If you were to read The Washington Post account of President Donald Trump’s recent trip to Asia, you would sense some exasperation between the lines.
The headline read: “From Myanmar to the Philippines, Trump largely ignores human rights on Asia trip.”
The news report went on: “MANILA — As his first official trip to Asia neared its end Monday, President Donald Trump had yet to utter a word about the vicious military campaign against the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar, which the United Nations’ top human rights official has called a ‘textbook example’ of genocide.
“Earlier in Vietnam, Trump embraced the communist nation’s leaders during a state visit to Hanoi without publicly raising the ongoing crackdown on political speech and independent journalists. He lavished praise in Beijing on Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who oversees an authoritarian system that sharply limits press freedoms, as ‘a very special man.’
“And here in Manila, human rights issues were barely discussed — if at all — in Trump’s first meeting with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has garnered worldwide condemnation for waging a bloody, extrajudicial drug war that has killed thousands, including children, who have either been shot in police raids or targeted by hit men, often after being named by police.”
Much as the concern for human rights and the apparent exasperation of The Washington Post reporters can be appreciated, it’s also not difficult to understand why Trump dealt the way he did with his host nations.
It was not simply because being non-confrontational is the “Asian way” — Trump, after all, was a guest in a conference of Asian nations and it would have been discourteous, in the Asian context, to criticize his hosts. It was also not simply because of Trump’s penchant for hyperbole and the manner of a used car salesman (i.e., bolero).
Rather, it was because there are harsh practical political realities to consider in meetings with countries that the United States would like to maintain good relations with. This reality is particularly significant because of the growing status of China as a political and economic powerhouse and a potential patron for cooperative Asian countries.
While popular perception is that the US should be the world’s protector and promoter of human rights — and America has pretty much tried to live up to that image — the harsh political reality is that American interests need to be protected and promoted first, and if it means overlooking human rights violations by friendly nations vs. allowing these nations to gravitate towards hostile states, the pragmatic choice is obvious.
Trump hasn’t been the only American president who has heaped praise on the leaders of nations who have been excoriated in Western media as human rights violators.
When then vice-president George H. W. Bush visited Manila in 1981, during almost a decade of martial law and dictatorial rule, the future president of the US lavishly praised President Ferdinand Marcos for his “adherence to democratic principles and democratic processes.”
The exact words of Bush made human rights advocates puke: “We stand with the Philippines. We love your adherence to democratic principles and democratic processes.”
At that time, Marcos and his military had built a bloody record of human rights violations and undemocratic principles and processes. Bush must have known all of that, but he must have felt, at the time, that it was in America’s best interests to flatter the ego of Marcos.
In other words, Bush was simply being pragmatic. So was his immediate superior, President Ronald Reagan, widely known as a Marcos supporter and supporter of repressive, authoritarian regimes in many parts of the world.
But then, it was still during Reagan’s tenure in the White House that Senator Paul Laxalt told Marcos on the phone, at the height of the People Power Revolution, to “cut and cut clean.”
There was no doubt in the mind of Marcos that Laxalt, a Republican, had given this doomsday suggestion with the full knowledge and consent of Reagan, although the senator claimed that he was “talking only for myself.”
For the DDS (die-hard Duterte supporters) and the Malacañang propagandists, who have spared no adjectives in boasting about Trump’s approval of Duterte’s governance, including his bloody war on drugs, this recollection of history should serve as a cautionary tale.
Official American approval can turn into official American condemnation, depending on American interests.
If the worm turns and public sentiment goes against the Duterte government, someone in Trump’s office will also tell Duterte to “cut and cut clean.”
That is, unless Trump is told to cut and cut clean first. But the DDS can be assured that whoever takes over the Oval Office will send the thumbs down signal as needed, in the name of US interests.
During the Marcos years, Reagan had to make sure that Marcos was on the side of the US against the Soviet Union. America was also not oblivious of the fact that Marcos had initiated warmer relations with Beijing and had a tendency to be more demanding, particularly with respect to the use of American bases in the Philippines.
Similarly, in Latin America, the US had to support authoritarian regimes that were, at the same time, staunchly anti-Communist. It was a case of pragmatism — nurturing the devil who is on your side rather than the demon who is against you.
Perhaps this is where Duterte and his DDS may believe that they hold a trump card (pun unintended) because of his overtures to China and Russia. Duterte has even belligerently declared that he can always shed relations with the US because China and Russia will welcome him with open arms.
That, of course, is being naïve.
First of all, the Russian Bear and the Chinese Dragon are not the most benevolent of allies. Like the US, they have their own national interests to promote and their own military, economic and political agenda to pursue.
Already, China’s territorial intentions on the South China Sea have begun to blatantly threaten Philippine interests. Duterte has to be utterly blind not to know that.
And if he thinks he can play the US against China, because of the former’s interests in the sensitive sea lanes, he might find out that the two giants could arrive at a “mutually beneficial arrangement” that will exclude the Philippines.
And if the day or time comes that someone in Washington DC tells Duterte to cut and cut clean, he would be very naïve to expect Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping to come to his aid — unless, of course, it is in their best interests.
Such are the harsh practical political realities.
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.