Image source: Nadav Kander for TIME

On January 20, the Obama Era of American history will come to a close. Like many of his predecessors, he leaves behind a contentious legacy that is sure to occupy the attentions of historians and biographers for decades to come. His supporters make him seem like a paragon of virtue and liberal ideals, while his opponents portray him as a socialist demagogue determined to destroy America. Now that his administration is passing into history, it seems fair and obvious that neither description really fits. So what kind of leader was he?

While some of Obama’s most contentious and consequential policies, like his signature initiative, the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), are beyond the scope of this blog, his foreign policy was important, and it’s worth taking a look back at what he managed to accomplish — and whether his policy will have an enduring impact.

Obama’s foreign policy was shaped above all by the legacy of his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush started 2 wars — in Afghanistan and Iraq — and created an enduring image of America as an oppressive bully, especially in the Muslim world. Obama — capitalizing on a growing war-weariness among the American public, even among Republicans — sought to put an end to this and project an image of a nicer, gentler, more reasonable America. Always a critic of the Iraq War, which had been a personal project of Bush and his oil industry buddies anyway, he wasted little time in pulling American troops out, which was finished in 2011. He made a concerted effort to reassure ordinary Muslims that America wasn’t Islamophobic and thuggish, for instance by giving a speech with these themes at Egypt’s prestigious Cairo University in 2009. He made some efforts to distance America from Israel’s right-wing policies like building settlements in the West Bank and launching repeated wars against the Gaza Strip.

While Obama successfully differentiated himself from Bush (he is beloved in Europe and even received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009), it’s hard to discern how pacifist America has really become. He never really ended the war in Afghanistan; after an ineffectual “surge” (sudden increase in troops) in 2009, he pulled troop numbers down to 10,000, which remain in Afghanistan in an advisory role to support the fragile government there. It remains unstable, violent and messy.

America was caught off-guard by the turbulence of the Arab Spring of 2011, and Obama had to play a delicate balancing act, pressuring Arab dictators to step down or at least heed the protesters’ demands without really withdrawing support or taking the protesters’ side. As a result, he alienated both sides. When Egypt lapsed back into dictatorship in 2013, he reaffirmed America’s old support for the Egyptian military. He supported Saudi Arabia’s war against a Shi’ite uprising in Yemen. He went to war in the air over Libya to ensure a rebel victory there.

Looming over all of this in Obama’s foreign policy legacy is the disastrous war in Syria, born out of Bashar al-Assad’s repression of the protests there. Amidst international clamor for the US to get involved there, he dithered. The one time he did threaten to attack Syria was in retaliation for a poison gas attack in Damascus in 2013, and that ended peacefully with the removal and destruction of Syria’s sarin gas stockpile. Instead, America’s attention has been fixated on the Islamic State, a jihadist rebel group in east Syria and northern Iraq. Ever since its dramatic expansion and declaration of a caliphate (transnational Islamic empire) in 2014, America has been bombing it relentlessly in concert with other concerned Western and regional countries. Given repeated Islamic State terrorist attacks in Europe and America, it’s hard to say that the policy is succeeding so far.

In other words, Obama has had to reconcile his desire for a more dovish foreign policy with the demands of national security. Mindful of domestic concerns about terrorism, he’s fought jihadists as hard as Bush did, but with an emphasis on drone strikes and commando operations to take them out. The former is how he killed Anwar al-Awlaqi, an American propagandist for suicide terrorism living in Yemen; the latter is how Usama bin Ladin, the head of al-Qaeda and mastermind behind the devastating terrorist attack of 2001, met his fate. He is as hard-nosed and ruthless as Bush when it comes to killing terrorists, but with a marked preference for methods other than full-on war and the messy and difficult state-building that comes with it. Whether his strategy actually makes America safer remains to be seen; it seems hard to imagine a real reduction in terrorism without a serious change in Muslim attitudes, since many of them have marked America and the West in general as the enemy and will persist in fighting it until something changes their minds.

