In the past the Philippines foreign policy has been overly submissive to US interests and often failed to promote the country’s own interests. As the world increasingly becomes a multipolar environment the country will need to invest more in bringing the best minds to work on national diplomacy and strategy.
The Discursive deficit
Probably the most important issue missing from our public discourse on national development is the nature of our Foreign Policy and whether it has served our national interest in the recent times. Most of the political discourse in the country has been predominantly, if not exclusively, focused on the issue of corruption and its implications for poverty alleviation, good governance and holistic national development. In our obsession with the generic, somehow abstract, notion of ‘corruption’, we have missed the opportunity to tackle other fundamental issues, policies and ideological positions, which have contributed to the profound stagnation and cycle of poverty that has gripped our nation for decades.
History, in unequivocal terms, tells us how many of the so called "late-developing countries" such as Germany, Russia, Japan and later China were able to catch-up and close the development-gap existing between them and the industrialized capitalist countries in the west, through the crafting of a strategic and comprehensive foreign policy doctrine.
No nation is an absolute self-sustaining island and that is why in a quest for national development, each country should be very aware, prudent and "enlightened" vis-à-vis its approach towards other nations on issues such as trade, security and diplomatic ties. The outside world is a market of opportunities that can be optimally utilized if one applies the best possible foreign policy calculus.
The restrictive nature of our public discourse has made it almost impossible for us to pressure, encourage and inspire our political leaders to explain, adopt and implement a foreign policy doctrine that would ensure we get the best possible outcome out of our every engagement, entanglement, agreement and treaty with other nations. A concrete indication of such under-appreciation for our foreign policy is how we allocate minimal budget to our already overstretched, exhausted and under-funded Department of Foreign Affairs. This is in contrast to many of our neighboring countries – Malaysia and Singapore – and co-developing countries, Brazil and Turkey, which have realized the importance of an optimal foreign policy calculus. As a result, they have substantially invested in attracting the best minds into the diplomatic core and continuously re-examined, re-configured and upgraded their foreign policy on a plethora of issues from bilateral and multilateral trade agreements to security arrangements with major powers such as the US or China.
The Philippines’ "Grand Strategy"
A careful look at our foreign policy doctrine reveals how it has been defined, operated and how it has persisted under the shadow of US foreign policy. It is essentially a non-assertive submissive ‘Grand Strategy’ under the shadows of a superpower.
Grand Strategy is defined as "a basic stance adopted by a country vis-à-vis the rest of the world; it may or may not be explicit. It is promoted by a political elite – in competition with other elite factions – with substantial domestic political base."
Despite the fact that the Philippines represents a relatively huge demographic, economic and geo-strategic value, we have hardly played a pivotal role in the shaping of the broader international order – which inevitably affected our long-term national interest – and unquestionably capitulated to a plethora of damaging ‘structural-adjustment programs’ and ‘political pressure’ by powerful financial institutions and countries. Often, very small countries such as Qatar, Libya and Singapore were able to play a more central, active and assertive role in their engagements with powerful countries and even played an important role in shaping initiatives on the regional and international level.
The moral lesson is clear: regardless of a country’s size, what matters is how you frame, conduct and implement your foreign policy demarches with the ultimate purpose of defending your national interest. Unlike the Phils., what these many countries did was to ‘skillfully’ emphasize, if not exaggerate, their ‘strategic’ value to their more powerful partners and used this as a leverage to extract maximum benefits and concessions from each bilateral and multilateral agreement and treaty they had signed. For instance, Singapore, with a remarkable astuteness, has balanced and even expanded its ties with both China and the US. Qatar, a small Kingdom in the Persian Gulf, is currently one of the major diplomatic mediators on the Israeli-Syrian conflict, Iran’s nuclear program, Palestine and the civil conflict in Sudan.
Diplomacy is both an art and a science that demands huge political and financial investment – if a country is determined to master it.
Additionally, our foreign policy is essentially OFW-centric. Partly due to our misguided and underdeveloped foreign policy approach in the 20th century, we engaged in many problematic entanglements, agreements and concessions, which proved to place us at a losing position in terms of our trade and politico-security ties with the foreign nations. This has led to economic stagnation and a cycle of poverty and unemployment that precipitated the exodus of many of our much-needed skilled-labor to countries in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and North America.
Today, a huge chunk of our foreign policy is centered on the concerns of our OFWs in their respective country of employment and somehow a mere extension of the Department of Labor and employment. From protecting our OFW’s against injustices endured by our countrymen under the hands of abusive employers, opportunistic middlemen and dubious recruitment agencies to exhausting our diplomatic missions by shaking hands and greeting Sheikhs in the Middle East and thanking them for ‘welcoming’ the very people, which are contributing to the development of their economies. As a result, our foreign policy outlook and energy has been confined to a specific set of issues and has hardly evolved beyond.
