Venezuela is a bipolar nation in the eyes of the world. More than 50 countries recognize the government of interim President Juan Guaidó. The rest of the world — most significantly Russia and China — continue to support and strengthen the grip of President Nicolás Maduro.
It’s bad enough that the Trump administration has been all bark and no bite, trying to flip the failed Latin American state’s leadership with tough rhetoric and State of the Union ovations. What’s worse is that America under its current leadership has shown that there are neither significant consequences nor consequential actions that can be taken when a foreign country snubs Washington in favor of Moscow or Beijing.
The latest nation to reject President Trump’s foreign policy puffery? The former American colony and current conflict-ridden country of the Philippines.
Flattery is not foreign policy, and Trump’s fan-boy attitude towards Rodrigo Duterte has not convinced the populist Filipino leader that Manila’s future and his personal power are assured by remaining allied with the United States. Instead, he has chosen to throw in his lot with Xi Jinping and the promise posed by China as a regionally rising economic superpower.
This is not only bad news for America’s strategic rebalancing in the Pacific and for regional security. It is really bad news for those other Southeast Asian nations looking around their neighborhood and trying to figure out how to balance their economic and security interests against their long-standing American trading and security alliance partners.
Any way you look at this, Duterte’s move is big. On Tuesday, Duterte let the United States know that he was dumping the 69-year-old treaty alliance that allowed American forces to remain and train in the Philippines.
It’s not just the carrot of Chinese capital that has attracted Duterte to Beijing. The Philippine president feels insulted and justifies turning away from the United States by saying “America is very rude” to Filipino friends accused of human-rights violations.
Human rights, however, have never been a priority for the Trump administration. POTUS arrived in the White House ready and willing to toss democratic principles, values, norms and rules in the dumpster.
Duterte has it all wrong.
Trump is a true ally who embraces Duterte’s autocratic rhetoric. Trump envies Duterte’s dictatorial style and tough-guy approach to law enforcement and politics. Trump entered office encouraging American law enforcement to use extrajudicial measures —whether slamming perps heads into cop-car roofs or encouraging the illegal actions of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The latest outrage is Trump’s admiration for summary death penalties for drug dealers.
Duterte has encouraged vigilantism by everyone from civilians to police to government forces. His approach has been to give a pass to anyone who kills a suspected drug user or dealer. He flaunts his own tough-guy credentials by bragging about personally killing criminals. He waves around guns to prove his seriousness and reinforce his power.
Trump has tried to court Duterte’s loyalty to — and love for — America. POTUS practices a populism aligning his personal leadership style with Duterte’s. Despite the anti-charm offensive, and regardless of the two countries’ clearly shared interests, the Philippine leader just bet his country’s future on the People’s Republic of China.
In effect, long-standing military relations have just been reversed, and America has been told to go home.
The U.S.-Philippine relationship has never really been smooth. Duterte still harbors resentment for a 1906 Moro massacre so fierce and unjust that it drew the attention of Samuel Clemens — Mark Twain. Volcanoes and tightening American budgets in the 1990s shut down Clark Air Base. Entire Filipino communities that relied on employment and business from U.S. bases suddenly were out of luck.
The two countries’ relationship survived the Marcos regime and the destructive Mt. Pinatubo volcano. In fact, the Yellow Revolution that overthrew full-fledged dictator Ferdinand Marcos brought to power an Aquino family boasting deep American training and credentials. Corazon Aquino felt both grateful and indebted to the United States for supporting the overthrow of the Marcos regime and the successful transition to a civilian-led and functional electoral democracy.
The bad news? Philippine’s successor democracy gave voters the conditions to sweep into office the tough-talking populist politician Duterte in 2016.
Philippine democracy is now threatened, in part, because China is happy to support reliable autocratic leaders and because Trump’s feckless and personality-driven foreign policy toward Asia has alienated and pushed away Manila. The Trump administration’s foreign policy lacks strategic coherence. Instead, it favors super-summitry and presidential high-fives.
From Manila to Caracas, rightist and leftist leaders calculate which allies will serve them best and where to place their bets. Throwing off perceived post-colonial American shackles for neo-colonial Chinese chains is a bad choice. Unfortunately for the West and democracy, both Venezuela and the Philippines have wagered against Trump’s America.
Markos Kounalakis researches China’s foreign policy as a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.