Donald Trump’s first major test as ‘deal-maker in chief’ will not come from the global flash points of violence in the Middle East nor Donbass. It will not arise over Trump’s vision of a one or two China policy, it will come in the form of Rodrigo Duterte, the President of Philippines.
In spite of his portrayal in the mainstream media as an unhinged maniac, Duterte is ideologically consistent, he understands better than many, how drugs have ravaged peace and prosperity in his country, and, most importantly, he is a pragmatic negotiator.
The last few months have seen Duterte shopping around for the best deals in areas like arms, security, regional cooperation and trade. He has had constructive meetings with China, Malaysia, is open to discussions with Russia, and has welcomed Donald Trump’s election after calling Obama a ‘son of a whore’ who can ‘go to hell’.
Duterte has recently spoken of his anger at the threat of America’s Millennium Challenge Corporation of withdrawing aid to the Philippines. Currently the US and Philippines have a bilateral agreement signed in 1998 which allows the US military to train in the country. Duterte has said that should US aid be cut off due to his anti-drug policies, he is happy to abrogate the treaty.
This is a perfect example of the fact that in business, unlike the exercise of unilateralist foreign policy making, there is typically a quid-pro-quo and there are no free lunches. Duterte is using the generous Visiting Forces Agreement as a bargaining chip with the United States, it’s what deal makers do, it is something Donald Trump will understand.
Duterte’s frank manner of speech is also something Trump ought to relate to. Duterte said of his ultimatum, “You know, tit for tat… if you can do this, so (can) we. It ain’t a one-way traffic. Bye-bye America”.
Like with so many other areas concerning Donald Trump, there are good reasons to remain optimistic about his ability to strike mutually acceptable deals with Duterte. Unlike the leaders of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which offers aid in exchange for the implementation of neo-liberal policies, Donald Trump tends to accept the world for what it is and has inferred that he is more inclined to negotiate on practical rather than ideological terms.
Like Duterte, Trump has also spoken of America’s drug problem and intends to tackle it with vigour. By contrast, Obama has hardly ever mentioned the plight of communities in America whose prosperity, security and peace have been torn apart by drug crime and the violence and depravity which accompanies it.
Duterte is exercising a Philippines first policy, one which puts the needs of his own countrymen and women above those of foreign interests, ideological ones or corporate ones. If Trump and Duterte are able to maintain the traditional good relations between the US and Philippines on the basis of pragmatic deal making rather than neo-colonial puppetry or international social engineering, both countries will benefit from it.