Has Duterte Killed the U.S.-Philippine Alliance?

President Rodrigo Duterte with Fr. Joel Tabora SJ and Environment Secretary Regina Paz Lopez. Wikimedia Commons/Presidential Communications Operations Office

American alliances have seen worse, and survived.

There has been a noticeable trend in the United States’ enduring system of alliances. From the Asia-Pacific, to Europe to the Middle East, relationships that were once politically untouchable now seem more vulnerable than ever. As evidence of this trend, state leaders are exhibiting some of the strongest anti-alliance sentiments in recent memory. The Philippines is only the latest chapter in the growing tome of weakening partnerships.

Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte and U.S. president Barack Obama’s relationship began on a sour note. Intentional or not, President Duterte’s choice of words while speaking about President Obama during a press conference resulted in a canceled meeting between the two leaders. A few weeks after, Duterte suggested American special forces to cease its operations and leave Mindanao and hinted at a shift towards China and Russia. Experts began questioning whether or not the U.S.-Philippine alliance would survive Duterte.

The U.S.-Philippine defense pact is not the only one in the crosshairs. Throughout his campaign, presidential hopeful Donald Trump repeatedly questioned the value of NATO and, in the event of a successful bid for the White House, threatened withdrawal unless European partners agreed to shoulder more of the financial burden. He also levied this charge against South Korea and Japan.

Even the United States’ relations with Israel, a longstanding alliance that has largely been popular and enjoyed bipartisan support, have hit historic lows. President Obama and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have one of the most dysfunctional relationships ever seen, and U.S.-Israeli ties are facing an unprecedented amount of criticism from the American public.

But just how much of a state’s foreign policy is subject to the whims of an individual? Well, if you’re a realist, the answer is not much. Unfortunately for Duterte and Trump, history has repeatedly shown that systemic pressures and geopolitical realities have much more to say about the future of alliances than strong personalities, rocky relationships or even domestic pressures.

In the late 1970s, the U.S.-South Korean (ROK) alliance faced its most serious existential threat under the Carter administration. President Jimmy Carter campaigned on the promise of unilaterally withdrawing all American nuclear forces and troops from the Korean peninsula. Once in office, he was singularly hell-bent on fulfilling this promise. Halfway into his term, he managed to remove over three thousand troops and more than half of U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in South Korea, before Congress and the U.S. military convinced him to abandon his withdrawal plans. Though substantial, it fell far short of President Carter’s initial designs, and the U.S.-ROK alliance continues to be robust and endure to this day.

This is not the first time the U.S.-Israeli relationship has faced such pressures, either. With the conclusion of the Cold War, Israel received hundreds of thousands of Soviet refugees hoping to start anew in the Promised Land. Then prime minister Yitzhak Shamir looked to the U.S. for a multibillion-dollar loan guarantee to help absorb the refugees. However, at the same time, thousands of right-wing Israelis sought to make the West Bank and Gaza Strip their home. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush refused to cosign as guarantor of Israel’s loans unless Prime Minister Shamir agreed to cease Israeli settlement of the occupied territories.

The Bush-Shamir relationship, not unlike Obama and Netanyahu’s, was fraught with tension and mutual disdain for one another. Nevertheless, Bush eventually relented and agreed to guarantee the multibillion-dollar loans, albeit to the next Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. Echoing the past, amidst all the chatter of historic lows and a very troubled relationship, the Obama administration very quietly signed an agreement that provided Israel with a record-breaking $38 billion in military aid over the next decade.

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