The other aspect of Obama’s nicer foreign policy was a willingness to accommodate rogue and unfriendly regimes. Here he has had more obvious success. First came Myanmar, an isolated and repressive dictatorship long subject to international sanctions and criticism. In response to increasing Chinese encroachment, it offered to open up its political system in the hopes that America would then lift its sanctions and let it open up its economic system. It did, and Obama even visited Myanmar to celebrate its new international posture in 2012 and 2014. Several ongoing conflicts notwithstanding, Myanmar now seems headed on a more successful and promising path. Then came Iran, a vital player in West Asian politics isolated by its strident anti-Americanism, threats against Israel and nuclear program. Although Obama’s initial overtures toward the Iranian regime were rebuffed, a punishing round of international sanctions brought it to the negotiating table after a more accommodating president was elected in 2013. The resulting deal on its nuclear program forced Iran to make real concessions at relatively little cost to the US. Finally, there was Cuba, a Communist country embargoed by America for decades. America’s rigid isolation of it seemed outdated and ineffective long before Obama came to power, and he seized upon opening diplomatic relations with it as an easy way to score a political victory and appease annoyed Latinos. Tourism has picked up and momentum is building for increasing commercial and personal ties with the island.

But in all of these cases, it’s unclear if the progress America has made will be sustained after Obama leaves office. His replacement, Donald Trump, has a much more sour view of the world, and Republicans in general tend to view good relations with sketchy regimes as a sign of weakness and/or appeasement. Myanmar might be playing the outside world for quick and easy money, and the much-loathed military still has effective veto power. Iran still supports Shi’ite militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen and remains deeply skeptical of American intentions. Cuba remains under an embargo with an anti-American Communist dictator. There are a few anti-American countries Obama wasn’t able to woo, like Venezuela and North Korea; Trump will have to deal with them.

Another one is Russia. Although Russia wasn’t quite an enemy state or rogue regime, relations with America had suffered in the later years of the Bush presidency. Obama hoped to “reset” relations and be more cooperative. It didn’t work: Russia got freaked out by the unrest of the Arab Spring and American support for anti-government protests in Russia in 2011-12, seeing America’s relations with dictatorships as a way for it to undermine them. In 2014 Russia stopped the pretense that it is a “normal” country and annexed Crimea in retaliation for a popular uprising in Ukraine. Since then it has upped the ante with an insurgency in east Ukraine, anti-Western propaganda, ominous military exercises, bellicose rhetoric and electoral shenanigans in the West (including America). Obama has responded with international sanctions and increased (financial) support for Ukraine. While Republicans at first thundered that these strategies were way too soft, they’ve since flipped (thanks to Trump) and complain that Obama is unfairly and ineffectually isolating Russia. Trump seems to want to be friends with Russia, or at least reach some sort of accord, so Obama’s relations with Russia may go down in history as his most ineffective and inconsequential foreign initiative.

Another 1 of Obama’s goals was to “pivot to Asia.” With fond memories of a childhood spent in Indonesia, he saw East Asia as a golden opportunity for spreading American influence, business and cultural norms in a region intimidated by the rise of China and with rapidly fading memories of the brutish America that ruined Vietnam. Despite the unending stream of crises coming out of West Asia, he saw East Asia as the true fulcrum of global power in the 2000s. He deployed American troops to the Philippines and Australia, cozied up to Vietnam and India, hosted leaders from ASEAN (the Association of South-East Asian Nations), sent naval patrols through the South China Sea, and quietly encouraged better relations between the crucial allies of Japan and South Korea.

