Independent Foreign Policy

by Manuel B. Quintal, Esq.

| Photo courtesy of Department of Foreign Affairs

What is an “independent” foreign policy? Is it possible for a country, like the Philippines, to pursue an independent foreign policy?

In the words, of John Donne, “No man is an island entire of itself”; so is a country not “entire of itself”. Countries, large or small have always been part of any alignments or alliances, whether formal or informal. As with individuals who join organizations, every country’s involvement in alliances is a diminution of the country’s independence. That simply is a result of membership in a society of nations.

After World War II until the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), there existed a period that historians refer to as the Cold War. It was characterized by mutual suspicion, show of force, threat of use of force, economic reprisals, and other means short of armed conflict. The world was divided by way of alliances, into the Western (Democratic, US) Bloc and the Eastern (Communist or Soviet) Bloc. The former was led by the United States, with France, Great Britain, West Germany, Australia, the Philippines, among the so-called democratic countries as members. The latter was led by the USSR, with all the countries of Eastern Europe, People’s Republic of China (PRC), North Vietnam, Cuba, and others with socialist or communist system of government. The world then was characterized as bi-polar, meaning that there were only two super or major powers, and lesser powers were behind or allied with either of them.

“The alignments and relations of countries had changed since the disintegration of the USSR. Russia grew out of the USSR and assumed the latter’s role in international politics. PRC, with its increased military and economic power and its own ambitions for great power status, moved out of the shadows of Russia.”

Outside of these two power blocs was a group of emergent countries that recently shed their colonial status. They called themselves nonaligned. In this group belonged, or at least they claimed to belong, India, Indonesia, Egypt, and a number of other newly-independent countries in Africa. Each of them had their way of being nonaligned, but as Jawaharlal Nehru characterized it “does not mean that in our economic life or in other spheres of life, we do not incline this or that”. It means “we do not line up with this or that forces but try to maintain a certain friendliness and spirit of cooperation with both the great and small countries of the world.” Their foreign policy was independent only because they were not identified with any of the power blocs formed by the super or major powers. They tried to get whatever they could, including military hardware and economic assistance, from the power blocs, while trying to develop their own.

“… in its 1987 Constitution adopted the following: ”The State shall pursue an independent foreign policy. In its relations with other states the paramount consideration shall be national sovereignty, national interest, and the right to self-determination.” (Article II, Section 7).”

The alignments and relations of countries had changed since the disintegration of the USSR. Russia grew out of the USSR and assumed the latter’s role in international politics. PRC, with its increased military and economic power and its own ambitions for great power status, moved out of the shadows of Russia. The United States, meanwhile, seemed to have less involvement in Asian affairs and tended to adopt an isolationist policy. The South China Sea or West Philippine Sea has become a contested zone.

With this background, the Philippines, in its 1987 Constitution adopted the following: ”The State shall pursue an independent foreign policy. In its relations with other states the paramount consideration shall be national sovereignty, national interest, and the right to self-determination.” (Article II, Section 7).

Note that the above is a declaration of a policy that the country’s leadership is mandated to pursue. It is an aspiration that leaders responsible for the formulation and conduct of foreign policy should pursue. Under the Philippines Constitution, the President shares with Congress the duty to formulate the foreign policy, but the responsibility of conducting foreign policy is primarily the duty of the President. Whatever foreign policy adopted and conducted is not reviewable by the courts.

“Under the Philippines Constitution, the President shares with Congress the duty to formulate the foreign policy, but the responsibility of conducting foreign policy is primarily the duty of the President. Whatever foreign policy adopted and conducted is not reviewable by the courts.”

The idea of an independent foreign policy is relative. By this, every administration in the Philippines since the adoption of that constitutional declaration can claim to have adopted an independent foreign policy. The true and honest reality is, however, that only the military and economic powers can rightfully claim to pursue an independent foreign policy. They have the power to implement and enforce, even impose, whatever foreign policy they adopt. Countries like the Philippines cannot afford to pursue a foreign policy discounting the military and economic powers that affect its existence. Its foreign policy may favor one country or another, yet it will still be considered “independent”. It is over-dependence on a particular country, particularly a country with superior military and economic powers, and cutting relations with traditional allies that will belie and negate any claim, blatant at that, of an “independent” foreign policy. History has shown that appeasement or giving in to the desires of a greater power does not pay for the appeaser in the long run.

The Philippines Constitution requires that the foreign policy’s “paramount consideration shall be national sovereignty, national interest, and the right to self-determination” for it to be considered “independent”. In other words, that foreign policy must advocate, promote, or protect the Philippines as a sovereign country, the interest of its people, and its right to decide how to go forward as a nation.

Does the present foreign policy of the Philippines meet those constitutional requirements of an “independent” foreign policy?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Manuel B. Quintal, ESQ., practices law in New York since 1989. He is active in the community as a member, an officer or a legal adviser of various professional, business, and not-for-profit organizations. He was a columnist of Newstar Philippines, an English language weekly newspaper published in New York, from 2006-2009. He was Executive Editor of International Tribune, an English language weekly newspaper for the Asian community, based in New York, from 2010 to 2012. He is admitted to practice law in the Philippines and New York State. He has graduate degrees in Political Science and an LL.M. major in International Law.

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