Mic artist as chief diplomat
It is tempting to read the confirmation of Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano’s appointment as foreign secretary—panel approval in about five minutes, expeditious plenary vote by the Commission on Appointments—as a sign of President Duterte’s influence, if that is how he chooses to wield it. The contrast with former environment secretary Gina Lopez’s experience before the CA, ending with the rejection of her appointment, is clear and sharp. The implication is that Mr. Duterte supported his vice presidential candidate, but withheld support for Lopez.
But a deliberative body like the CA often treats the appointments of former or incumbent lawmakers to Cabinet or other high positions as a matter of courtesy—that is, unless there are extraordinary factors at work, these appointments are almost always confirmed. Blas Ople to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Mar Roxas to the Department of Transportation and Communications are two appointments that readily come to mind. This tradition is what allowed Sen. Panfilo Lacson, upon the President’s designation of Cayetano when the one-year ban on appointing losing candidates lapsed, to joke that he and his colleagues were ready to confirm Cayetano by “acclamation.”
He has certainly been preparing for the crucial job of chief diplomat. Soon after the election, he was asked by the president-elect to assume the position of foreign secretary after the lapse of the ban. He has accompanied the President on many of the latter’s foreign trips. And he has tried his hand at leading a Philippine delegation to a United Nations conference.
On the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Phnom Penh last week, he told reporters he was ready to “serve God and people” in implementing Philippine foreign policy. His bigger challenge, he said, was “not to engage in microphone diplomacy.” What did he mean? He said he did not want to issue too many public statements as foreign secretary but, rather, conduct diplomacy in private. “So there’s a lot of things about diplomacy [for which] you cannot use the microphone,” he said, adding that he wanted to “institutionalize more briefings that are off the record to the media, to the Senate, to the House and to other interested groups, including think tanks.”
This will be a real challenge to Cayetano, because to borrow his own terminology, he rose to national prominence precisely as a microphone artist. He served as an accessible and articulate spokesperson for the presidential campaign of Fernando Poe Jr; he proved to be an effective opposition gadfly against the Arroyo administration, a role that led him to the Senate; he acted as an indefatigable investigator into the scandals of the Binay administration in Makati City as a member of the Senate blue ribbon subcommittee; and in the 2016 campaign he was both an evangelist of the Duterte platform and a penetrating critic of another vice-presidential candidate, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. He had also lent his considerable gifts to the defense of the President’s so-called war on drugs—crossing the line, his critics said, into truth-twisting and “alternative facts.”
So one of the President’s most able public speakers is voluntarily taking on a lower-profile role, at a time when Mr. Duterte is engaged in the difficult and controversial task of pivoting Philippine foreign policy away from its traditional allies and its traditional positions. This is an unexpected start to Cayetano’s stewardship of the country’s foreign service.
To be sure, much of the work of diplomacy does consist of behind-the-scenes discussion and negotiation; Cayetano is absolutely right. But the country’s chief diplomat also has his own bully pulpit, with its own microphone. He will need to use that to ensure that PH-China relations will not be disadvantageous to us; he will need to reassure our traditional allies—such as Japan, which immediately signaled its readiness to work with him—that the Filipino people remain committed to the principles of the world order it helped set up after World War II, including human rights; he will need to accept that the Marcos legacy is in fact a foreign policy issue, with governments from Singapore to Switzerland invested, as he said he himself is, in seeing justice done.
All those tasks require hard work based on facts, the real kind.
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