The Obama administration is drawing to a close with another foreign-policy disaster, apparently finalized today when the president of the Philippines announced his intention to cut ties with the U.S. and align himself with China and Russia. This appears to be entirely the consequence of American self-righteousness. Rodrigo Duterte won his election earlier this year as a kind of populist -- some have called him a Filipino Donald Trump, though there's little resemblance in terms of wealth -- and has governed, in at least one respect, as an authoritarian. He has become notorious for his extreme drug-war policies, which reportedly include the sanctioning of vigilante killing of both drug dealers and drug users. Naturally Americans object to this, and Duterte resents that. He has told the President and his diplomats to go to hell, and has told an interviewer that he doesn't give a damn about "human rights" because he has a responsibility to save this and the next generation of Filipinos from the drug scourge, even if he racks up a Hitleresque body count. He sounds like a violent boor, but my right to express a superficial opinion is different from the American diplomatic corps' responsibility to maintain our strategic position in the South Pacific. Yet it seems as if Obama/Kerry State Department is incapable of restraining itself from moralistic lecturing, and incapable of not being surprised when other countries resent the lecturing. Practically the one selling point Donald Trump has with me is the possibility, despite Democratic fearmongering over his impulsive temper, that he and his diplomats would behave differently. It's that quality, of course, that gets Trump accused of being a "puppet" of Vladimir Putin -- his "You're a puppet!" retort probably was his most pathetic moment during the third debate -- the liberal fear being that Trump will prove as indifferent to human rights as Putin or Duterte seems to be. The idea that civil liberties in other countries may not be our business horrifies liberals. They fear that a lack of commitment to human rights everywhere makes your commitment to human rights here questionable. The contrast between their anxiety over any manifestation of "authoritarianism" and Trump's desire to get along with most countries may reveal a distinction between what we could call Trump's populist foreign policy and the approach of the diplomatic mainstream.
Both liberals and many Republicans (particularly the neocons) believe American foreign policy should be dedicated to the defense and advancement of human rights. The neocons are more likely to talk about "natural rights," and to attribute them to God, but both groups believe that a moral law of human rights applies to every nation on Earth. They envision a constant struggle between human/natural rights and authoritarianism, and Duterte's pivot to China may only convince them that the authoritarian tide is advancing to America's peril. For the sake of comparison, let me suggest that populist foreign policy is influenced by a positivist notion of rights. What that means is that rights do not precede politics, that rights are created and local rather than eternal and universal. For example, the rights of American citizens are based on the Constitution and nothing else. The idea that authoritarian tendencies in other countries undermine American rights must appear absurd from that perspective. That would make it easier to maintain a pragmatic, diplomatic indifference toward authoritarianism among allies, as we probably ought to have done regarding Duterte. I don't know how well he and Trump could get along -- Duterte reportedly challenged Trump to a fight after some perceived slight earlier this year -- but do you doubt that Trump would let him do whatever he thinks he's got to do, as long as he remained useful in a part of the world Trump considered important? It would be helpful if someone had thought to ask him and Clinton about the Philippines at the debates, but I suppose everyone thought there were lots of more important questions to ask about the candidates' comparative depravity. That's too bad, because debating how much we should care about the Philippines might clarify how much the candidates really care about their own country.