Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is a strongman who likes to dispense with civility, defy policy norms, and act on impulse. He has infamously likened himself to Adolf Hitler, waged a drug war, which has claimed the lives of nearly 4,000 civilians in months, and publically called US President Barack Obama “a son of a bitch.” He has also threatened to cut ties with long-time ally the United States in favor of closer military, economic, and diplomatic ties with China. It appears his goal is to use the rivalry between China and the US to strengthen his regional influence and derive greater benefits from the two world powers for the Philippines.
Although the US and China are at odds with each other over multiple issues, US posturing against China is done in defense of countries like the Philippines. Clearly, Duterte’s anti-American sentiments undermine US influence against China and in Asia, but weakened US support does a great deal more to undermine the position of the Philippines against China. Duterte’s self-sabotaging approach to foreign policy does, however, emphasize a widespread issue that the United States faces. US power is seen as a threat, which raises the important question: how can the world hold the Superpower and other world powers accountable.
In the eyes of critics, the US appears to be able to act as it pleases without any accountability or consequences for unleashing destruction onto other countries. These same critics often see Chinese and Russian power as the only means to hold the US accountable. Russia’s defiance over the Syrian Civil War, for example, is not seen as a destructive campaign to sustain a brutal dictator; it is seen as a means to confront the US for its provocations. In contrast, US power is seen as a means to hold China and Russia accountable in places where China and Russia have the power to dominate others nations.
Considering the oppression of North Korea, the Saudi bombing of the Houthis in Yemen, the Syrian Civil War, the Turkish-Kurdish Conflict, and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, among numerous other examples, there is a lack of accountability for those who use power to defy international standards for human rights. No one seems to be able to hold even the governments of these relatively weak countries accountable for the destruction they cause. On the international stage, rivalries between world powers like the US, China, and Russia have the potential provide some check on their power, but it does nothing to hold the leadership of these countries accountable for their wrongdoing.
The Ukraine Crisis was, in part, an attempt by Russia to prevent the strengthening of Ukrainian ties with the West. Not only did the Ukraine Crisis actually undermine Russian influence, the wrongs committed have gone unpunished. More importantly, the Ukraine Crisis has resulted in devastation for the People of Ukraine and hardships for the People of Russia. In contrast, US-led efforts to unify Europe following the Second World War helped the continent break a centuries-long cycle of escalating conflicts. By focusing on regional development and an ever-broadening base of alliances rooted in diplomatic engagement, the West was able turn away from mutually destructive competitions over power by addressing the interests of each other.
Consequently, world powers cannot be held accountable through rivalries. Aligning with one world power against another is not enough to combat the threat of power. It is not enough to ignore the wrongs of Russian, Chinese, or even US leadership to undermine the power of the others. Not only does such an approach fail to hold any responsible party accountable, it creates destruction. After all, US foreign policy during the Cold War caused the most destruction when the goal was to undermine Russian influence and power via proxy wars. Similarly, the wrongs of leadership in defiant states like Iran and North Korea have created destruction, yet done nothing to check the power of rivals. The wrongs of all countries and all leaders need to be confronted in order to neutral the abuse of power.
While resentment of American power, as well as a history of wrongs by US leadership, drives anti-American sentiment, the US Empire has been far more benign than that of past empires. Regrettably, the US has often fallen short of its own aspirations. In many respects, this is because the US is like a traditional power, which must assert its interests even at the expense of other nations and other Peoples. Due to the unprecedented power of the US, it is particularly easily for the United Sates to crush the interests of other nations with abusive policies. On the other hand, the US has built its power on alliances, which require the US to respect the interests of other nations and forgo its own interests for the sake of its allies.
If the United States simply ignored the interests of other nations and their Peoples, US power would eventually evaporate. Similarly, world powers China and Russia cannot rival the US, unless they embrace the aspirations of the US or find others way to build rival networks of allies. Just as US power is built on a “democratized” world order of nation-states, US government derives its power from the support of its People. Because the US is a democratic country, it must sufficiently respond to the interests of its People, which means US power is constrained by the American People.
Unfortunately, misperceptions, poor decisions, and ill-democratic tendencies of the United States, which include civil disengagement, a lack of transparency, and corruption, often leave harmful public policies unchallenged. Democracy is far from perfect while democracy is far from a perfect check on power, but it is far more effective than mutually destructive rivalries. Instead of undermining US power and promoting abusive leaders in an effort to combat the threat of power, there must be a greater effort across the globe to empower the Peoples of the world, address the interests of the Peoples of the world, and hold the individuals, who abuse power, accountable.
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