The linchpin of this pivot was the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation grouping of Asian, Oceanian, North and Latin American countries eager for free trade, transparent business practices, and standardization of goods and services. After years of expecting the agreement to be just around the corner, especially after the normally globalist Republicans took both houses of Congress in 2014, the initiative faced a stunning defeat when Trump got elected, since he hates globalization. Despite continued interest in the deal from Japan (the other dominant partner), the future of the partnership without America looks uncertain. This defeat, combined with China’s renewed diplomatic, economic, and military overtures in East Asia, makes the importance of the pivot dubious. Asians always doubted how committed America was to their region, and betting too much on American influence seemed risky given that it’s not an Asian country. With Trump’s election, the Philippines’ new president caustically spurning America, and a chill in Thai-American relations after a coup there in 2014, it’s more common now to read dismissive evaluations of the pivot.

With ongoing war in Afghanistan and Iraq, a bloody mess in Syria, aggressive counter-terrorism operations, a newly hostile Russia, and a China apparently determined to gradually shove America out of East Asia, it might seem that Obama’s foreign policy record is bleak. There is certainly plenty of ammo for his critics to harp on and the rosy evaluations of his fans seem far-fetched or out of touch with reality. But Obama’s greatest success was in projecting a certain image of America, of reminding the world that the Texan “cowboy” caricature embodied by Bush is only 1 side of America’s identity. For all the cynical politicians who saw him as a naive weakling ripe for manipulation, there were an equal or greater number who appreciated his diplomatic, reasonable, nuanced approach and easygoing style. His interest in issues like regulating carbon emissions to limit the effects of climate change or promoting a bigger electricity grid in Africa won him many admirers, as did his willingness to engage with “ordinary” people in townhall events in India, China and Vietnam. His warm relations with other world leaders made it much easier to throw together international efforts like the sanctions against Iran and Russia, the nuclear deal with Iran, and the coalitions against Libya and the Islamic State.

Obama is often described as a “cool” president, both because he’s a pretty chill guy who relates well to ordinary people and because he takes a levelheaded, pragmatic approach to policy. He embraced Bill Clinton’s worldview — an America ready to use military force when (it feels that it’s) needed but more inclined toward soft power, like diplomacy, commercial pressure and foreign aid. He also took cues from Republican presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush (“First Bush”), who used America’s formidable military power but opted for restraint and deft diplomacy in more delicate situations. And if I may indulge in a personal opinion here, I believe that his background — a mixed-race man with a father of a different nationality and a childhood spent partially overseas — has shaped his worldview somewhat. Traditional American foreign policy credos like “America must be the world’s policeman, intervening in trouble spots to uphold international law & order” or “America is a liberal bastion of the best political, economic, and ideological systems ever invented and we should spread them wherever we can” are favored by the white, Protestant “Eastern Establishment” that has long dominated American politics and especially foreign policy. Obama is probably better able to see the world and its issues from a different perspective — that of the browner parts of the globe, who regard America with at least a little apprehension given its overwhelming power and influence.

Obama’s foreign policy was only a partial success. Too often people went easy on him for just Not Being Bush instead of what he actually did. In cases like Russia and Syria (which combined to horrifying effect near the end of his 2nd term), he didn’t always seem to know what to do. The world may now face yet another side of the American identity as Trump revises American foreign policy along his own lines. But Obama’s foreign policy may yet prove to be as inspirational to those who care about this stuff as his domestic policy was to young, liberal Americans. It suggests an America that’s not overbearing, loud, or obnoxious, that knows how to rub elbows and build careful strategic relationships and project a positive image to the world, yet also willing to strike hard and fast when world order or its own security is at threat. Most likely, more people will regret Obama’s departure than cheer it.




Image source: Daily Kos


At the end of every year, the American newsweekly TIME Magazine designates someone as “Man of the Year” — the person who, for good or for ill, most influenced the course of events in the past year. For the most part, it is an unreliable indicator of the year’s main mover and shaker, but it’s still a fun tradition, and I’ve always enjoyed predicting (or at least speculating) on who the latest choice will be. So here are my choices for 2016’s Man of the Year.

