It is one thing for a leader such as Vladimir Putin to send all of Washington and the media clerks serving it into a dither—as the Russian president has on numerous occasions. Favor or detest him, Putin is an exceptional statesman by any disinterested measure. It is quite another matter for the leader of a small, poor, traditionally meek client such as the Philippines to tie our policy cliques in knots, as that nation’s 16th president has just done.
Rodrigo Duterte—“Digong,” in a nation that gives everyone a nickname—is far from accomplished as a statesman; next to Putin, it must be said, he can come across to some as a blunt instrument. In a shorthand I find useless, Duterte is known on our shores as a right-wing populist out of the Donald Trump file. This is reductionist, obscuring far more than it reveals—which may be precisely the point: The last thing our policy cliques and pundits want to do is understand and face what Duterte is driving at (and what drives him).
Since he was elected in May by a considerable margin, Duterte has drawn attention primarily for a campaign against drug peddlers and addicts that he wages by way of the police and vigilante death squads in the Latin American mode. So far, Duterte’s drug war has claimed more than 3,000 victims, half or more of them extrajudicial murders. It is a dreadful mess, as the United Nations and many human-rights organizations have vigorously asserted. But Filipino voters knew this was coming when they sent Duterte to Malacañang Palace: In the 20–odd years he served as mayor of Davao, a large city in the south of the archipelago, a similar war against the Philippines’ vast and tragic drug culture claimed roughly 1,500 lives.
As of last week, being appalled by Duterte’s law-and-order tactics has given way to being appalled by his foreign policy—a rather larger matter. Since assuming office he has made no secret of his contempt for the “little brown brother” tradition of sycophancy he inherited from all previous residents of Malacañang. For some time, this amounted to a pile of epithets Duterte sent the White House’s way. He has called President Obama “the son of a whore” on repeated occasions. “Mr. Obama, you can go to hell,” he said in a speech delivered in Tagalog earlier this month. In a matter of substance, Duterte swiftly signaled that he would reject a Hague tribunal’s ruling in July in support of Manila in its dispute with China over maritime claims in the South China Sea. But Washington did not make much of Duterte’s position. This was to my surprise, given that it was Hillary Clinton’s State Department that railroaded Benigno Aquino III, Duterte’s predecessor, onto the legal track. (Manila filed its suit in The Hague a matter of days after Clinton stepped aside as secretary of state in 2013.)
That now looks like an immense, collective flinch, for Duterte’s summit with Xi Jinping in Beijing last week confirms what the State Department and the White House ought to have seen coming but missed by many miles. Here are a few of Duterte’s remarks prior to meeting the Chinese president. He addressed his remarks to the United States before an audience of Filipino expatriates: