Why are we bullied?
A few years back, when Dutertismo was still a novel ideology and hopes ran high for transformative politics, I stumbled upon an interesting comment on one of my interviews. It was posted by an overseas Filipino worker (OFW), who eloquently expressed a sentiment seared into the hearts of countless Filipinos.
She was clearly a fan of the President, something I noticed among the vast majority of OFWs, who are understandably desperate for radical change at home. And yet, she was respectful and generous, even if my analyses were unambiguously critical of her political idol’s shenanigans.
I can’t recall her exact words, but it was something along the lines of, “Thanks to Filipinos like you and President Duterte, the world can see that we are not a bunch of pushovers, [and] that we can assert ourselves on the international stage.”
In short, she appreciated Filipinos who showed that we are not just culturally passive and geopolitically subservient people. Obviously, she knew from my interviews that I didn’t share her wholehearted endorsement of Mr. Duterte’s invective-laced rhetoric against Western powers. But I did share her longing for truly independent-minded leaders who would stand up to bullies in defense of the Philippines’ national interest.
Nowadays, I wonder how well-intentioned OFWs like her feel, in the deepest recesses of their hearts, about our President’s almost slavish comments vis-à-vis the Eastern bully, which has been creeping into our waters with increasing impunity.
So much for having an “anti-imperialist” leader with an “independent” foreign policy. What’s even more worrying, however, is what I call “trickle-down populism,” whereby lower-level officials and traditional politicians suddenly begin parroting the worst aspects of Dutertismo, not out of political conviction but out of pure expediency.
Take, for example, a certain congresswoman who tried to rationalize Mr. Duterte’s brazen subservience toward Beijing. According to her logic, even though “China is the biggest bully,” it’s still “a friend.” Her idea of high-stakes diplomacy is dealing with a schoolyard bully who should be placated by “appeal[ing] to his good sense.” Apparently, the bully has “good sense.”
Her ultimate geopolitical advice on dealing with China’s creeping invasion of Philippine waters is this: “We keep the cordial relationship… Unless we become a superpower also, unless we increase our economic status and capability, there is always the threat of being bullied.” Echoing the President’s penchant for defeatism, she made her position clear: “[A]t this point, we really can’t win.”
Far worse than staying silent in the face of infamy is trying to justify it. And here lies the Philippines’ ultimate tragedy—the stubborn grip of a ruling oligarchy that openly, and often even proudly, extols its subservience to global bullies. In any other self-respecting nation, no statesman would even dare to traffic in such brazen rhetoric of defeatism.
Imagine if tiny Taiwan, which is constantly threatened by giant China, had leaders with such a defeatist mindset. Or imagine any politician saying those words in a country like Vietnam, which successfully fought successive wars against the three superpowers of France, China. and the United States.
Or think of impoverished China in the mid-20th century, when its leaders stood up to Soviet Union, even if Beijing back then lacked its own nuclear weapons or a semblance of modern armed forces.
The United States, Russia, and Germany started as relatively small or unwieldy states that bravely took on the British, Ottoman, and French empires respectively en route to becoming major powers in their own right.
In all these cases, patriotic and visionary leaders, from Prussia’s Bismarck to Russia’s Peter the Great and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, oversaw the establishment of a strong state, which not only defended their country from external bullies but also projected power well beyond their national borders.
Lest we forget, more than a century ago, the generation of Andres Bonifacio and Jose Rizal dared to take on the Spanish empire. Theirs was the first anti-colonial nationalist movement in Asia. The big question is: How did we go from that, to the kind of “leaders” we have today?
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