Category Archives: Scott Thompson's Column

The Self-respect of Nations: The Philippines and China

by W. Scott Thompson and Oliver Geronilla

 

Somewhere in the first of Trollope’s 6-volume set Palliser Novels, “the Prime Minister,”  the Duke of Omnium, also the premier, tells his usually silly wife that—and we paraphrase—nations are like people:  they elicit (the) respect from outside powers to about the same extent that they do so on a personal basis—according to how much respect they give themselves.

We respect countries and people who respect themselves.  Costa Rica is truly a tiny country, but it eliminated its military, developed peaceful relations with its neighbors, and is considerably the most prestigious country in its neighborhood.  Botswana, by far the richest black state in Africa, even used its adversity during a drought to make itself still richer, but had a unified proud country pulling with it.

Recently, we have been reading with great interest the debate in the Philippine press of how to deal with China.  One of us has been reading this sort of thing for 42 years. This is in fact the most substantive debate on foreign policy we have seen here.

But we are bothered by a few things.  Let’s get some facts straight first.  The Philippines is not a ‘small’ country and it is not a ‘powerless’ country.  It’s going beyond even being a middle-sized country as it hits the 100million mark.

Now, in all respects China is bigger, richer, and far more militarily powerful.  So?  What else is new?  Throughout history smaller countries have had to find ways of dealing with stronger ones.  The only thing the smaller country must never do is make a big deal about how powerless it is.  For by such it becomes far weaker, even pathetic, in the eyes of the stronger.

How should the smaller power act?  There are some old shoes to use.  Of course one constantly reiterates the sovereign equality of nations.  It’s a bit meaningless if one is talking about navies, but it has a basis in history and law, at least back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.  It means that there is a prima facie basis for each power, no matter what size, respecting the others.

Now, to be sure, China has been ascending up a steep ladder.  Britain and then America, as they expanded, found ‘natural and historical’ rights to establish coaling stations (Shanghai, Bombay) that became colonies or extra-territorial enclaves. Empire Britain became.  America found ‘friends’ to rent all over the world as cold war fever swept over it, and poor countries like Ethiopia sold rights to its Asmara high ground, where a vital communications link was built to bring the world together—under American hegemony.

China historically has not gone in that way.  It never established a world empire.  It thinks regionally–whence its invasion of Vietnam in late 1978, to ‘teach it a lesson,’ though it seems like it was China that got taught a lesson.  Yet here’s the rub for the Philippines: It’s right in the way of China’s claim to maritime supremacy in its region.

Manila is right to build up its navy to minimize the danger.  It is wrong to go around feeling sorry for itself.  No one respects that.   But there is precedent. One of us, in September, will be publishing a long and authorized biography of former President Fidel Ramos, in which a major player is General Jose Almonte, himself quite a card to play, as the region’s foremost and smartest strategist.  FVR assigned Joal the job of dealing with China over the first real eruption of major problems with China over the Spratly islands.  Joal told us—and we are paraphrasing from the forthcoming biography—that he didn’t even believe in FVR’s assignment—to find a solution.  Joal understands power; he didn’t believe he had any cards to play.  But he rallied the region, even consulting Koreans and other nearby non-Asean powers.  He put China on the defensive and they began asserting that they were not a traditional great power; they weren’t trying to use might over right.  Ha!

General Almonte, to his own astonishment, achieved his purpose.  The Chinese backed down.  Of course there’s a lot of water over the dam since then—and a far larger Chinese navy.  What worked then must be tried harder today.  Insist in all fora on the ‘equality of nations;’ work the region as a whole.  Differences among Asean countries must be eliminated, as they play right into the Chinese hand.

Above all, achieve coherence at home.  Nothing strengthens a country more than the integrity of its political system and a growing economy.  Respect your president—give him the free hand he needs.  So far he’s been a winner abroad.  Does China want to look like a bully against a freely-elected (and overwhelmingly supported) young and popular leader?

