Commentary: How do you solve a problem like Duterte?

“Clearly, he’s a colorful guy,” said President Barrack Obama of his opposite number in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. Obama expressed his observation in a mildly amused way, the way one does when one is largely in control in a world that contains exotic characters with whom one has to deal – even if that character has just called one “the son of a whore.” Open indignation would have flattered the guy, though he didn’t get a meeting. The better putdown is to say, as Obama did, that a future meeting might be arranged if some real business could be done. Earthy insults are relegated to a lower category, which excites the news media, and are swatted away by a serious leader.

Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte arrives at the East Asia Summit in Vientiane, Laos September 8, 2016. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

The “colorful” guy has threatened to eat the Islamist terrorists whose bombing last week in Duterte’s hometown of Davao killed 14 and injured more than 65: “I will really carve your torso open. Give me vinegar and salt and I will eat you. I’m not kidding,” he said. He may indeed not be kidding: His promise to make war on drug dealers and users has encouraged his police force to launch a crackdown that has, by this week, killed more than 2,400 people. He has pronounced the campaign a success, and that it will continue.

Much less publicly, Duterte appears to be considering a recalibration of the Philippines’ foreign policy, which makes it imperative that Obama does meet with him. Soon after the Filipino president’s election in May, he made clear that he was not going to be the usual close-to-America leader to which Filipinos are accustomed. “I will,” he said, “be charting a [new] course [for the Philippines] on its own and will not be dependent on the United States.”

That new course is likely to be set in the general direction of China. Duterte has not joined the chorus from Washington and Southeast Asian nations voicing concern about the Chinese claim to disputed islands in the South China seas. He has also encouraged Chinese investment in the Philippines. Abrasive to the United States, he told its ambassador to “shut up” when he voiced concerns about the brutality of the anti-drug war and warned the country, for decades one of its closest allies, to stay out of Filipino business.

Duterte has been rewarded with popularity ratings above 90 percent, according to polls taken in July, and though no surveys have been done since then, there are no indications of a gathering opposition to his policies. Indeed, he was treated like a “rock star” when he spoke at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Vientiane, Laos, this week – at least according to his communications director, Martin Adanar.

Obama may have appeared mildly amused at Duterte’s slur, but he knows better than that. There have been leaders like Duterte before, who pursue popularity and pump themselves up by defying the United States. The difference is that there are so many of them now. The post-war order, such as it was, saw Washington as the leader of the West. The United States became a global hegemon after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1989, but much has changed since then. As that order has weakened, so have the anti-order, “colorful” leaders waxed stronger, and gained support.

Obama’s remark probably applied, in his mind, at least as much to a colorful guy nearer home, whose name he rarely utters. Donald Trump, as I wrote last week, may be building an audience for a new news network if he fails to win the presidency. In any event, he’s identified an audience of many millions, a movement of the disgruntled who love his promises to build a wall to stop undocumented Mexican migrants, end Muslim immigration and dismantle Obama’s efforts to extend health insurance to all Americans.

The colorful guys in Europe – such as France’s Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, Geert Wilders of the far-right Dutch Freedom Party, Beppe Grillo of the populist Five Stars Movement in Italy, and Jimmie Akesson of the far-right Swedish Democrats – are winning seats in parliaments and local councils everywhere by feeding on the popular backlash against surges in immigration and fears of terrorism. All these parties fare well in the polls in their own countries, even as the establishment parties, the mainstream media and the main institutions of the state either attack them or try to ignore them.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats finished third, behind the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland party, in the regional election in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern last week – Merkel’s own political base. In Hungary, the openly racist, anti-Semitic Jobbik party is a major force. The leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, Norbert Hofer, is likely to win the presidential palace after a rerun of the presidential vote later this year.

The main losers in this rightward shift in Europe are the center-left parties. Frank Field, a sparky, veteran British Labour parliamentarian who backed Brexit, believes that the working-class base of his party is deserting it in favor of the right-wing, anti-European Union, UK Independence Party.

Beyond Europe, the colorful guy in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, has grabbed Crimea from Ukraine and continues to destabilize the fragile economy of its neighbor – with some implicit encouragement from the colorful Trump. Putin enjoys 80 percent-plus ratings, even though most Russians are significantly worse off than they were three years ago. Like Duterte, Putin and his circle of leadership never cease to proclaim Russia’s greatness, independence and opposition to the United States.

The United States has been the lynchpin of the world order for many decades, an order constantly contested, never toppled. It depended on strong allies, a contained Russia and a weak China. None of these conditions are presently met. This does not lead inevitably to U.S. helplessness, or global disaster. It does point up the fragility of the liberal democracies, and calls on them to address it.

“Too much of the Europe of today”, wrote former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger in June, “is absorbed in management of structural problems rather than the elaboration of its purposes”. Shorn of its idealism and purpose, the EU drifts. The colorful guys parade their prejudices, destroy agreements on borders and ignore law’s due processes with impunity. The post-war world looks enfeebled.

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics.” He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.