Government News Analysis

Repairing diplo-damaged relations

On Monday, Sung Kim walked into Malacañang Palace and presented his credentials as US Ambassador to the Philippines to President Rodrigo Duterte. It was a pleasant meeting which involved the formalities of welcoming the newly appointed head of the US diplomatic mission – and a very different encounter to the last one Duterte had with Kim’s predecessor, the less-than-diplomatic Philip Goldberg. He had decided to take a break from diplomacy and get involved in the Philippines’ internal affairs – possibly even attempting to influence the outcome of the May presidential election.

Washington’s new man in Manila, assuming his post when US-Philippine relations are at a particularly low ebb – thanks in some part to Goldberg – has quite a task ahead. He will need to heal the wounds of discord and reinstate, at least to some degree, the ‘special relationship’ between these historically close countries. The Volatilian™ explored this in The Kim formula for stress relief.

Kim, however, is very different in style and diplomatic deportment to Goldberg. He is the quintessential diplomat – calm, measured; he has proven negotiating skills yet displays a disarming humility. By contrast, Goldberg was less reserved, given to the raw promotion of US interests and his ego was never far from the surface. Their respective DNA, in the context of Duterte’s Philippines, might account in some way for why one fits while the other misfit. Kim was born in Seoul, South Korea; his father was a South Korean diplomat. Boston-born Goldberg rose through the ranks of the US State Department and the US Intelligence Community, a 16-member grouping that includes the CIA and the National Security Agency.

Their track records also seem incongruous. Kim is a former US ambassador to South Korea, US Special Representative for North Korea Policy, and US Special Envoy to the Six Party Talks – a thankless process to acquire security guarantees from Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons programme. His record appears blemishless and his time spent dealing with one of the most intractable countries on Earth, North Korea, means that his credentials were forged in fire. He earned his diplomatic spurs.

Goldberg’s one previous ambassadorial gig – in Bolivia – was not so impressive. For there he became embroiled in an alleged plot by the United States Agency for Internal Development, or USAID, to channel millions of dollars to forces opposed to President Evo Morales. Goldberg, who had consorted with the leader of a regional-secession movement, was accused by Morales of plotting against the Bolivian Government, declared persona non grata and given 72 hours to pack his bags and leave the country.

In fact, given this form, it wouldn’t be too impertinent to ask precisely which branch of America’s foreign service Goldberg actually works for. Insinuating his office into the electoral process of a sovereign state; private meetings with breakaway groups in a host country – hardly ambassadorial work. It’s more like the sort of thing the CIA gets up to; though, of course, we’re not suggesting that for a moment. USAID, however, has regularly been suspected of greasing the wheels of movements whose interests coincide with those of Washington.

The spat between Goldberg and the Philippine president goes back to April when Duterte was on the campaign trail for the presidency. A remark by Duterte concerning a young Australian missionary who had been raped and killed caused an international furore with much of the world media carrying the story at the top of the news. OK; fair game; that’s what they do.

However, Goldberg, off his own bat, decided he would weigh-in on the controversy. Evidently, this career diplomat had forgotten that one of the greatest skills a diplomat can possess is the ability to keep his mouth shut. Instead, he decided to do a live interview with CNN Philippines – an airing that would guarantee wide domestic coverage as the clock to election day wound down.

And here’s what he said: “Any statements by anyone, anywhere that either degrade women or trivialise issues so serious as rape or murder, are not ones that we condone”. The message inferred was plain – Votes take note: America does not want to work with this man.

In the context of Goldberg’s ambassadorial duties, the rights or wrongs of Duterte’s rape remark are irrelevant. But for a foreign ambassador on Philippine soil to go on TV and virtually determine the fitness for office of a presidential candidate is wholly in conflict with the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations – the handbook for proper conduct by members of diplomatic missions

Its provisions on this issue are unambiguous. Article 41 1 expressly states: “Without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State. They also have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State” [bolded by us for emphasis].

Thankfully, that dark chapter is now closed and a new one has opened – one in which Kim and Duterte can draw a line under the past and move their countries to a more harmonious and balanced plane. This is very much in the interests of both and we can see no reason why they can’t succeed. The Goldberg factor has gone and by 20 January, the Obama factor – the major reason for the friction between Manila and Washington – will also have disappeared when Donald Trump is inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. Hopefully, 2017 will be an auspicious year for US-Philippine relations.

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