Fight all you want domestically for advantage (but Ampatuan methods are ruled out), but as a nation be as one.  Foreign policy begins at the water’s edge, we always said.

Yet there are times when might makes right—for a time.  Still the picture of the beleaguered exiled emperor of Ethiopia at the League o Nations, after Italy defeated his forces in 1935, appealing on the grounds of sovereignty and dignity of his country, is one of the most popular of the 20th century.

If the Philippines doesn’t want to see its sovereignty violated, it must be wholly united, not by asking for pity on grounds of its powerlessness, but on grounds of its rights as a united political entity. This time it’s going to be a lot more difficult.  The Foreign Secretary looks like he’s got it right—and he’s a man of dignity who had to work for years in Washington with a weak hand to play; but he did it well.  Get Behind Secretary Del Rosario.  Be two nations if you will: a squabbling one internally (though the less so the better) but a coherent people with respect to foreign policy.

The Philippines has never had much interest in statecraft—compare Thailand.  Manila felt for too long it was protected by the US.  Even now it is putting wordly faith in its mutual defense treaty with Washington.  That has to get substantive.  Call a conference.  Put America more and more on the spot. Card by card build your hand.  The Philippines can’t stand up to China in a military conflict, but the Philippines can make that the least likely of scenarios.  In fact, we see the Philippines as having a quite strong hand in law of the sea, ASEAN unity, history, international law, and international prestige (the latter as applied to China as it wishes to present itself internationally).  Go for it!

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Oliver Geronilla is a language instructor based in the City of Dasmarinas .  W. Scott Thompson, D.Phil. served four presidents in the United States and is professor emeritus of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston .  He lives in Washington and Makati City and is the author of 14 books on international relations and Southeast Asian politics.


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Turning Weaknesses into Strengths

 

By W. Scott Thompson and Oliver Geronilla

 

 We have always hated people giving advice.  It usually stems from their own insecurities or their desire to look stronger and wiser than we are.  But what if you ask for it? Sartre, on one occasion, said: “Once you choose your adviser, you’ve chosen your advice.”  So much for the impartiality of advice.

Now when a bright new president comes on the scene, Dutch Uncles are just full of advice especially if that “advice” might give them an entrée to Malacanang. There are also the doubting Thomases-cum-analysts who sometimes play politics. The question is:  Is it wrong for analysts or the general public to think about all the qualifications—and disqualifications—of a new leader—and how to play to these?  We don’t think so. After all, no one is perfect. 

There are five things that people say about the new president that might be negative but can be positive.

First, he isn’t an economist—though he, in fact, studied economics at Ateneo.  Well, Barack Obama isn’t an economist either. Nor Winston Churchill. Nor Franklin Roosevelt. Nor is any major leader in the world to our knowledge.  Oh,  there was GMA—an economist.  What a marvelous reason to be grateful that P-Noy isn’t an economist.

Second, P-Noy isn’t peripatetic,  isn’t instant-energetic, likes to sleep late, and doesn’t get excited.  That’s a disadvantage?  Well, there are lots of things to be done when you are president, and we assume that P-Noy isn’t like Erap, sleeping late because he’s hung over and wants to start the new day (as we once saw him) with brandy and roast beef. All hail to saying ‘Chill’ when everyone else is running around.  Remember Kipling’s poem ‘If’?  ‘

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
….

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

  …you’ll be a Man, my son!

 Third, he is sometimes faulted for not having a wife.  But he was overwhelmingly elected with that in full view.  In these days, is this anybody’s business?  Maybe it’s strength.  Every eligible woman in the country will hope to become first lady.  The position is not foreclosed though we presume that the new president is comfortable with his life as it is, and we shouldn’t expect any changes.