Our trade-economic diplomatic missions have also suffered from a lack of foresight, in-depth evaluation of policy-commitments and necessary assertiveness to safeguard our interests. This explains why we persistently acceded to international and regional arrangements and agreements, which paved the way for our heavy imports from other countries and subsequent reversal of our industrialization, massive displacement of our domestic producers and a cycle of unemployment that hardly aided our efforts at poverty alleviation and national development.
An even more sobering account of our economic diplomacy is how we have succumbed to International Financial Institutions, the World Bank and IMF, and accepted self-defeating structural adjustment programs as well as hefty debt-payment arrangements that siphoned a lion share of our national budget off for decades to come. This was legally enshrined in the form of automatic debt appropriations. Our ‘negotiators’ prioritized – and continue to do so – the "good debtor model" as a sacrosanct value that took precedence over our profound need to invest as much money as possible on our decrepit infrastructure and overstretched under-funded public services sectors such as health care and education. All of these diplomatic-strategic blunders – making our fiscal policy extremely inflexible – were detrimental to our hopes for national development and profoundly betrayed our national interest.
Diplomatic clout and economic clout are two intertwined issues. Despite the fact that the Philippines’s economic potential – to be among major emerging economies – has been consistently emphasized in reports by financial organizations such as Goldman Sachs and International Business group, we can not deny how our country’s economic clout is increasingly overshadowed by other fast-developing economies such as Brazil, Turkey and Malaysia that have utilized more sophisticated economic-security foreign policy doctrines. As we fall behind in the race for economic dominance, our diplomatic clout is being considerably diminished. A reversal of such trend would necessitate extraordinary ‘diplomatic virtue’, systematic and methodical re-organization of our diplomatic service and a proficient approach towards existing and future engagements.
Reinventing our foreign policy
In a nation known for its ‘internationalized’ culture, educated population, eloquence and an admirable grasp of foreign languages, there is no shortage of talent for 21st century diplomatic service. But the mere possession of talents is not a guarantee for collective success of a nation. Systematic efficiency and the nature of organizational arrangements determine the extent of a nations’ success. If recruitment, promotion and assignments are based on political expediency instead of deep policy-evaluation, one should not be surprised to see a diplomatic service that lacks the capability and motivation to secure our national interest at any cost. Our Department of Foreign Affairs is not in isolation from the rest of the bureaucracy and what it represents. Government departments tend to reflect the inherent inefficiencies that describe our overall bloated bureaucracy; immense lack of investment in our diplomatic service is not really an encouraging sign. With 90 million souls to protect and millions of citizens working abroad, one expects the diplomatic service to constitute an elite cadre of professional, nationalist and internationally adept individuals.
Foreign policy becomes even more critical on the immutable issue of national security. Given our immense vulnerability to both traditional security threats – possibility of confrontation, invasion and war with neighboring countries on territorial disputes – and non-traditional security concerns – climate crisis, epidemic diseases, maritime piracy etc. – we should focus on our foreign policy more than ever. Our military capabilities are undeniably limited, even by regional standards, and that means our diplomatic efforts, in the meantime, are central to compensating for such crucial capability-gap.
Academics and experts are valuable assets, who should also be central to our efforts in refurbishing our foreign policy structure. Not only advanced countries such as the US have employed the aid of leading academics in shaping their foreign policy, but also countries such as Turkey have increasingly closed the "regrettable" gap between the academia and the actual diplomatic service.
In less than a decade, Turkey was transformed from a bankrupt nation into a member of the elite G-20, key partner within the NATO, member of the UNSC and a major player in the Middle East. Many attribute such success to the leading Turkish Political Scientist and current Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutuglo. Huge lessons can indeed be drawn from many other developing countries, which have finally realized the value of an advanced professionalized modern foreign policy structure.
Conclusions: propositions for a new Filipino foreign policy
1. We should get out of the shadow of the United States
2. We should understand that the US is in decline and we exist in an increasingly multi-polar world.
3. We ourselves must define our stance on key issues such as:
A.) Rise of China and its implications to our region
B.) The emerging global financial order
C.) The failure of globalization and trade liberalization
3. We must reflect these new priorities in the structure of foreign service bureaucracy and go beyond merely serving as an extension of the foreign relations arm of DOLE.
4. Fully professionalize the Foreign Service and stop making appointments based on political considerations.
5. Strengthen the overall analytical and policy-making capacities of the diplomatic service, from Think Tanks to geographic and area-specific research centers.
Senior analyst at Philippine think-tank Focus on the Global South, TNI fellow and Akbayan representative in the Filipino Congress.
Author of more than 14 books, Bello was awarded the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) in 2003 for "… outstanding efforts in educating civil society about the effects of corporate globalisation, and how alternatives to it can be implemented." Bello has been described by the Economist as the man “who popularised a new term: deglobalisation.”
Bello predicted the financial crisis several years prior to the current meltdown and is a globally respected figure within the alternative globalisation movement. Canadian author Naomi Klein called him the "world’s leading no-nonsense revolutionary."