• JJ Domingo

Idealism and strategy: the Philippines’ commitment to the rules-based international order

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

Photo Source: United Nations Photo

The signing of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco seventy-six years ago this month was a pivotal moment in the evolution of international relations, at par with the conclusion of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

Westphalia established the norms that became the basis of the world order where the state – not the pope, emperor or any universal overlord – is sovereign. San Francisco revised this world order, decreeing that states in their sovereign capacity must consent to be bound by a regime of rules underpinned by international law.

This new liberalist outlook has its genesis in the idealism of the conventions that were held in Geneva and The Hague in the late 1800s to limit the state’s sovereign power to wage war. It took two destructive wars for political leaders to take this idealism seriously. In 1942, in the thick of the Second World War, the United States and the United Kingdom promulgated the Atlantic Charter, which committed the allied powers to the idealistic vision of peace that is based on principles and is governed by rules.

As soon as the Philippines’ commonwealth government was reestablished near the end of the war, Filipinos immediately began to become actively involved in the development of this new rules-based international order – even before they became fully independent. The active leadership role that the Philippine Delegation to the San Francisco Conference played in 1945 would set the tone for the Philippines’ postwar foreign policy in general, and multilateral policy in particular.

The Filipino delegation actively sought two objectives at the U.N. Charter negotiations: opposition to the veto power of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and the enshrinement of the right to independence of the remaining colonies then. Political considerations eventually compelled Filipino diplomats to acquiesce on the first point – the Philippines was warned that the U.S. Congress would not ratify the accord sans the veto – but they famously succeeded on the second. Thanks to the Philippines, the word “independence” is referred to twice in the U.N. Charter.

The Filipinos’ advocacy for the right to independence found support, ironically, in the political leadership of their erstwhile colonial master, the U.S. The Americans at that time often sparred with the British and the French on the issue of decolonization, with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt publicly rebuffing British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s assertion in 1942 that the Atlantic Charter’s invocation of all peoples’ right to self-determination did not apply to the subjects of the British Empire.

Back then, the Europeans were still nostalgic about their prewar status and had therefore yet to fully embrace the American vision for a rules-based liberal international order. This vision, after all, upended the classical notions of international relations – or what scholars refer to as “realism.” Even in the U.S., the idea was something of a novelty then, having been mainstreamed only twenty years before by the visionary president Woodrow Wilson. In the Philippines, however, it was not novel at all; the country’s natural inclination towards the Wilsonian vision of the world proceeds from a long tradition of Filipino liberalism.

Unique among most national liberation movements, Philippine nation-building was anchored on liberalism first and nationalism second. The leaders of the pioneering Propaganda Movement, including the national hero Jose Rizal, were disciples of the Enlightenment: they promoted humanist principles revolving around freedoms and individual rights and, to a lesser extent, social justice. Initially agnostic about the country’s political status, these leaders supported independence only after it became clear that liberal reforms were impossible under Spain.

They then went on to establish Asia’s first constitutional republic in 1898, only to be defeated in a bloody war with invading Americans in 1901. Under U.S. rule, Filipino politicians and bureaucrats worked with American officials in seeking and implementing reforms for freedom, human rights, and social justice. By 1935, the Filipinos were self-governing, confident of having won independence not by the strength of their arms but through the eloquence of their tongue and the dexterity of their pen.

This unique track to independence inculcated deeply into the minds of the Filipino elite and educated class the notion that peaceful means always trump violent struggles. This notion is mythologized in Rizal’s writings and affirmed more recently in 1986, when liberal democracy was restored through a world-famous peaceful revolution that rejected – in the words of then President Corazon Aquino – both the “mindless cruelty of the right and the purging holocaust of the left.”

This pacifist outlook also underscores the kind of nationalism that developed and took root in the Philippines: civic rather than martial, internationalist rather than exceptionalist. In the Filipino conception, nationalism is ultimately affirmed through membership in an international society of nations. Such membership carries with it an aura of prestige and therefore constitutes the highest validation of Filipino nationalist aspiration.

