In recounting to the media some of the details of the hourlong meeting between President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and US Secretary of State Colin Powell on Saturday, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye emphasized Mrs. Arroyo’s “asking the US to return the favor.”

Bunye said that Mrs. Arroyo in effect told Powell that the US government should reciprocate her administration’s unconditional support for the US “war on terrorism.”

“She was saying,” Bunye continued, “[that] ‘we have pro out on a limb for you,'” and that the US should return the favor, by. giving Philippine tuna exports the soft tariff exemption it gives tuna from Latin America; releasing the long-delayed benefits of Filipino World War II veterans; cleaning up the toxic waste US forces left behind in the former US bases at Clark and Subic; and removing the Philippines from the US’ money-laundering blacklist.

Mrs. Arroyo had other requests. among them more humane treatment for undocumented Filipinos deported from the US, the lifting of the US travel advisory warning Americans of the dangers of vacationing in the Philippines and a visit by US President George W. Bush.

Bunye’s line was of course intended for domestic consumption and meant to show that Mrs. Arroyo can be as tough on the US as she has recently been on neighborhood drug dealers and corrupt policemen. No, the same line is saying, Mrs. Arroyo is no puppet on the US string the militant groups say.

Within days after September 11, 2001, Mrs. Arroyo took the iniative in expressing full support for the US “war on terrosrism,” commitment the Philippines even before the US asked (it never did) to the sending of troops, invited and got US troop involvement in the anti-Abu Sayyaf campaign via the Balikatan “exercises,” and has made their long-term presence probable through the Mutual Logistic Support Agreement. She did all these with one thing in mind, and that’s to get payback. Powell’s visit, the administration is saying, was payback time.

Powell, however, didn’t bite and granted no “quid” for the administration’s “quo.” Despite its supposedly tough stance. the most the Arroyo administration got from Powell was the assurance that the Philippines will indeed get the -million antiterrorist fund the US Congress had set aside for it weeks before the Powell visit.

Powell did reiterate that 0 million in development assistance this year would be forthcoming from the US, and described the Philippines as “a shoo-in” for a share in the -billion economic development fund the US is offering countries besieged by terrorism. The first, however, is already in the pipeline, whereas the second is something the Philippines would have to qualify for.

On the matter of US tariffs on Philippine tuna, Powell–said Arroyo officials themselves–hedged, and mentioned something about the US having to think of its other trade obligations. In fact Powell made light of the subject later, telling the media that he had not expected to be talking about tuna during his Philippine visit.

Powell was described as similarly noncommittal about the other requests of Mrs. Arroyo, and seemed prepared only to reiterate commitments the United States had already made.

Did her apparent failure to obtain concessions from the US mean that Mrs. Arroyo’s approach was wrong?

Practice as well as the realities inherent in the relations between nations say “no.” Every country has the right–in fact the obligation–to get the most favorable terms for itself in negotiations with other countries, and to use the means of diplomacy to further its interests. Foreign policy is, or should be, supportive of domestic needs. The leaders of states, today as in the past, enter into relations with other states in hope of getting the greatest advantage for their government and themselves, if not for their people. The principle is thus as time-tested much as it is an imperative in a world in which every country must fend for itself.

In the present instance, however, it is not so much the claimed principle as the particulars about which one can take issue.

Mrs. Arroyo’s policy toward the United States—which the administration implies was driven by the principle of self-interest–has in effect brought the country back to where it was several decades ago in its relationship with its former colonizer.

Before Mrs. Arroyo expressed full and uncritical support for the US war on terrorism–which among others divided the countries of the world into those against the US and those for it–and then invited US troops while preparing for the approval of the MLSA, the country had begun the painful but necessary process of weaning itself from the decades of dependence which had characterized its relations with the US since independence.

The turning point in this process was the 1991 rejection by the Senate of the treaty that would give the US bases another 25 years of life in the Philippines. The US bases and US troop presence had been major issues of sovereignty–of Philippine independence mocked by the presence of foreign troops whose behavior was beyond the reach of Philippine courts. Those bases also encouraged the proliferation of prostitution as well as other social problems. They were an affront to the country’s sovereignty, and an invitation for intervention in domestic affairs by a vastly superior military power.

Before 1991, however, it was widely believed that hell would freeze over first before the Philippine government developed the will to either do anything about the problems associated with them (among them; extra territoriality, which enabled US servicemen accused of crimes to depart the Philippines without being prosecuted), or to dismantle them altogether.

In 1991 it seemed that the process would not take that long. In an unprecedented decision, the Senate refused to renew the bases lease, and thus began what seemed to be a process, though slow, did wild give Philippine independence as much substance as it had in words.

Mrs. Arroyo has derailed the process, and demonstrated how misplaced placed were the hopes generated by 1991 by compromising Philippine sovereignty in both the short and long term, and in the process possibly violating the constitutional ban on foreign troops and bases without the benefit of a treaty.

However, her administration would have us believe–its spokesmen and she herself have said repeatedly–that she practically restored US-Philippine relations to the same levels as before 1991 for the sake of US military aid, as well as, it now seems, such concessions as tariff-free Philippine tuna and lifting the negative US travel advisory about the Philippines.

These are rewards not commensurate with what Mrs. Arroyo has traded off, and this fact was too glaring to escape Colin Powell. The realization of how petty they are compared with such concerns as the future of a Philippines once more the tail to the American kite was evident in his comment about not knowing do he would end up talking about tuna.

There is at the same time no escaping the impression that the Philippines is solely being mercenary in giving the US what it wants, and that no issue of principle guided its uncritical support for the US and its invitation to US troop involvement in what could be a war against all Philippine armed groups.

The United States of course looms large on the global stage. Because of its past and present involvement in this country, it is also at least partly responsible for what the Philippines has become. The Philippines has no alternative but to regard its relations with the US as a major component of its foreign relations. Surely, however, there can be a sounder, more dignified, mutually satisfying relationship with the United States than patronage—and more respectable and principled than one based on purely mercenary grounds.

(TODAY/ABS-CBNNEWS.COM, August 6, 2002)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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