Has Duterte Killed the U.S.-Philippine Alliance?
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.
So, what about Duterte and the Philippines? The U.S.-Philippine alliance may bend, but it will almost certainly not break. Firstly, President Duterte’s choice to target American forces in the southern Philippines is a curious one. Hovering at around two hundred, the troops in question are remnants of Operation Enduring Freedom – Philippines (OEF-P), a subordinate operation under the greater Global War on Terror. His combative comments came when operations had already officially concluded over a year ago and the troops had completed significant drawdowns. It would have been much more compelling if President Duterte had called for the expulsion of American forces at the height of OEF-P’s counterterrorism efforts against Mindanao’s Islamic militants. Instead, what we have is a low-risk, high-reward maneuver for Duterte: he risks losing a token force in exchange for bolstering his public image as a strongman leader immune to American pressure.
Regardless, signs have already begun to emerge that the U.S.-Philippine alliance is under no real threat of dissolution. Philippine foreign secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. has already clarified that removal of American troops would merely be a “temporary measure” out of concern for the safety of American personnel and not a change in the Philippines’ alliance policy with the United States. The U.S. government, in return, announced that no formal request has been submitted by the Philippine government, and both countries were quick to reiterate their “rock solid” commitment to one another.
Obviously, given their position, state leaders receive an inordinate amount of weight and attention. However, threat perception and facts on the ground determine how long an alliance will persist more than any other variable. Japan and South Korea are still worried about North Korea, the Philippines still have no answer to Chinese aggression and island building in the South China Sea, and Israel is still surrounded by hostile powers. None of these realities have changed, and maintaining intimate security partnerships with the United States continues to be in the interests of America’s alliance partners. Now, whether or not these alliances simultaneously serve the interests of the United States is a completely different debate altogether.
Harry H. Sa is a research analyst with the United States Programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) based in the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is from Los Angeles, California.
Image: President Rodrigo Duterte with Fr. Joel Tabora SJ and Environment Secretary Regina Paz Lopez. Wikimedia Commons/Presidential Communications Operations Office