By: Carolyn Nash
When Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte dedicated his rendition of a Filipino love song to U.S. President Donald Trump at a gala dinner in Manila last November, the absurdity of the gesture was overshadowed by the disturbing evidence it provided of Trump’s continued indifference to Duterte’s depraved drug war. The two are in many ways political reflections of each other, buoyed to power by rabid populism and rocketed to international infamy by their disregard for human rights. They each have been criticized for failure to embody the moral credibility that individual leaders – though not necessarily their administrations – are expected to display. But their similar legacies will have different implications for their respective regions. The reconstitution of international political morality and human rights obligations should come from Southeast Asia, not from the United States, where the current administration has accelerated the erosion of its international relevance.
Since the 2016 Republican primary, the criticism Trump earns has focused as much on the damage he wrecks on institutional and ethical norms as it does on the policies and positions he supports. When candidate Trump excused “killer” Vladimir Putin by implying that the United States has its own sordid human rights history, critics capitalized on the sound bite as evidence that Trump was fundamentally unfit to assume the presidency. But many of those same critics would find his accusation valid, evidencing anything from Obama-era drone strikes to Reagan-era support for Philippines’ kleptocrat and former President Ferdinand Marcos. Trump’s fault was not factual error but a moral turpitude indefensible in an individual leader.
If Trump’s election indicated a shift in expectations of moral leadership in the United States, the rising populism that swept Duterte and other Southeast Asian leaders to power exposes that model as irrelevant and arrogant when exported across the globe. The popular Asian leaders who find themselves most recently mired in ethical controversy have little in common at first glance. Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi – the iconic but politically impotent leader of a hybrid regime in which a non-civilian military exerts great power – is nothing like Duterte, who presides over a violent drug war that has claimed over 12,000 lives. Indonesia’s Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, meanwhile, was hailed during his election campaign as a fair-minded politician who would make great strides in reducing the country’s rampant corruption.
But all three have won favor at home by rejecting international concern over the moral credibility of their policies and governments. Jokowi refused international appeals to stay the executions of seven foreign drug smugglers, a rebuke to allies that earned the support of eighty-six percent of Indonesians. Following genocidal violence against the Rohingya minority by the Myanmar military, Suu Kyi’s office issued an admonishment of international aid organizations for helping “terrorists,” sending human rights groups reeling but bolstering popular opinion of the State Counsellor at home. Duterte told a European Parliament critical of his human rights abuses, simply, “F--k you,” and went on to enjoy soaring domestic approval ratings. These leaders are rejecting the premise that they must embody the moral ambitions to which their administrations should aspire, in favor of a more candid message that leadership prioritizes national interests – even at a moral cost.
As the United States and allies bow to a populist movement focused on protectionism, Southeast Asian governments have found greater freedom to pursue draconian policies at home. The result has been the upending of a colonial-era theory of trickle-down ethics that presumes the moral supremacy of individual leaders over their administrations. In the United States, this theory has long been in peril. The right impugned Clinton for the Lewinsky scandal, while the left felt betrayed by Obama’s realpolitik in foreign policy. In the wake of these disappointments, Trump was able to capitalize on the corrosive cynicism that emerged across the political spectrum with his claim that morality and politics are fundamentally incompatible. He pushed voters past a necessary skepticism, which should provide responsible wariness towards any claim of moral leadership, and gave them a stronger guarantee: obliterate your expectations and you won’t be fooled again.
The mantle of the moral leader crumbled so rapidly in Trump’s rise because the model is inherently flawed. Leaders such as Clinton and Suu Kyi, who betray expectations, become targets for criticism that can distract from political realities, while those who avoid visible scandals, including Reagan or Obama, are more likely to be cast as moral heroes. Both tendencies perpetuate the underlying assumption that individual morality sets the bar for broader political morality.
Ethics too tightly bound to a personality should always sound the alarm for potential corruption and abuse. Creating a moral icon out of a human politician encourages unexamined confidence in the individual while distracting from the ethical evaluation a full administration should undergo. But we shouldn’t turn to the United States to reformulate a better approach to global morality. We should turn to Southeast Asia – a region, despite its moral reckonings, with a rich history of democracy movements, civil resistance, and nonviolent revolt – to find representatives to articulate new global norms of human rights. The general tide against liberalism across the region is all the more reason to be optimistic about the endurance and efficacy of those fighting for civil liberties. Examples include Philippine’s online news magazine Rappler, whose editor is “ready to fight” Duterte’s attacks on freedom of the press, Indonesia’s progressive Magdalene magazine that challenges gender stereotypes and provides a platform for feminist perspectives, and a coalition of civil society organizations in Myanmar who recently criticized Mark Zuckerberg for mischaracterizing the success of Facebook’s security operation.
If human rights institutions are to assume salience in a post-populist era, they must be revised to be more than colonial holdovers. The authors of this revision should be drawn from the civil society and grassroots resistance movements that will shape the long-term development of Southeast Asia – from activists who can stand up both to corrupt, immoral leadership at home and to a tired, faltering moral framework that has speciously claimed universality for too long.
Carolyn Nash is the 2018 Asia Pacific Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. She has worked on political and social development projects in Indonesia, East Timor, and Myanmar with organizations including UNESCO, The Asia Foundation, and the International Center for Transitional Justice. She is the co-editor of #YouthWagingPeace, a UNESCO-published youth-led guide on the prevention of violent extremism through education. She currently serves as Director of the Myanmar Center for Civic Leadership.