Rodrigo Duterte and the Geopolitics of Insulting the American President

Different leaders have different reasons for insulting the American president. Often, it’s a sign of weakness.

Barack Obama
American president Barack Obama talks with his advisors in the Situation Room of the White House in Washington DC, December 5, 2015 (White House/Pete Souza)

We’ve all had that boss, that teacher, that authority figure whom we insult as soon as their back is turned. We mutter “pig” beneath our breath as the traffic cop walks just out of earshot or WhatsApp some obscenity to describe a boss or teacher who gives us a seemingly unreasonable deadline.

Should we really think that leaders don’t have the same human impulse?

Even disciplined leaders slip up: Barack Obama once despairingly remarked that “I have to deal with him everyday” to the French president in reference to his tumultuous relationship with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Two days ago, Rodrigo Duterte, the flamboyant newly-elected president of the Philippines, made it clear he did not welcome any advice from Obama on the matter of the flood of extrajudicial killings his administration has unleashed. Referring to Obama in Tagalog as a “son of a bitch,” the media firestorm was immediate. Yesterday, Duterte felt compelled to state he “regretted” the words.

In and of itself it’s meaningless. Seeing Duterte’s impulses as a shift toward China are overblowing the situation. Yet that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lesson to be learned here.

That is, some leaders are rewarded for insulting the American president and some are punished

This reveals to us the subtle network of American soft power that wraps around the world. Soft power is hard to spot, let alone measure: it’s that nebulous influence that everyone feels but no one can necessarily see. Still, there are metrics. When can a leader insult the American president and get rewarded for it? When will they get punished?

Let’s glance at some case studies.

The foaming-at-the-mouth malcontents: Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-un

Implacable American enemies nearly always go on about Yankee imperialist pig dogs. During the whole The Interview debacle in 2014, Kim Jong-un called Barack Obama a “monkey”. Saddam ordered a special mosaic built of George H.W. Bush that read “Bush is criminal” in English.

It wasn’t just personal. Both leaders had good incentive to use the United States as a verbal punching bag. Both were expressing a dual frustration: frustration that the United States was severely limiting their influence and frustration that their states could do nothing about it.

By the time Saddam ordered his mosaic and Kim Jong-un hurled his racial invective against Obama, both led states severely weakened by American power and unable to reorder their local neighborhoods more to their liking. Saddam had lost the first Gulf War, clearly and openly; Kim took over a rotting Stalinist regime barely able to keep pace with the rusting of its tanks.

Denied hard power, the two instead turned to soft power. But desperately weakened, even that was limited: a series of strong alliances kept them boxed in, with sanctions regimes limiting their economic growth. The only secure advantage they had left was the knowledge that the United States would not risk a major war over personal insults. The United States had already thrown everything at them but outright invasion. What more did they have to lose?

It also distracted some of their citizens from their own weaknesses. We as humans tend to overstate the power of words. Words are not powerful unless they can be backed by action. Yet we universally misread this regularly. We think that being called ugly is the same as becoming ugly.

The populations of Iraq and North Korea are no different. When they heard their leaders slam the president of the United States, they misinterpreted that for strength, as if calling Bush a criminal or Obama a monkey makes them so. When a nation state lacks the power to change the geopolitical dynamics of their neighborhood, they can resort to insults as a way to sweep that weakness under the rug. Many citizens will let them get away with.

Saddam’s Iraq and North Korea both had little to lose and something to cover up. Personal insults were almost the only weapons they had left against the United States.

Duterte is super far from this category. The close alliance between the Philippines and the United States means Manila is not about to go rogue state.

The populist frenemies: Recep Erdoğan and Charles de Gaulle

Some statesmen aren’t direct rivals with the United States but get domestic points by bashing the American president.

Famously, Charles de Gaulle once withdrew France from the NATO command structure just to send the point that he could. Erdoğan as of late has blamed the summer coup on the United States and the CIA.

These states are led by people who gain electoral power by showing that their nation, while fundamentally weaker than the United States, is not its puppet. Functionally, NATO is in many ways the most effective part of the American hegemony. But citizens of those nation states don’t always like to feel that way; whenever a creeping sense of inferiority comes upon them, they empower elected leaders who will, rhetorically at least, stand up to the superpower. De Gaulle’s anti-American highpoint coincided with defeat in Algeria and unrest at home; Erdoğan’s America bashing comes in the wake of a coup that nearly toppled him and a Kurdish rebellion prepared to burn brightly yet again.

Duterte doesn’t quite fit into this category. We’ll get to why later.

The responsible rivals: Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping

It’s no secret that Putin personally dislikes President Obama. Xi Jinping, China’s president, is more mercurial in his tastes. There’s not a lot of evidence that there’s personal animosity.

But even if they were, both are playing under the same constraints and rules. Unlike Saddam and the Kims, both China and Russia are powerful states capable of pushing back against the United States Both have tools beyond rhetoric to accomplish their goals. Like any great power, they don’t need to insult the president of the United States. They also understand that to do so will break lines of communication they might desperately need should a crisis emerge or should an important area of cooperation appear.

So while Putin might roll his eyes at Obama, he also will hold his tongue, using actions, not words, to undermine the Americans.

The impulsive demagogues: Duterte and Boris Johnson

In 2007, Boris Johnson called Hillary Clinton a “sadistic nurse”. Like Duterte, Johnson was speaking impulsively rather than strategically. Like Duterte, Johnson lived in a American ally. Like Duterte, Johnson was forced to backtrack his comments.

This reveals a different angle of geopolitics: just because you feel like saying something doesn’t mean you can get away with it scot-free. Both Britain and the Philippines are reliable American allies with strong, shared geopolitical interests. Neither wants to see the United States withdraw from the region. Both need American military power to gain security. Neither have military forces able to stand up to the regional boogeyman: Russia for the British, China for the Filipinos.

While Johnson did not have the standing of Duterte, it would nevertheless have been damaging to his career to be labeled as the anti-American candidate in any election. Anti-EU the British have proven to be, they are aware they’re not ready to break ties with Washington.

This is no different with the Philippines. Duterte’s rapid backtrack is proof that he came under intense pressure from within the state to make sure the alliance with the United States was not at risk. He could have resisted, even doubled down. Had he done so, however, most of his agenda would have slowed, even stopped, as fellow elites, fearing for their security, turned on him.

At the end of the day, his comments were impulse, not a strategic shift. Nor would he be capable of even changing sides even if he wanted to. Only with careful cultivating of Beijing might he accomplish that, but it’s unlikely in the extreme that Filipinos, both elites and citizens, prefer Beijing’s influence to Washington’s. After all, 92 percent of Filipinos view the United States favorably while only 38 percent hold the same view of China.

People will continue to insult the American president. How unapologetically they do so, and whether or not they get away with it, says much about their geopolitical relationship with the United States.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, September 7, 2016.