First, let’s see who TIME chose as its runners-up. I find Hillary Clinton to be a weak choice; she lost the American presidential election, after all. America may be the world’s most important country, but it’s not THAT important. It is hard to exercise influence when you’ve lost the election. Perhaps you could argue that her hard-fought campaign and popular vote victory inspired politically minded women everywhere, but it’s hard to wield influence when you lose.

Hackers were certainly influential this year, as data ransacking of the American Democratic party, theft from the Russian central bank, and data wiping at Saudi Arabia’s aviation regulator made clear. Cybersecurity is a growing concern for technologically adept governments and businesses and its specter will only expand. But I prefer identifying actual people, not broad, vague (and in this case, totally anonymous) groups.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is actually a good choice. Turkey has become more and more geopolitically vital, with both the EU and Russia trying to court it as the key link between Europe and war-torn West Asia. At the same time, Erdoğan has become more assertive and powerful within his country, especially after a failed coup on July 15 was followed up by a massive and deep purge of suspected dissidents. I don’t think his influence extends far enough in regional affairs to be a top contender for Man of the Year, though.

The CRISPR pioneers are an interesting choice in the science field. The new technique of CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), a form of genetic engineering, promises to have wide-ranging effects in crop nutritional enhancement, genetic mutations, and most of all, in fighting tough conditions like cancer. The pioneers of this method (namely, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier) might be worthy of the Women of the Year honor. But it’s hard to tell at this early stage how much impact CRISPR will have; the crucial trials to see whether it can cure cancer take place next year.

It’s hard to gauge the influence of figures like Beyoncé. On the one hand, it’s clear that she’s an enormously famous and influential singer, and one with an international fanbase. But the main reason TIME honored her this year is her passionate activism for feminism and improved race relations, and the latter is primarily an American issue. I’m also not convinced that she’s had a lot of influence in these fields; it seems more like wishful thinking on TIME’s part. Most of the people she has reached probably already believe her messages anyway. The smash success of her album Lemonade this year definitely makes her one of the main figures in the cultural field, though.

And now for some other possible candidates:

Juan Manuel Santos probably deserves recognition as one of the most influential people of the year for bringing Colombia’s 50-year civil war to an end. His accord may have been rejected by voters in a plebiscite in October, but it still earned him a well-earned Nobel Peace Prize, and a peace agreement with the FARC rebels was eventually reached anyway. Still, his influence is mostly local.
Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, was my pick for Woman of the Year last year, but this year she didn’t make many headlines. Instead, she found herself on the defensive against a growing backlash within Germany against welcoming refugees and keeping the borders often and against growing discontent in Europe with sanctions against Russia.
Bashar al-Assad, the dictator of Syria, continued to make headlines with his cruel and destructive war, the world’s worst. It has an impact beyond its region but Assad is no longer the key factor here.
Xi Jinping, the dictator of China, consolidated his control this year, but made no headline-making moves. China, in general, is a difficult country for these sorts of exercises; it is extremely important and influential, but its leadership is mostly collective and its influence is incremental. A Chinese leader could be Man of the Year just about any year, because their decisions (especially economic and monetary ones) have enormous global impact.
Rodrigo Duterte is another possible candidate. The new president of the Philippines has rattled East Asia with his unpredictability and realignment away from America and towards China. He could herald a turning of the tide in East Asia away from the American security umbrella and socioeconomic model (and away from democratic norms too). He is probably #4 this year given how this development would probably not have happened without him (well, at least not this fast). But his influence is still mostly regional, and it’s still unclear how much weight his words actually carry (at least in foreign policy).

The overriding theme in global affairs this year is a noticeable, transnational turn away from boring but pragmatic liberal democratic politics and toward angry, usually right-wing, protectionist and nationalist populism. Therefore it is worth keeping in mind which figures are doing the most to drive this trend. They are the ones I chose for 2016’s Men of the Year.


