The biggest of the many foreign policy problems that Barack Obama is about to bequeath his successor is not the wars now raging in Syria and (again) in Iraq, or the slow-motion collapse of the European Union, but the threat to Asian stability posed by the rise of a Super-Trump dictator in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte.
Duterte came into office with the reputation of a thug, and has amply demonstrated his bona fides. He licensed a wave of government vigilantism against drug-dealers and users, openly inviting the participation of the public. The result has been a wave of murders and street assassinations rising into the thousands, and with it the collapse of the rule of law in one of Asia’s largest democracies. It hasn’t been a covert operation either, if operation is the word for it, but an open bloodbath with bodies plainly visible, and relatives terrified of collecting them for fear of meeting the same fate. Not even North Korea or China has witnessed such a descent into barbarism, at least recently.
The Philippines are, as the saying goes, a staunch American ally. The island nation’s seven-decade-old democracy, sponsored directly by the United States as a former colony, is a linchpin of the American position in Asia, and of our present efforts to contain the hegemonic ambitions of China in the region, currently focused on control of the South China Sea. We have a heavy military and counterterrorist presence in the country, and a substantial expatriate population in the United States whose remittances are a crucial pillar of its economy.
The Philippines have never been very stable. It has known periods of dictatorship before, notably under Ferdinand Marcos and his shoe-collecting wife, Imelda, but nothing like Duterte. And, unlike Marcos, Duterte has not been careful to maintain relations with the U.S., but has threatened to sever them. Irked by mild American criticism of his murder spree, he told Barack Obama “to go to hell” on the eve of a U.S.-sponsored Asian summit that, with the now on-hold Trans-Pacific trade agreement, was to have been a major event in the much-hyped (but so far largely substanceless) American “pivot” to Asia.
These niceties were an embarrassment, but of greater import was Duterte’s own pivot toward China, including a trip to Beijing to solicit capital investment and a hinted military collaboration. The Chinese, who had stiffed Obama personally by forcing him to deplane from Air Force One by a side ramp on a recent visit (and these things do not happen by accident in China), rolled out the red carpet for Duterte. For a prize like the Philippines to fall into their laps would be a major windfall for the Chinese, completely undercutting America’s naval position in Asian waters and sending the strongest possible message to its other major allies that accommodation with China was their only option.
Donald Trump is on record as questioning the whole point of an American military presence in Asia, and wondering aloud why major industrial powers like Japan and South Korea cannot defend themselves and even provide their own nuclear security. That is even sweeter music to Beijing’s ears, and, given the utter failure and inconsequence of American foreign policy in the Obama years from Europe to the Middle East to the Pacific, we now face a crossroads. The simple question that will be posed to Obama’s successor is, do we want a foreign policy based on large-scale security commitments around the globe of the sort that have sucked us into major conflicts in the postwar era — Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and the looming confrontation with Russia — and can we, given our own domestic situation, afford them, materially or morally?
We’ve been getting into misguided and fundamentally unwinnable wars for nearly seventy years now on the excuse that our so-called “credibility” as a superpower was at stake. When the Soviet Union collapsed a quarter of a century ago, this policy seemed to have been vindicated; we were the sole remaining superpower, a uniquely powerful hegemon. A new American century seemed to be dawning, and with it a “new world order” as George H. W. Bush, borrowing a catchphrase from Hitler, was not embarrassed to call it, in which American-style capitalism and democracy would be the reigning paradigm, enforced where necessary by American might.
That hopeful moment — for anyone who took hope from it — seems very long ago now. We have had a run of three administrations that have featured the worst and most feckless foreign policy regimes in our modern history, and have left us pretty much a laughing-stock. Bill Clinton knew little and cared less about world affairs. He let a genocidal slaughter proceed in Rwanda, and a brutal civil war burn unchecked in the former Yugoslavia. With little forethought, he presided over a geopolitical expansion toward the borders of Russia that was bound to result, as it now has, in a new Cold War, with all its old potential of becoming a hot one. Clinton came to office in a country tired of foreign entanglements, and so his own personal proclivity — to ignore the world as much as possible, except for ceremonial purposes or as a facilitator of business-friendly trade deals such as NAFTA — answered to the public mood. The world wasn’t going to go away, though, as his successor discovered on 9/11.
George W. Bush’s disasters need no rehashing here: When George W. Bush left office, American prestige had sunk to its lowest ebb since it presented itself as a player on the world stage a century before.
Much was hoped for from Barack Obama, at least from America’s European allies, but his personal weakness and utter lack of strategic vision only compounded the mess left by his predecessor. He dithered over the uprisings of the Arab Spring, giving Russia an opening to return to prominence in the Middle East for the first time in four decades, and was drawn, with no policy preparation, into a war with Libya by European cheerleaders that resulted in a new failed state and a new haven for terrorists. European Union leaders, meanwhile — read, Germany — blithely ignored Obama’s warnings that economic austerity would lead to prolonged depression in the wake of the financial crash of 2008, a prediction that came true. In fact, pretty much no one has been listening to Obama about anything for a long time.
The question that now presents itself is whether Donald Trump’s suggestion — essentially, a neo-isolationism that projects national interests (“America first”) and leaves the rest of the world to deal with its own problems — is not, at least in the short term, a more realistic as well as a less expensive strategy for the country. Trump is not mistaken that America’s economic problems, notably the loss of its manufacturing base, has left it a vulnerable debtor nation, whose bill, when it comes due, will be difficult to pay. The size of our economy in the world has left the dollar intact so far as the world’s reserve currency, but that is an advantage we can no longer count on indefinitely. Without getting our own house in order, addressing its severe problems of wealth inequality, persistent underemployment, a dangerously decayed infrastructure and a dysfunctional educational system, our present discomfitures are only a taste of worse to come.
Of course, Trump was not the man to address these issues. An isolationist one moment and a jingoist the next, with no plausible program for economic recovery or anything else, he has served merely as the canary in the coal mine, pointing out disaster without the least ability to meet it. Hillary Clinton, however, promises only more of the same; unlike Obama and unlike her husband, she is in no sense a reluctant warrior. That way lies only further grief.
The United States is far too great a presence in the world to simply withdraw from it. That presence has not for a long time been a wise or constructive one, however, and it is long overdue to rethink it from top to bottom. We are not the world’s policeman, let alone its bully, and we ought to get over the illusion that we are perceived as its benefactor — nearly a quarter of the world’s population thinks rather that we are the greatest threat to global peace. We ought to be devoting ourselves to building responsible international institutions, helping to eradicate poverty and blight, and leading by example to contain climate change. At present, we are largely doing the opposite.
It may be well, too, for us to let others settle their own affairs for a change, and even to botch them. We should always be ready to render assistance, but never to impose it. That we have military bases and “advisors” in over a hundred countries is simply preposterous, and we can hardly be surprised if it earns us hatred. This will only change when we do.
As for Mr. Duterte, if he and the voters who elected him really do want us out of their country, we should be happy to oblige. There are a lot of potholes in my neighborhood that need fixing, and a lot of bridges I go over that need repair. There are a lot of kids in the city where I live who go hungry. I wouldn’t feel like a bad world citizen to deal with those problems first. And as to the South China Sea … I’m sure it’ll still be there when we get back.