• Gregory H. Winger

Alliance Embeddedness: The Resilience of the U.S.-Philippine Alliance in the Duterte Era


Photo Source: US Embassy in the Philippines


When President Rodrigo Duterte pledged in October 2016 to separate the Philippines from the United States in favor of alignment with Russia and China, it seemingly heralded the end of one of the Indo-Pacific’s most enduring partnerships. On both sides of the Pacific, media coverage of Duterte’s Beijing speech focused on the seemingly imminent end of the U.S.-Philippine alliance and its implications for the region. Yet, reports on the demise of the alliance proved to be premature. Nearly five years later, the U.S.-Philippine alliance continues to endure and is preparing to celebrate its platinum jubilee. The resilience of the U.S.-Philippine partnership is not only a testament to the bilateral partnership but also offers keen insights into the evolving nature of international alliances. From political pacts between rulers, alliances have since grown into robust international organizations. Their bevy of institutions and undertakings have allowed participation in alliance activities to extend below the level of political elites and cultivate transnational links between national governments and officials as well. It is the power of these underlying linkages that accounts for the durability of the U.S.-Philippine alliance and its weathering of periods of discord like the Duterte era.


Alliances as Institutions


Alliances have long been a feature of international politics. However, for much of history, these pacts were not robust institutions but instead existed as agreements between rulers based on marriage, family, faith, or honor. Such arrangements could be written down in a formal treaty and some have proven quite durable. Notably the Anglo-Portuguese alliance of 1386 remains in effect today. Yet, as many Game of Thrones fans can relate, alliances based principally on pledges of personal fidelity between rulers are inherently tenuous. Rather than lasting partnerships between countries most international alliances have been temporally limited with their duration bound to the lifespan of an individual ruler, regime, or conflict.


That changed in the 20th century. In both World Wars, alliance operations were essential to victory and both the Soviet Union and the United States made standing, peacetime alliances the bedrock of their Cold War strategies. Unlike the haphazard pledges of mutual support of old, the need for integrated defense led the Cold War alliances to develop beyond mere written agreements. Cold War alliances expanded into international organizations with internal institutions and regularized peacetime activities to manage alliance affairs and ensure their effectiveness. The U.S.-Philippine alliance was emblematic of this evolution towards alliance institutionalization. While not nearly as heavily institutionalized as NATO, the U.S.-Philippine alliance nevertheless developed organs like the Mutual Defense Board (MDB) and Joint US Military Assistance Group (JUSMAG) to oversee alliance affairs and activities. Moreover, regularized peacetime activities like officer exchanges, educational programs, and joint training exercises have been integral to the U.S.-Philippine defense relationship throughout its long history.


Alliance Embeddedness


The institutionalization of alliances not only changed how alliances function, but also how member-states interacted with them. With the expansion of peacetime activities and institutions, alliances were no longer the domain of rulers. Instead, involvement in ongoing alliance activities were pushed below the level of political elites to include national bureaucracies and personnel. Now, diplomats, civil servants, officials, and military personnel became integral to the staffing and maintaining of alliance institutions as well as participants in their ongoing activities. For example, prior to Covid-19, the U.S. and Philippines held hundreds of defense diplomacy activities each year involving thousands of participants and in fiscal year 2016 alone, the United States supported the participation of 764 Philippine personnel in military education and training initiatives. Now, even at junior levels, officials from both countries could participate in alliance undertakings and gain a direct appreciation for their virtues.


The result of this increased participation in alliances has been the evolution of alliances themselves from pacts between leaders to transnational networks spanning governments. Through alliance institutions, officials throughout national governments and defense establishments gain experience working with their alliance counterparts and an understanding of alliance values and benefits. Neither these perspectives nor the personal relationships cultivated through alliance activities dissipate once an individual’s immediate participation in an alliance activity ends. Rather past-participants can continue to carry these elements with them. Notably, Fidel Ramos graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1950 and decades later as President, he continued to credit his experience at West Point for shaping him as a leader and his views on the alliance.