There is only one ‘weakness’ that might be scary—the fourth. P-Noy hasn’t been to Europe.  In this he echoes ‘W’ Bush, who through his father’s headship of the CIA, ambassadorship to China, etc., never traveled beyond the Rio Grande. P-Noy could have accompanied his mother on her trips as head of state—and chose not to.  We don’t however think his reasons are the bad ones that ‘W’ had (‘W’ was drugging and drinking in those years).  And we recall our own shock that Ronald Reagan went to Venice for a G-8 summit, revealed he’d never been there, and even then avoided St. Marks Cathedral and the great plaza.  But Reagan was a great president. In fact P-Noy’s tendency to stay at home might mean a lack of braggadocio, a contentedness with his huge responsibilities here in the archipelago.  Let’s hope so.

Now the last weakness: P-Noy smokes.  Maybe that’s his biggest strength, but it makes him an instant friend of Barack Obama. At the dreamy level of heads of state, the highest club of any, all you need is a connection to the king-of-kings.  They have it; they’ve already had a long chat about it.  Obama we think a bit hypocritically is reported as saying that he’s quit, but his annual physical contradicts that. So they’ve got plenty to joke about.  And no doubt on his state visit, President Noy and Barack will find a room deep down in the nuclear-secure area of the White House to have some smoke and jokes.

A leader usually emerges because he ‘fits’ the needs of his electorate.  In this case, President Noy fits the desperate need of the Filipino electorate for someone whom they can trust after nine years of scalawags; Benigno Aquino III was elected because he fits a huge requirement for the job—the nation’s desire for someone in the mold of his mother, more a saint than a devil.

Don’t worry about critics, and don’t worry about all the advice, P-Noy. Remember what Franklin Roosevelt said, when the carping got intense? “I welcome their hatred,” sublimely—and with his cigarette flashing from its iconic holder. //

 

Oliver Geronilla is a language instructor based in Dasmariñas City. W. Scott Thompson, Dr. Phil. served four presidents in the United States and is professor emeritus of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston.

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VFA: a Lick and a Promise?

 

By W. Scott Thompson and Oliver Geronilla*

 

“Well, because he looked like a wild boar,” the American serviceman explained his shooting of a Pinoy at Subic Bay forty years ago; was there anything more insensitive he might have said? Oh yes there is. When rich Bill Blair arrived with his wife (Deedee of the ten best dressed women of the world), he said Filipinos were “ungrateful” with respect to the bases and all else America had purportedly done for the Philippines—was he referring to the Thomasites or to the development of the Colt 45 so to be able to kill Filipinos more efficiently in the independence war?

This has always been the worst issue between Filipinos and Americans, so it’s no surprise that Senator Santiago has picked it up. She always knows how to inflame issues for her own advantage. Should the government dance foxtrot with Miriam? With her stance in the senate, it seems that she’s now on the fast beat strutting much faster to ask GMA to renegotiate the executive bilateral agreement. And if all fails, “terminate the agreement,” she opines.

Here’s the nub of the issue. At independence, the Philippines was destroyed by war and destitute; the American star was ascending all over the world. America was—since it was little affected by World War II—half the world product, if only briefly. The Philippine bargaining position wasn’t exactly strong. And the governing elite, more or less the same then as the sugar elite, satisfied itself with the famous American sugar quota, whereby the American consumer paid a 400% bounty for sweets from the archipelago, in return for all the concessions on sovereignty. There was also a lot of talk back then about how the American military commitment to the Philippines was a lot less automatic than to NATO partners, which was true, though with time this has become moot.

Principally, here was the question of jurisdiction over crimes committed by Americans on official duty at and around the bases. Status of forces agreements in almost all cases involved the American request for waivers for soldiers charged with a crime to be tried in their own courts. NATO countries granted 94.8% of the waivers requested as of 1970; the Philippines 00.9%. There just wasn’t a lot of trust in this realm.

For a generation, that’s all we heard of. The agreements here were “second class,” America saw the Philippines as “second class.” Well, yes and no. It is true that the NATO provisions were more favorable to the host countries. But in all fairness, the Philippines was just developing its judicial system and we all know some of the weaknesses. The USA used its economic position for concessions, but it was increasingly—and has been ever since—a comparison of apples with oranges.

