Any way you look at it, the White House’s account of a phone call between President Trump and the Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, which took place over the weekend, is shocking. The call was “very friendly,” the White House said in a statement. Trump and Duterte discussed “the fact that the Philippine Government is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs, a scourge that affects many countries throughout the world.” It ended with a kicker: “President Trump also invited President Duterte to the White House to discuss the importance of the Philippine-United States alliance, which is now heading in a very positive direction.”
The anodyne quotes left me wondering whether the White House was talking about the same Rodrigo Duterte I profiled last year, a former small-town mayor who has become an international pariah for leading a brutal war on drugs that has, by some estimates, left more than seven thousand people dead, killed by police and vigilante squads. In the ten months since Duterte took office, he has seemed to revel in the opprobrium of the international community, issuing a stream of outrageous statements: he has called for the slaughter of millions of drug users; cursed Human Rights Watch, which has issued near-weekly denunciations of the killings; and threatened to burn down the United Nations. Now he has been invited to the White House? Just a few days before the call, a lawyer working for two men who claim to have been employed by Duterte as members of a death squad while he was the mayor of Davao filed a seventy-seven-page complaint, alleging that Duterte was complicit in “crimes against humanity.” As the Times noted, were Duterte a private citizen, he might not even qualify for a visa to the U.S., owing to the credible accusations against him. The phone call represents the most dramatic about-face in international relations since last year, when Duterte himself abruptly scaled back the Philippines’ decades-long alliance with United States. After the Obama Administration criticized his war on drugs, he called President Obama a “son of a whore” and pledged to turn his affections toward China.
What is going on? The Trump Administration cast the phone call as a matter of Realpolitik. Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, told ABC’s Jonathan Karl that the call “was all about North Korea.” He suggested that the Administration was trying to get “all of our folks together” to counter the North Korean nuclear threat. “It doesn’t mean that human rights don’t matter, but what it does mean is that the issues facing us developing out of North Korea are so serious that we need coöperation, at some level, with as many partners in the area.” In Priebus’s telling, Trump’s praise of Duterte’s drug war was simply a reset, a chance for Duterte to come back on board.
Leaving aside the questionable premise of the Philippines’ usefulness in containing North Korea, it is impossible, given Trump’s pattern of cultivating authoritarian populist leaders around the world, not to read a darker subtext in the call. Trump has given the impression that he harbors “a genuine affinity for men of action who brook little dissent,” as the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor wrote. His affection for a variety of strongmen, from Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Vladimir Putin to Duterte, is the flip side of his consistent disdain for internationalist institutions and liberal values that might impinge on a leader’s bold initiatives. Trump’s public praise of Duterte, who once said he did not “give a shit” about human rights, can be seen as perhaps his most thorough rejection of the liberal international order that Steve Bannon and the still influential, if increasingly marginalized, economic-nationalist wing of the Trump White House seek to overturn.
As with all things Trump, the phone call may have been unplanned. But under all Duterte’s bluster he is a canny politician, and a careful examination of Philippine-American relations since Trump’s election suggests that the conversation is the slam-dunk finish to an alley-oop that Duterte has been setting up for a while. Trump’s praise of Duterte’s drug crackdown came after Duterte had repeatedly expressed his support for Trump’s own crusade. Soon after the election, Duterte was asked about Trump’s draconian immigration policies. “I trust in his judgment, that he would be fair in the matter,” he said.
To the millions of Filipinos who live and work in the U.S., this was not an academic question. Remittances form a significant chunk of the Philippines’ G.D.P.; at home, migrant workers are hailed as heroes. Duterte campaigned on a promise to increase support for workers abroad, to ease immigration pains, and to fight exploitative work conditions. If anyone would have reason to be wary of Trump’s crackdown, it would be Filipinos, who have struggled with discriminatory immigration policies around the world for decades. Yet, in contrast to the Mexican government’s outspoken protests, the Duterte Administration has ignored calls for support for workers who might be affected by Trump’s policies. “To Filipinos there, you better be on the right track,” Duterte said. “If you are not allowed to stay there where you are staying, get out, because if you are caught and deported I will not lift a finger. You know that it is a violation of the law.” The response provoked criticism from advocacy groups, but the message was clearly aimed at Trump: you take care of your country and I’ll take care of mine.
An alliance between Trump and Duterte would unite two leaders who have rallied support for anti-democratic policies by demonizing groups of marginal people. But this is only the latest example of a depressing theme in U.S.-Philippine relations. In his book “Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State,” the historian Alfred McCoy writes, “For well over a hundred years, a transnational alliance of U.S. and Filipino forces have provided security at the price of compromising human rights and slowing social progress.” In McCoy’s telling, American involvement in the Philippines since 1898, when the U.S. took possession of the islands from the Spanish, has been defined by the enabling of violent crackdowns by corrupt governments. The most notorious was the United States’ support for the kleptocratic dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who declared martial law in 1972, dismantling the country’s democracy. In return, the U.S. received access to Philippine military bases during the Cold War. The years of extrajudicial killings and violent repression that followed, carried out with American diplomatic cover and military aid, played a large role in creating the culture of impunity that Duterte takes advantage of today. It also fostered a long-standing skepticism toward America’s claim to the moral high ground on issues of human rights—a skepticism that Duterte has exploited to justify his own abuses.
One of the key lessons of McCoy’s book is that U.S. indiscretions in the Philippines inevitably have a boomerang effect on our own country. Today, Human Rights Watch is correct when it says that Trump, in finding common ground with Duterte on the drug war, has “made himself morally complicit in future killings.” The President’s embrace of a campaign of violent repression by the latest Philippine strongman holds chilling implications for Trump’s war at home.