By Melito Salazar Jr.
President Rodrigo Roa Duterte is back from Peru after attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting. This latest foreign trip makes President Duterte the most traveled Philippine president in the first year of a six-year term, having visited earlier Laos (ASEAN Summit and where he badmouthed US President Barack Obama), Indonesia (where President Jojo Widodo misquoted (?) him as giving the go signal for the execution of alleged Filipino drug mule Mary Jane Veloso), China (where he announced a distancing from the Philippines’ longtime ally, the United States of America), Japan (where the death of the Emperor’s uncle, Prince Mikasa, led to a cancellation of President Duterte’s meeting with Emperor Akihito), Thailand (where he paid his respects to the deceased and widely beloved King of Thailand Bhumibol Adulyadej), Brunei (which was supposed to be his first trip to an ASEAN country but postponed earlier due to the bombing incident in Davao), and New Zealand (a stopover on his way to Peru).
In many of these trips, media has focused on the President’s non-conventional style before an international audience and his “unpresidential behavior” (chewing gum in formal events; being late in a meeting in punctual Japan). They could have helped by dwelling more on the positive aspects of the trips — the growing admiration for the country’s independent foreign policy as espoused by the President and the trade and investment opportunities opened up in these trips.
The APEC trip provided an opportunity to establish personal ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin (who President Duterte has described as his “idol”) and cemented relationships with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The more important message of the President was that “PH is open for business” assuring global investors that the country welcomes them, including American and European businessmen. The presentation of the Duterte administration’s 10-point Socio-Economic Agenda highlighted that there is more to President Duterte’s thrust than just the war on drugs. It clarified that the war against criminality and corruption are the “building blocks of a strong and resilient economy aimed at inclusive and continued growth.”
It should be appreciated that as President Duterte embarks on these foreign trips, he is going through a learning curve on how a president, the face of the nation, interacts with equals and draws respect and admiration for the country he leads. He observes the deliberate and well-considered statements of global leaders. In his bilateral meetings, he sees up close how his counterparts put their views firmly but with courtesy and has an opportunity to evaluate their sincerity and decide whether they are worthy of his trust. An important feature is the excellent staff work that makes these leaders knowledgeable and adopt credible, well thought-out positions.
The Filipino people should continue to encourage the President to undertake more foreign trips — Go Duterte Go! It will be good for him and what is good for the president should be good for the Filipinos. But these trips could be more productive if President Duterte cultivates certain leadership traits.
Trust the bureaucracy. The Philippine bureaucracy, especially the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Trade and Industry, are staffed by professionals who know their business and perform their job well. Give them the marching orders and they will draft the programs, including speeches and talking points that serve the best interest of the presidency and the country. They can also propose a schedule of foreign trips that considers the priorities from the Philippines’ national interest and the demands on the president’s time and attention. Proper pacing will be observed.
Trust the cabinet. Having been chosen and appointed by him, President Duterte will find it useful if before coming up with his strong positions on a number of issues, he tosses his ideas to his cabinet. A free-wheeling discussion away from media coverage will lead to better decisions, programs and projects. This will also avoid having his cabinet “reinterpreting” his controversial pronouncements and “cleaning up the mess.”
Trust his instincts but sharpen and refine them with inputs from the cabinet and the government bureaucracy. Then it will be Go Philippines Go!