened the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council twice (the same number as his predecessor did in six years), enduring the insufferable ego maniacs of Congress. He convenes the Cabinet regularly and meets practically every week with his security officers.

Dirty Rody had to be dragged kicking and screaming away from his preferred take-no-prisoners approach to fighting the drug menace. But the end (or suspension) of Tokhang and Double Barrel indicated he is sensitive to public opinion at least as reflected in surveys.

So he does listen to others. And it should be possible for him to sit down regularly with a Cabinet cluster that can brief him on foreign policy matters, or at least where he can bounce off his ideas before he starts shooting his mouth off in public.

I know several diplomats who have learned to adopt a wait-and-see attitude each time Duterte says something offensive or out of this world about other countries and their leaders. The diplomats know that the President’s damage control team quickly gets to work issuing clarifications and putting out fires.

While the wait-and-see attitude is useful for keeping long-term diplomatic ties healthy, it also means foreign capitals are starting not to take the word of the Philippine president seriously.

Also, even while waiting for the administration’s firefighters to arrive, foreign representatives are not entirely numb to offensive statements. Hurtful words tend to hurt, especially when uttered in public by a nation’s highest official. I know for a fact that certain diplomats have taken offense. Whether we like it or not, their perceptions affect bilateral relations.

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The President likes to say he doesn’t give a whit. But it may be useful for him to remember that over 10 million Filipinos are working all over the planet. They are vulnerable to the sentiments not just of the governments in their host countries but also by their private employers.

Duterte may also want to consult the local business community, whose enterprises may be affected by his intemperate remarks on cutting diplomatic ties.

Filipinos are working overseas, incurring tremendous social costs, because of lack of decent job opportunities back home. Many of them are vulnerable enough to abuse and treatment as second-class citizens.

It’s also useful to remember that the Philippines is competing with its Asian neighbors in attracting foreign direct investment as well as travelers who can boost the tourism industry and downstream economic activities.

The Philippines already suffers enough in terms of national competitiveness, thanks to a host of problems including red tape, corruption, high energy and labor costs and poor infrastructure. Vietnam is currently soaking up foreign investments even from neighboring countries such as Japan. Having a president who likes picking unnecessary fights can only push the Philippines further down in competitiveness rankings.

Foreign relations need delicate handling by trained diplomats, who can send a clear message when the President is slighted by what he believes is interference by foreign devils. It’s possible to say go to hell, or go back where you came from, and sound reasonable.

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The President can redirect his rage at those responsble for many of the problems bedeviling the nation. The Metro Rail Transit, for example, is a disaster waiting to happen and needs urgent attention. The MRT 3 breaks down practically daily. If it figures in a grievous accident in which lives are lost, blame will be heaped not only on the officials in the previous government who created this mess, but also on the current administration, which after all has been in office for nearly a year and a half.

With the Christmas season upon us, traffic gridlocks are also back around the Customs zone in Manila’s Port Area. And people suspect the reason for the long lines of trucks waiting forever for the processing of shipments is not road traffic mismanagement but fierce haggling over tara, in preparation for a merry Christmas.

Businessmen are starting to express impatience over the start of the promised infrastructure building frenzy, dubbed build, build, build. At least on the socioeconomic front, Duterte is still taken at his word.

In matters of foreign policy, he has been burned enough and must understand the virtue of discretion.

Source: http://www.philstar.com/opinion/2017/10/16/1749207/all-cracked




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