Come the base lease endings in 1991, new temporary agreements were concluded. They really encapsulated the best of the past, though one of Cory’s chief advisers thought they were less favorable than those previously existing. Not so, said the then SND, Fidel V. Ramos, when he was interviewed at the time.

But now the atmosphere is heating up all over again. Filipinos are discovering that the 500 Americans merely ‘advising’ in Mindanao (and the moon is made of cheese?) are thick in the fight and they are worried that once again the USA can slip one over on the less powerful Philippines, and spirit away offending American troops. Well, at least the 500 got GMA enough of an excuse to extract a meaningless thirty -minute meeting with Barack Obama, right? And the fight in Mindanao, the leading authority on insurgency in Southeast Asia, Zachary Abuza, has said, is the foremost front in the region against terrorism, right?

That puts all and sundry in limbo.

Seeing the people in the government espouse principles that are poles apart is nothing new. Senator Santiago’s “either A or B” approach in making VFA work for the country is laudable, but things are not always what they seem. All these issues have been there for a long time waiting to be examined. But why just now? People might argue that certain loopholes only become apparent when problems surface out. True. But isn’t it a classical case of healing only when and where it hurts?

Secretary Teodoro sings a different tune. Almost a month ago, he warned the nation against abrogating the agreement as it won’t bode well for the country for “it might send a wrong signal to its allies that it cannot keep its commitment.” Just recently, he issued another statement saying that the discussions on the matter must be done after the elections so as  to avoid putting political color into it. That holds water, doesn’t it? Or, is it just a political posturing?

Legal luminaries have of course asked the Supreme court’s help on this issue zooming in on its constitutionality; however, the Supreme Court has articulated its position not only once but twice– It is constitutional! What happened to Art. VII, Sec. 21 of the Philippine Constitution? It says: “No treaty or international agreement shall be valid and effective unless concurred in by at least two-thirds of all the members of the Senate.” It’s perhaps due to this reason that the Former Senate President, Jovito Salonga, together with the other petitioners who questioned its constitutionality does not lose hope. In fact, they’re keeping their fingers crossed that the other justices would join the four who dissented.

Has the Upper House done its job? For the nonce, yes. Senate Resolution No. 1356 serves as its clarion call aimed at GMA to serve notice to the US to terminate or renegotiate the agreement.

And the Lower House? Well, based on their reactions, it seems that they are not singing from the same hymnbook.

Not too long ago, Senator Joker Arroyo succinctly wrapped up the issue by asking both the legislative and the executive branches of the government to iron things out minus the bickering that we have been seeing on national television.

Clearly, they are at loggerheads. Without a unified stand on the issue, we all know too well that everything is bound to come a cropper. We think that Miriam is doing a disservice. This is a very difficult issue, and as a lawyer, she knows better than to present it all in chiliastic terms. Time for her to consult her, shall we say, “advisers”?

And oh… Let’s all wait till the fat lady sings.

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* W. Scott Thompson, D.Phil., is professor emeritus of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He wrote this with the assistance of Oliver Geronilla, language instructor at HMA, Dasmariñas, Cavite

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Madame John Quincy Adams?

 

By W. Scott Thompson and Oliver Geronilla*

 

The sixth American president, like GMA, was the child of a previous president: John Quincy Adams was son to second president John Adams. After he lost his bid for reelection in 1828 to the populist Andrew Jackson, he bided his time looking for ways to be useful to the young republic, and stood for election in 1830 to the House of Representatives as a candidate from his home state of Massachusetts.

Is there another parallel emerging? We hear that the 14th president of this republic plans to stand for election to the Filipino House of Representatives from her home province of Pampanga. Is this a horrific loss of face—to go from palace to mere Batasan? Well, Adams refused to consider it as such, and as Congressman Adams in fact achieved far more than as President Adams. His was the essential and eloquent voice against slavery throughout his 17 years in the House, and he is remembered as one of the preeminent men of principle in the history of American politics. So we guess the parallel has already become dubious.

