Commentary: Philippine moth, Russian flame?

TWO words – ahistorical and ignorant – aptly describe “Duterte of the Philippines plays with Russian fire,” an article by Anders Corr published in Forbes magazine (April 20, 2016). Corr foresees nothing but horrors for the Philippines as Duterte ventures to diversify our diplomatic relations. Like the what happened to the unfortunate moth in the fable that Rizal’s mother taught him,Corr warns against flying too close to Russia. Otherwise, our hard-won freedom would wear away like a young moth’s wings being licked by the flame. Contrary to Corr’s fears, Duterte isn’t offering our country on the altar of autocracy. Just like Claro M. Recto in the 1950s, Duterte simply advocates a non-discriminatory foreign policy. Engage with every country, regardless of their culture, values and political system, as long as it’s beneficial to our national interest.

As a realist, I believe that interests and not values should serve as the compass for our foreign policy. And interests aren’t formed by morality but by necessity. As US diplomat and historian George Kennan explained, “they are the unavoidable necessities of a national existence and therefore not subject to classification as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.” Our national interest is fleshed out by the three pillars of our foreign policy: protection and preservation of national security; promotion and attainment of economic security; and the protection of the rights and welfare of overseas Filipinos.

Corr never mentioned the national interest of the Philippines at all. No explanation on how closer ties with Russia would harm any of the pillars of our foreign policy. All he did was to spread fear based on his prejudices against Russia and ignorance of Duterte and the Philippines.

He worries that Russia would be supportive of Duterte’s “anti-democratic tendencies,” which include “extrajudicial war on drugs…repeated interest in declaring martial law and suspending elections.”

Extra-judicial means without legal sanction. How is the Philippine war on drugs “extra-judicial” when Duterte is simply following the Letter of Instructions No. 1 that former President Gloria Arroyo issued in July 2001? It’s still operational. Declaring the illegal drug trade a national security threat, LOI 1 orders the dismantling and neutralization of “all drug syndicates, producers, traffickers, pushers and their cohorts in the police/military/government office.” Thus, the war is both legal and legitimate, necessary for the protection and preservation of our national security.

All Constitutions in the world, including those of democratic states, allow martial law if national security warrants it. What exactly is anti-democratic about Duterte declaring his willingness to use all the powers conferred on the President by the Constitution when circumstances compel him to do so? Lastly, the election suspension Duterte talks about is in relation to the barangay. The 2016 barangay election was actually postponed for a year by a law passed by Congress. In fact, Senator Leila de Lima was one of the sponsors of the Senate version of that law.

Duterte is simply requesting Congress for another postponement because a lot of barangay officials are involved in the illegal drug trade.

Corr also worries about the weapons we will procure from Russia. He fears that arms bought from Russia “could be used to suppress the Philippine people” without reproof from the supplier. But are Russian materiel more prone to be used for sinister purposes? Corr should read the article of Zach Toombs and R. Jeffrey Smith that appeared in Foreign Policy magazine (June 21, 2012), which exposed how the United States has been actively exporting weapons even to countries “actively repressing their own citizens.” And in September 2015, John Lindsay-Poland of the American Friends Service Committee, wrote about how weapons from democratic countries continue flowing to Mexico despite its drug war already claiming at least 100,000 lives.

That closer ties with Russia will erode our freedoms is belied by the case of Vietnam and LGBT rights. Vietnam and Russia have been enjoying close economic, military, and political relations since the 1950s. While the Russian Duma adopted in 2013 the so-called anti-gay propaganda law, Vietnam’s National Assembly unbanned same-sex marriage and enacted a law allowing transsexual people who have undergone sex reassignment surgery to change their sex legally. Did Russia stop Vietnam? No. Meanwhile, American evangelical groups have been wreaking havoc on the lives of LGBTs in African countries, pushing for laws that would either imprison or execute gay people.

Corr wants us to ally closer with India because we’re both democracies. However, despite being the largest democracy in the world, India has had strong bilateral relations with Russia since the 1950s. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia is the biggest arms supplier of India: from 2000 to 2016, India imported a total of $30.7 billion worth of weapons from Russia. Throughout their decades-long relationship, they’ve cooperated in defense, economy, energy, and science and technology. India didn’t become the desolate and spineless state Corr thinks a country would become once it gets closer to Russia.

Russia has not shown any interest in carving a sphere of influence outside its “near abroad” composed of former Soviet states. Unlike the United States, Russia isn’t also evangelizing its values and re-creating the rest of the world in its own image. Rather than a country’s ideological leanings, what’s important for Russia is its political stability. Forget Corr. The Philippines should continue befriending Russia. However, just ensure that it will serve our national interest, in the same way that friendship with Moscow continues to be a boon for Vietnam and India.

(Published in The Manila Times on 25 April 2017)

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