The first of two big political earthquakes this year with global repercussions was Brexit — the British exit from the EU. Even though it hasn’t even happened yet, the notion that such an important European country would leave the institution that binds the continent together rattled elites across the West. The British economy is suffering, British politics are in a state of uncertainty, and the leaders of the EU and its major countries are nervous about a precedent being set. While I didn’t cover it for this blog, it was undeniably a Big Deal. Although the referendum was a collective effort, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, was the face of the Brexit campaign. His victory even sparked predictions that he would take David Cameron’s place as British prime minister. That didn’t happen, but he is Foreign Secretary and still an influential figure in the Brexit negotiations. He deserves credit for the vote and its impact on global politics. (The other major figure would be Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party until very recently.)


Putin’s back, baby! For the third time in a row, he makes my list. Despite all that the West has done to squeeze the Russian economy and elite, it remains an influential global player and wild card in geopolitics. Putin continued to rely on his preferred covert ops methods — hacking, espionage, pro-Russian media, funding for divisive politicians — to aggravate the growing cracks within the transatlantic alliance. Meanwhile, he continued to leverage Russia’s considerable hard power to punish Syrian rebels and the innocent Syrian people to make Russia look big and strong. Ukraine remains tied down by the war in the Donbass and Putin’s approval rating remains above 80%. A mostly unsuccessful effort this month by Japan to coax Putin into territorial and economic concessions proved once again that Putin is a man with a lot of leverage. His crowning achievement may have been getting Donald Trump, a candidate few took seriously, elected president of the United States. With the West in disarray and China more or less friendly, Russia is in good shape — and it’s mostly thanks to Putin.


Last year I wrote “I expect next year we’ll see Hillary Clinton on TIME’s cover as she takes the mantle of world’s most powerful and influential woman.” During the year I began to doubt this due to the continuing media fixation with Trump. I never imagined that it wouldn’t be true because Clinton would actually lose.

Trump’s election, as you have probably guessed, was the second big political earthquake of the year. It’s a development that came completely out of nowhere: in 2014 no one would’ve predicted this, and even in 2015 his victory seemed far-fetched given that Republican (and sometimes Democratic) voters have a tendency to favor wacky candidates at the beginning. Although he’s a Republican, he upended the normal dynamics of American politics with his platform, which favors protectionism and tight border controls as well as closer relations with Russia. The usual Republican concerns — small government, Christian values, a strong military — he ignored. Democrats, of course, are repulsed by his political incorrectness.

Although right-wing populism predates Trump, he has emerged as sort of the global standard-bearer for it. Others, like Farage, Marine le Pen in France, and Frauke Petry in Germany, cheered his win and see him as an inspiration. His revisionist foreign policy, which will involve some sort of retreat from America’s position of influence worldwide, has rattled governments everywhere. His election has made 2017 very uncertain. No one quite knows what to expect from him, given how many of his statements he’s backtracked on. Although it may seem premature to name him Man of the Year when he hasn’t even taken office yet, this is TIME’s standard practice with election winners, and the strong media spotlight given the American elections means his tweets and cabinet picks have major repercussions.

I find Trump to be an arrogant, boastful, brutish, bullying, crude, hateful, ignorant, lying, obnoxious, pandering, pessimistic, petty, racist, sexist, tacky asshole whose victory fills me with shame and dread, but that does not necessarily mean he is not influential. Throughout 2016, electorates have endorsed decisions that are tantamount to national suicide: a president who encourages drug addicts to get gunned down in the street and brags about murdering them himself; a split from a union that has delivered Britain peace, prosperity and new opportunities; an accord that brings Colombia peace and reconciliation with minimal risk; a constitutional reform that would’ve given Italy a fighting chance to overcome its quarrelsome political habits. Trump’s election is just the biggest and worst in this series. 2016 has given Chinese critics of democracy a lot of ammo in their argument that popular sovereignty is a dangerous system.