For we know that Congress is not all that GMA has in mind. Hers has been a relentless search for ways to remain in power, and we haven’t found a single suggestion here in Manila that it is because she so deeply wants to serve her country. Rather, it is usually suggested, she doesn’t wish to serve it in jail. For a single page of paper issued by the department of justice can instigate a search for any properties she or any member of her family may have obtained—even with a smidgen of evidence—of laundered or otherwise unlawfully gained funds.

Here’s what could happen. An unfriendly successor in Malacanang can authorize the DOJ to empower any investigator abroad to go to a court (say, in San Francisco) with the slightest of proof that a building was so obtained, and the court will in all likelihood freeze the ownership of this house or building, preventing its sale. The investigator can then go to that American court and through a complicated but brief process demand under oath an accounting for all funds used to acquire it (it’s called ‘Discovery’ in America). The resulting bank records, of course, can be used to follow the flow of funds all over the world. One can hide one end of a bank record—but not both ends—and the resulting search can take the investigator all over the world to discover all related funds in cut-out companies, holding firms, banks, or any other entity used to acquire properties or equities with illegal monies. The results can be, might well be, devastating.

Globalization has proceeded in international law at a breathtaking pace in recent years. Government ministers can be arrested in any of a number of countries. Israeli ministers do not, for this reason, travel to Belgium, which has ‘friendly’ laws for seizing persona of governments so accused. Small wonder Robert Mugabe doesn’t travel without previous assurances of legal immunity. The United States kidnapped the Panamanian head of state; a San Francisco court convicted the former prime minister of Ukraine on 27 counts of felony connected with his acquisition of about $40m of properties in the Bay Area and he has spent quite a time in jail or otherwise restricted there.

Apparently Mrs. Arroyo knows all this. It’s no wonder she wants the protection of high office. But at what cost to the Republic? Her problem though is a different one. A friendly successor can promise her immunity here in the Philippines, but that’s worth nothing abroad. Any properties she or her family hold abroad can be scrutinized for any illegality.

In this instance of course she can avoid travel to the accusing country, but that might be a bit of a problem if she, say for example as prime minister of a newly-formed parliamentary republic, wishes to address the United Nations (or enjoy the properties members of her family are thought to possess abroad).

Now John Quincy Adams didn’t have any of these problems. Though his family wasn’t poor—they’d been merchants prior to Father’s presidency—he didn’t have properties abroad or much at home. But he had honor, honor to burn. And his descendants—though two of his sons had painful careers trying to carry family honor—included the great Charles Francis Adams, diplomat and writer, whose namesakes continue to brighten the Boston skyline.

There is a parallel with the sixth American president for the fourteenth president to consider. She could run for Congress, and of course win, and then serve with honor in the manner that her ample professional qualifications allow her—the macroeconomic record of her presidency is very impressive. She and her family could continue to serve the Philippines in a way that causes no ugly rumors to emerge. One presumes that her financial problems aren’t great; it’s the legal ones that bother her. But if she began anew, let us say in the style of her incorruptible father, she could burnish the golden side of her record impressively—and our guess is that no one would dare challenge her legally. When you have honor on your side, even if it emerges only latterly, foreign courts just aren’t too interested in incarcerating you. And the American president would surely then welcome such a person—it is all too well known that Barack Obama spurned her initial attempts for a meeting simply because of the tarnish that lingers over her presidency.

Eight years ago, it was written that Mrs. Macapagal-Arroyo had an unparalleled opportunity to leave a fantastic legacy, since she almost certainly had most of a decade to do it from Malacanang. It’s never too late to start.

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*Oliver Geronilla, a Bulaneño and  co-author of Dr. W. Scott Thompson (a former US Assistant Secretary of State), is a senior language instructor of  Han Maum Academy, Philippines. He has been teaching ESL since 2000.

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