Duterte's 'Brand-Is-Crisis' Strategy

In terms of inter-operability, there is no better fit than the United States for the Philippines in establishing effective credible defense and materiel capability on the part of Philippine armed forces. The military alliance between the two countries has been built up over many years, yet President Rodrigo Duterte announced that this week's military exercise between U.S and Philippine forces would "be the last" and that the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) will be "reviewed." He now plans to open new alliances with Russia and China. Why these countries?

For developing countries characterized by weak defense capability, armed forces modernization will depend in no small part upon concepts of inter-operability between the more advanced, exporting military power and the receiving state. There is a world of difference between piloting a Russian Su-35 fighter and an F-16 Fighting Falcon or their variants, and between inheriting Soviet-era remnants of the Black Sea Fleet and commanding multi-role US Coast Guard Cutters. The former pair will require paradigm shifts in managing their respective materiel, their array of compatible military doctrine and strategy, and, not to mention, wholly new supply chains. U.S. materiel, on the other hand, have shown to be better transferable for Philippine military use. In a country with a low baseline defense capacity, it would be foolish to change the rules of the game midway. Exploring opportunities for defense reform is always welcome, but it is quite another thing to take clean breaks from prior economies of scale based on "personal reasons" or "principles" of a sitting president.

What is more, there are underlying diplomatic aspects in any defense relationship. What is increasingly clear is that President Duterte is realigning geopolitical relationships based on unstated "personal" convictions. He does this at the cost of expending an unprecedented largesse of moral, legal, and political capital brought about by the July 12, 2016 Arbitral Award that ruled against China's "9-dash line" claim and in favor of the Philippine position. In short, Duterte is singlehandedly redefining the balance of powers in Asia, and small-fry executive agreements like EDCA should be no impediment to that rebalancing act.

Never mind countries like Belgium canceling their royal visits and trade missions because of allusions to the Holocaust. Nor should it matter much that S&P is hesitating to make positive forecasts about the economy, citing Duterte's unpredictable and unclear policy signals. The stakes are actually much higher. Contrary to what pundits say, the Philippine President is not trying to stay ahead of a geopolitical rebalancing curve--he is re-charting the curve itself. The price to this political undertaking cannot be understated, especially by one so untrained in statesmanship and diplomacy. Nor can the costs be captured in terms of lost opportunity in military assistance nor yet in terms of international reputational damage alone, but in long-term societal costs that come with the normalization of crisis as ordinary events.

Under this 'our-brand-is-crisis' strategy, the sands of the political landscape are made to keep shifting. The powers of the State apparatus are made to be trained at moving, unstable targets. And for the President to be the first to call it a crisis, he is instantly seen to be part of the solution itself. This is why a crisis branding strategy is traditionally effective in keeping leaders in power. Crisis branding is supply-driven rhetoric. President Marcos himself looked to this strategy to justify martial law. Once political capital from a crisis is on the verge of being fully expended, the proponent would move on to defining the next one - for instance, from illegal drugs to illegal gambling - and is constrained only by political imagination. What will be our next crisis tomorrow?

While investors, though concerned, opt to look beyond the "noise" and for the Peso to eventually "correct" itself, crisis branding does not allow for the dust to settle. Noise is essential and is used for the purpose of deflecting attention to an imagined hot button issue while the proponent quietly works upon another--such as the peace process. Retaining political support by branding normal issues as crisis issues is complemented by appeasement, or a calculated retraction of utterances (such as an apology) seen in hindsight to have elicited too hostile a response, followed by a call for a vote of confidence ("you can oust me if I abuse power"). Some would call this plain demagoguery but it is a more systematized script than that. Is a continuous state of disruption desirable for business and a condition for inclusive growth?

Crisis branding can be an effective political campaign strategy because it draws power from frightening people, but it has no place in day-to-day governance. Normalizing fright and violence is not a governance model and is a huge step in the wrong direction. Society has a way of legitimizing questionable traits of their leaders, rightly or wrongly. Worse, collective understandings of justice are already changing. What the Philippines needs today is to maintain respect, implement policies that ooze with common sense, and take a long-term orientation in regional stability and cooperation.

This piece was previously published in the Manila Times.

Edsel Tupaz is a public interest attorney and legal academic. Follow Edsel on Twitter: www.twitter.com/edseltupaz.