Note: Despite my fixation with political figures, I do acknowledge that business, scientific, technological and even cultural figures can have widespread influence too. But in most years it’s hard to measure their influence against the years before. Ongoing developments in robotics, self-driving cars, mobile devices, and so on could shake the world much more than the likes of Putin or Trump, but it’s hard to tell at this point.



Image source: Get Real Post

Although the exact analysis varies depending on whom you ask, it’s generally acknowledged that something like a cold war has settled upon East Asia. On one side is China, the traditional power of this part of the world, a proud country eagerly leveraging its newfound economic influence to reassert itself as a hegemon and woo its neighbors. On the other side is America, the global superpower, the established power ever since World War II with a fearsome navy and business presence. Even though it’s an outside power, it exerts influence in East Asia through an ally network — Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Australia — and is wooing China’s neighbors itself. Especially over disputed territories like the South China Sea, the 2 sides face each other down, outwardly smiling but inwardly tense and suspicious, nervously eyeing each other’s moves and trying to anticipate future developments before it’s too late.

Despite China’s impressive advantages, it’s usually conceded that America has the stronger position in this contest. But recent developments have thrown the whole strategic calculus of East Asia into doubt and confusion, and they’ve come from where most would least suspect it: the Philippines.

Unlike most other parts of East Asia, the Philippines does not have a particularly long history. An archipelago on the edge of Asia, its culture has as much in common with the relaxed lifestyle of the Pacific Islands as mainland Asia. It was a collection of mostly inconsequential chiefdoms isolated from Asia until the 1500s, when Spain conquered it. The Philippines (named after Spanish king Felipe II) remained under Spanish rule for over 300 years, and imbibed a lot of Spanish culture in the process, especially Roman Catholicism.

The Philippines was dragged into the Spanish-American War in 1898. Spain kept a sizeable fleet in Manila, the capital, and America sent a squadron to sink it. Spain’s defeat left a power vacuum in the Philippines, which the Filipinos rushed to fill. America, however, decided that they couldn’t be trusted to govern themselves. (President William McKinley’s fervent religiosity was a factor — he wanted to convert the Philippines to “Christianity,” by which he meant Protestant Christianity). It launched a ruthless war of conquest to annihilate the Philippine government and keep its foothold in Asia. Soldiers fanned out around the countryside, stamping out guerrillas, putting villages to the torch, and conducting sweeping massacres in hard-to-conquer areas. One general ordered his soldiers to kill everyone over 10 years old. Prisoners were tortured, often to death.

This brutal conquest left lasting bitterness in the islands, but by most accounts American rule turned out to be benevolent. A policy of mass education brought ordinary Filipinos in touch with the outside world far more than their counterparts elsewhere in the colonized world. Uninterested in long-term colonization, America fostered a native governing class to ensure a smooth transition of power. The Philippines became integrated into the Asian trading network and found new markets for its agricultural products. Protestant evangelism didn’t make much headway, but America did convert Filipinos to the temptations of jazz music and Hollywood movies.

This all came crashing down with World War II, when Japan invaded and conquered the Philippines as part of its general swallowing of Southeast Asia. Americans shared in the hardships of the Filipinos during this period, suffering the infamous Bataan Death March into inhumane prisoner-of-war camps and coping with privation and discrimination under Japanese rule. An American-Filipino insurgency weakened Japanese authority, which then collapsed in an American counter-invasion in 1944, going out in a horrific blaze of destruction as Manila was bombed and shot up beyond recognition.

After the war, America promptly granted the Philippines independence, but it maintained a heavy influence. Most obviously, it kept a military presence there, especially at Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Station north of Manila. America propped up the Philippines’ presidents and even covertly engineered the rise to power of one of them, Ramon Magsaysay. The Philippines got a lot of military aid to defeat 2 different Communist insurgencies, the Hukbalahaps and the New People’s Army, and an ongoing insurgency among Muslims in the southern island of Mindanao. American economic interests remained entrenched in the Philippines long after independence, and the US leaned heavily on the Philippine government to leave them alone.