The Philippines’ constitutional renunciation of war as an instrument of policy and automatic acceptance of international law as part of domestic law should therefore be seen through the lens of abiding Filipino rejection of cynical realpolitik. For Filipinos, sovereign nationhood entails a sense of responsibility for the global common good – or “good global citizenship,” as diplomats call it. It is by taking this responsibility seriously and in good faith that Filipinos exercise one of their highest sovereign prerogatives: participation in global governance.

Thus we understand the premise of the Philippines’ enduring commitment to the rules-based international order. This commitment finds anchor in the natural inclination of Filipinos to project their values outward.

Just as the Philippines seeks to build a “just and humane society” within its borders, for instance, so too does the country seek a just and humane international community. To this end, Filipino diplomats became fully invested in negotiating the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and helping shape international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and related norms including by drafting the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), enhancing the protection of refugees and displaced persons, and championing the Global Compact on Migration (GCM).

In the same vein, the Philippines’ domestic commitment to social justice mirror its adherence to the principles of equity, inclusivity, and historical justice in global governance. This is evident in Philippine promotion of Global South interests in trade and development, the principle of common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR) in the context of combating climate change, and the humanitarian imperative whether in the area of disaster risk resilience or disarmament and arms control, among others.

This is not to say, however, that Philippine multilateral policy is exclusively idealist.

From a strategic perspective, a robust and rules-based international order that respects the sovereign equality of all states is essential to the integrity of Philippine independence. The current international arrangement ensures the potency of diplomacy, which is the primary, if not the only, tool of foreign policy for middle powers like the Philippines.

The primacy of diplomacy in Philippine statecraft traces its roots in early Filipino attempts to broker among major powers a guarantee for permanent Philippine neutrality as a means to preserve Philippine independence. It manifested itself more concretely in insistent Filipino attempts to build regional institutions and develop regional multilateral norms to restrain potential adversaries that could threaten Philippine independence. This started with President Elpidio Quirino’s vision for a Pacific Union and has culminated in the current Philippine commitment to the centrality of ASEAN in the regional security architecture.

Sans an environment conducive to the potency of diplomacy as a foreign policy tool, less powerful countries would always be at the mercy of major powers. In order to preserve such an environment, therefore, middle powers have traditionally sought to constrain the space for strategic competition and to expand the room for diplomatic cooperation. In 2010, for instance, the Philippines presided over the Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and, with the help of other middle powers and the members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), shepherded one of the most successful conference outcomes in the history of that treaty, securing the commitment of nuclear-weapons states to take specific actions towards nuclear disarmament. That demonstration of leadership prompted then U.S. President Barack Obama to remark that “the Philippines is a country that punches above its weight.”

International law and the diplomatic processes and institutions that underpin global governance have generally been, since 1945, constraining factors that prevent major powers from pursuing their strategic designs with absolute impunity. They also allow relatively less powerful countries like the Philippines to deal with major powers on a more equitable footing. The Philippines therefore shares with other middle powers an overriding strategic interest in preserving and defending the rules-based international order.

This final point is relevant given the twin challenges to the rules-based international order that have arisen in recent years.

The first challenge is rising nationalism of the exceptionalist kind, which inevitably leads to a winner-takes-all mentality. If left unrestrained, this could sharpen existing strategic competitions and lead to the cynical reshaping of multilateral norms, redefinition of common understandings of international law and its application, and recharacterization of multilateralism as a network of transactional relations underpinned by shifting interest rather than an egalitarian process of global governance based on predictable rules that apply to all.

The second are the prevailing anxieties that emanate from persistent economic and social inequities and are exacerbated by recent proliferation of disinformation. Unless adequately addressed, these anxieties run the risk of creating domestic difficulties that could cause some equivocation in the commitment of the traditional guarantors of the rules-based international system. This could in turn encourage potentially revisionist powers to reshape the world in their image, thereby weakening all constraints on their capacity to fully subordinate the global common good to their own strategic designs.

In the midst of these evolving dynamics, Philippine interests are best served by staying true to Filipino values, and through solidarity with like-minded countries that seek to preserve and strengthen the world order that respects the rights of all nations, whether big or small.


JJ Domingo is a career foreign service officer currently assigned to the Philippine Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva. He previously served as political officer at the Philippine Embassy in Beijing. These are his personal views and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

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