While an especially prominent case, Ramos is not unique in this experience. Having gained intimate experience working within an alliance, officials will carry those lessons and links with them in their home institutions and throughout their careers. At a functional level, these intra-alliance networks have been critical to facilitating cooperation in such areas as counterterrorism, crisis management, and disaster response. Moreover, by incorporating national institutions and personnel within the alliance system, it is possible to insulate the bilateral relationship from the whims of irascible leaders. Even as relationships between national leaders may fracture and fray, the embedded support for an alliance within national institutions can shield the strategic partnership from disputes and ensure the continued survival of the alliance despite political discord. It is precisely this process which unfolded during of the Duterte-Obama schism in 2016.


Resilience amid Upheaval


The stabilization of the U.S.-Philippine alliance after the nadir of October 2016 has frequently been attributed to the election of Donald Trump and the personal affinity between Trump and Duterte. However, the recovery began prior to Trump’s election and was primarily driven by institutional support for the alliance within both governments, not elite reconciliation. Specifically, even as the Duterte-Obama relationship foundered over human rights, elements within both governments worked diligently to contain the damage and preserve the alliance. The initial impetus was to shield ongoing activities from the worst of the political fallout as multiple alliance undertakings were targeted for cancellation. Defending the alliance included practices like willful interpretations of presidential statements, delays for formal policy guidance, and alternative formulations for ongoing activities. When Duterte’s demand to remove U.S. forces from Mindanao threatened to derail ongoing counterterrorism efforts, both governments worked to replace the departing U.S. forces with a new contingent capable of continuing assistance operations. Nor were these efforts confined to Manila. Amid a growing furor over Duterte’s war on drugs, officials in the U.S. government helped shield continued security force assistance to the Philippines from budding Congressional opponents. The break between Duterte and Obama did have significant consequences, like the Philippines’ withdrawal from joint patrols in the West Philippine Sea, but the underlying links within the alliance helped to contain the damage and maintain the alliance despite a clear fissure between leaders.


Furthermore, it was this underlying network which helped identify a way forward for the alliance despite President Duterte’s pivot towards China. In particular, Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana recognized that engagement with China and the U.S. alliance were not mutually exclusive propositions and he crafted an approach to alliance activities that navigated these seemingly competing interests. Previous alliance exercises had prioritized the external defense of the Philippines. But these kinds of activities, especially those in the West Philippines Sea, were deemed by Duterte as antagonistic towards China. Instead of scrapping all exercises, Lorenzana instead reorientated joint exercises to deemphasized external defense in favor of non-traditional security areas like disaster response and counterterrorism. This alternative approach was adopted prior to the U.S. election in November 2016 and allowed for joint exercises to continue. This continued engagement proved vital less than a year later when the U.S. was immediately able to offer critical support to the Philippines during the siege of Marawi. American support during the battle for Marawi even earned grudging recognition from President Duterte who acknowledged the utility of the alliance in retaking the city. “I would not say they were our saviors, but they are our allies and they helped us…even today, they provide crucial equipment to our soldiers in Marawi to fight the terrorists.”


Five years after the Beijing speech, the U.S.-Philippine alliance may not always be placid, but it has endured. Yet, the perseverance of the U.S.-Philippine alliance is not the case of either Duterte or China failing, but rather the alliance itself succeeding. Indeed, as the alliance marks its 70th anniversary amid renewed strategic competition in Asia, it important to note that the survival of the alliance has been neither incidental nor preordained. Rather, throughout its lifespan, cooperative activities and institutions have allowed successive generations of Philippine and American officials to work within the alliance and become champions of its merits. It is this underlying network of embedded support that has ensured the alliance’s durability and adaptability amid political upheaval and which will continue to underpin the bilateral relationship as it faces the emerging security challenges of the 21st century.

This article is adapted from “Alliance Embeddedness: Rodrigo Duterte and the Resilience of the US–Philippine Alliance,” Foreign Policy Analysis, Volume 17, Issue 3, July 2021, https://doi.org/10.1093/fpa/orab013

Dr. Gregory H. Winger is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Fellow at the Center for Cyber Strategy & Policy at the University of Cincinnati. He is a fellow with the National Asia Research Program and a participant in the Pacific Forum’s US-Philippines’ Next Generation Leaders Initiative. He is also a former Fulbright scholar to the Philippines

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