The Philippines’ post-colonial history has been relatively smooth, and the country avoided the war, bloodbaths and poverty that afflicted other Southeast Asian countries. But it’s had a persistent reputation as the region’s great underachiever. Unequal land distribution concentrated wealth and limited advancement for farmers, leading to the growth of squalid slums around Manila as poor farmers moved there haphazardly. Although its economic position was originally in the forefront of Southeast Asia, tepid growth over the years has led it to stall around the middle. Politics revolved around personalities and dynasties more than ideology or policy. The aforementioned Communist rebels seized big parts of the country, especially in the south. All of these problems came to a head under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986), who stole billions of dollars while ignoring deteriorating social conditions. In the end he was deposed by a popular revolution led by Corazon Aquino, the widow of a political opponent he had murdered — again on personality alone. To the last minute he was propped up by American president Ronald Reagan, who saw him as a good friend and doughty anti-Communist.

A surge in anti-American sentiment in 1991 led to the transfer of Clark and Subic Bay to Philippine control. The end of the Cold War helped.

As might be clear, the Philippines has a complicated relationship with the US, deeper than any other country in East Asia. For the most part, though, it’s warm and close. On a political and strategic level, America has continued to act as the Philippines’ main patron and military advisor, and Philippine presidents have kept close ties with their American counterparts. The Philippines has been at the forefront of the South China Sea dispute with China and has incurred China’s wrath for being most obstinate and assertive of its claims over nearby islands and the fishing areas around them. Since China is much, much stronger, and cooperation with other countries in Southeast Asia is flimsy, that means it has to lean hard on America for support. America has obliged by offering to move back into its old military bases, which, given their location on the South China Sea, are as strategically vital as ever.

On a cultural level, Filipinos are more closely linked to the US than anyone else in Asia. English, thanks to America’s mass education policy, is widely spoken, and often without the thick accents of other Asians. American movies, TV shows, and music remain wildly popular. Most of the cover bands touring Asian hotels are Filipino. Filipinos are the 2nd-largest Asian minority in America (after Chinese), where they perform a disproportionate share of farming and service jobs like housekeeping and babysitting.

Early this year, the Philippine-American connection seemed closer than ever. An international court in the Netherlands on China’s expansive South China Sea claims ruled in the Philippines’ favor, giving it the legal authority, at least, to stand up to China. One of the candidates in the presidential election (albeit a fringe one), Arturo Reyes, even ran on a platform of seeking annexation to the US.

And then Rodrigo Duterte was elected president.

Duterte was originally mayor of Davao, the main city on Mindanao. Mindanao is the Philippine’s 2nd-biggest island, but it’s historically been a neglected area, mostly because of high crime and the aforementioned Muslim insurgency. Duterte tackled the crime problem by killing anyone involved, including drug addicts, earning him the nickname “Duterte Harry.” It didn’t actually push down Davao’s murder rate, but it earned him a reputation as a politician who gets things done, and that was music to the ears of a population tired of stagnation and crooked politicians. Grandstanding against China, including the vow to jet-ski out to the disputed Scarborough Shoal to plant the Philippine flag, played to nationalist fervor.

As president, Duterte has lived up to his reputation, encouraging cops to gun down gangsters, junkies, and anyone involved (or rumored to be involved) in drug trafficking. The result is a grim death toll (over 3,000 so far) and overcrowded prisons. Duterte approves; as he told reporters in September, “Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now, there are 3 million drug addicts. … I’d be happy to slaughter them.” He isn’t a big fan of journalists either, claiming “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch.” The violence has had a chilling reputation on the Philippines’ international reputation, which Duterte brushes off, claiming it as a necessary measure to save his country from “perdition.”


