Commentary: Why Europeans are suspicious of Duterte

EUROPEANS’ understanding of President Rodrigo Duterte is informed by their own political history dotted with tragic and traumatic stories of ultra-nationalism and leaders with the same personality type and social support as Duterte. They fear Duterte because he reminds them of a past they would like to prevent from re-emerging in their countries. Any successful communication strategy that would counter Duterte’s monstrous image in Europe has to keep that in mind.

Duterte possesses the personality type and social reception that could make Europeans nervous: charismatic, popular, and strong-willed. These are the same qualities possessed by Germany’s Hitler, Italy’s Mussolini, Romania’s Ceausescu, Russia’s Stalin, and Yugoslavia’s Miloševic.

Associated with their names are great humanitarian disasters in European history.

They have been filed by most Europeans in the never-again section of their psyche. Any leader anywhere in the world that would “appear” or is made to appear like any of them would surely raise alarm bells among Europeans. The emotional trauma Europeans experienced with charismatic, strong-willed, and populist leaders clouds their rational thinking, making them disregard difference in context, and thereby evaluate other political communities according to their own history.

Among the political figures I mentioned, Hitler is the most familiar to non-Europeans. The mass killing of the Jews in pursuit of the racial hygiene policy of the Nazis remains a raw nerve. In some European countries, denying that the Holocaust happened could get you fined and imprisoned.

Because of Europe’s trauma with Hitler-like personalities, any leader compared to him would arouse European suspicion, disgust, and eventually condemnation. As Antone Christianson-Galina said in “Why the war on Bashar al-Assad never happened”: “When any leader of the free world is faced with a ‘Hitler,’ the only rational choice is to depose the ‘Hitler’ before he destabilizes his region or commits a genocide, for example. Dictators who are successfully put into this Hitler mold often do not stay in power for long (eg. Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi).”

Duterte had been compared to Hitler even before he was elected in May 2016. Former President Benigno Aquino’s comparison was the most significant; it has weight in the international community as it was uttered by a President and son of the woman widely recognized by world leaders as a champion of democracy.

When Duterte mocked his detractors who’d been comparing him to Hitler since the elections by saying that he would be happy to slaughter three million drug addicts just as Hitler killed three million Jews, it rang alarm bells in Europe. They didn’t care about the context of his statement. All they know is Duterte wants to follow in the footsteps of Hitler. And as Christianson-Galina said, when faced with a Hitler, the ‘free world’ immediately thinks “he has to go.”

In the Netherlands, Duterte’s statement was shown in the evening news and even became a question in a popular quiz show. But no one ever showed Duterte’s unannounced visit to a Jewish synagogue in the Philippines to apologize.

Duterte’s political adversaries are exploiting Europe’s trauma of Hitler to destroy his external legitimacy. They do it by constantly juxtaposing “Duterte and mass killings”, “Duterte and Hitler”, “Duterte and crimes against humanity.”

On April 12, 2017, the In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDefend), an Akbayan-aligned Filipino non-government organization, held a talk at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague. I attended it. Before starting his speech, iDefend spokesman Budit Carlos distributed a brochure entitled “Duterte’s War on the Poor.”

Inside the brochure, the heading “Enabling Genocide” introduced a litany of accusations against Duterte and his supporters. During the question and answer time, I asked Mr. Carlos what his organization meant by “genocide.” I pointed out to him the definition of genocide in the Rome Statute, which specifically mentions that genocide is an act to destroy national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups. Nothing of that sort is going on in the Philippines. Yet despite the lies iDefend is propagating, on May 4, 2017, the Commission on Human Rights, under the leadership of Chito Gascon, gave an award to iDefend.

In “Top 10 warning signs of liberal imperialism,” international relations expert Stephen Walt warned about how “anti-regime forces are trying to enlist [liberal imperialists’]support by telling [them]what they think [they]want to hear” (Foreign Policy, May 20, 2013). Those liberal imperialists in Europe are now all ears to anti-Duterte forces in the Philippines who are describing the situation in the Philippines in the direst terms possible, and limning Duterte in such a way that could exploit to the hilt European trauma with charismatic, popular and strong- willed leaders.

To counter this, our country’s communication strategy must engage with Europeans who care a lot about context and are tired of the disastrous liberal imperialist agenda. Dr. Dante Ang, the newly appointed special envoy of the President for international public relations, has his work cut out for him.

(Published in The Manila Times, 16 May 2017)

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