Philippine jails used to be known for staging Michael Jackson dances. Now… Image source: AFP/Getty Images

Duterte may be making even bigger waves internationally. He is deeply, hatefully anti-American, which was first made clear when he thundered at Barack Obama for criticizing his drug war. “Son of a whore, I will curse you in that forum,” he yelled — referring to a September summit of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations). He didn’t get the chance: Obama cancelled the meeting, realizing Duterte was not in a mood for talking. The Filipino has since gone on to tear into America for its atrocities in the Philippine-American War and for its condescension and haughty imperialism toward its allies.

As a logical result of this anti-Americanism, Duterte has rapidly pivoted towards China instead. On his first trip there last week, he boldly announced his “separation” from America. “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to (President Vladimir) Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines and Russia,” he told a roomful of Chinese businessmen. “It’s the only way.” The tangible benefits of the visit were a lifting of sanctions China had placed on the Philippines for standing up to it; the Philippines can now sell its delicious fruit in China again, and Chinese tourists will no longer be discouraged from traveling there. The Philippines also signed $13.5 billion in trade deals and was promised a $3 billion development loan and more lucrative trade deals to come. In return, it’s more or less ceded Scarborough Shoal. (Duterte’s brushed off the jet-ski thing as “hyperbole.”)

Just to make things interesting, Duterte has also cozied up to Japan on his trip there this week. He spoke warmly about the Japanese people and invited more Japanese investment and economic exchanges with the Philippines. He avoided committing any outrages that might offend the sensitive Japanese. But he also invited Japan to play a role in mediating the South China Sea dispute (which it really has no interest in) and continued to thunder against the US, fervently wishing for the day when he “no longer see[s] any military troops or soldiers in my country, except for Filipino soldiers.” Since Japan is Washington’s second-most staunch ally in East Asia, this will mean some tricky 4-way balancing in the future.

So how has America reacted to all of this? With bewilderment, for the most part. American officials seem stunned, confused, and patient. Despite Duterte’s personal animosity against their country (which might stem from sexual abuse he got as a boy from an American priest), there was very little indication that this would happen. 92% of Filipinos have favorable opinions of America — more than any other country. America paid dearly to free the Philippines from Japanese occupation (although some Filipinos grumble that Japan wouldn’t even have attacked if it weren’t for the American presence). Previous Philippine presidents have been friendly to America. Duterte’s underlings add to the confusion, since his statements haven’t been followed up with governmental actions yet. His trade minister denied that the Philippines is really “separating” from America, and shortly before the China trip, his foreign secretary reaffirmed the Philippines’ “special relationship.” Even after Duterte said he wanted American troops out of his country on his Japan trip, his foreign secretary explained that “There is no reason at this time to terminate our agreements because our national interests still continue to converge.” American remarks have mostly condemned Duterte’s rhetoric without retaliating in any meaningful way, suggesting that officials are waiting and seeing what happens next.

It is hard to tell what will happen next. Duterte has thrown the whole region into disarray. Will the Philippines become another Chinese vassal? Will Vietnam — another country with a big dispute with China and a complicated relationship with America — become America’s next best friend? Will Filipinos stand for a major break in relations with America (or continued bloodshed, for that matter)? Will Duterte, given his macho tendencies and preference for China, become another tough-guy dictator? How will America patrol East Asia without reliable bases in the Philippines? Will other Southeast Asian countries maintain the will to stand up to China in this context?

The opening of Myanmar and its subsequent turn towards the West beginning in 2011 was the 1st big change in Southeast Asia this decade. Duterte might be the 2nd. Or he might be overthrown, or impeached, or face serious resistance from his bureaucracy and Manila’s powerful business community. It is frankly hard for most analysts to imagine Pinoys casting off a relationship that has brought them a lot of benefits (close economic ties, a security blanket, a second home for many) to snuggle up to a country feared and mistrusted by most of its neighbors and without historically close ties with the Philippines.* But until the matter is cleared up, Duterte will serve as an important warning for other countries about what happens when you elect assholes.


There is a significant and old Chinese community in the Philippines, but culturally the 2 countries are quite far apart and Filipino opinions on the Chinese have generally not been high.