5 rules for world leaders | Inquirer Opinion

5 rules for world leaders

01:31 AM February 09, 2016

THE COMPLEXITIES and challenges facing the Philippines and other countries in today’s turbulent, multisuperpower, interdependent, and fast-moving world are mind-boggling. But the art of statecraft remains unchanged since the birth of nation-states and can be reduced to five basic rules or principles, all of which are closely related.

Together, these supreme imperatives constitute the playbook by which world leaders operate to accomplish their goals in the challenging arena of foreign affairs—a playing field made daunting and unstable by the increasing power of nonstate actors over humanity, such as giant transnational corporations and terrorist organizations with global reach.


Rule No. 1: The first duty of a state is to survive. Survival is paramount, everything else is secondary. Values and morality are expendable on the altar of survival. All important acts of a state are aimed at preserving itself, its system, its way of life.

This primordial rule was invoked by the United States when President Harry S. Truman ordered atomic bombs to decimate the cities of


Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan in August 1945. It was a carnage of unprecedented magnitude on civilian targets, but it was deemed justifiable on the ground that “total war” was necessary to force Japan to surrender without the exorbitant cost of a massive US invasion force. The nuclear bombs may in fact have done that and thus saved as many as a million American soldiers’ lives. The end justified the terrible means.

Rule No. 2: Foreign policy is the other face of a country’s domestic interests. When world leaders go to the negotiating table or make critical foreign affairs decisions, they carry with them the hopes, fears, and aspirations of their peoples. Specifically, what every leader is willing to give (in return for what the other side wants) depends on how each item at issue impacts on his or her country’s domestic policy and interests. In a very real sense, every leader is a hostage to this reality.

Take the situation in Afghanistan where the United States and its erratic ally, Pakistan, can’t see eye to eye on the problem of terrorists, notably Taliban insurgents operating from their sanctuaries along the borders of Western Pakistan. To the US military leaders, the Taliban continue to survive and mount attacks aimed at America and its coalition forces because Pakistan is evidently coddling the insurgents and using them as proxies to push their geostrategic agenda.

Why is Pakistan, which received billions of dollars in US aid in recent years, protecting the Taliban and similar extremists high on Washington’s terrorist list? Because its greatest security fear is its big neighbor, India. Pakistan needs Islamic terrorist forces operating in Afghanistan and within its borders that may prove to be useful covert allies when the time comes, to confront its archrival, Hindu India. Its fear of India overrides its discomfort of displeasing Washington.

Rule No. 3: We cannot escape geography. Geography is the nourishing mother of nations and the first line of defense against invaders. Woe to a nation that neglects this reality, as the Philippines belatedly realized when China, unilaterally and arrogantly, began claiming ownership of almost the entire South China-Philippine Sea, including areas clearly within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

China’s aggressive incursions into the Philippines’ archipelagic domain is part of its strategy to undermine US control of the vast region’s vital straits and seas, through which $5 trillion in world trade passes annually.

The United States is not called “Fortress America” for nothing. Aside from its vaunted military strength, the United States is fortunate to be a continental country bounded on its eastern and western flanks by two of the world’s largest oceans, and is thus geographically endowed with protective barriers against the great land wars that ravaged continental Europe during two world wars.


Rule No. 4: Size matters. Powerful, expansive, triumphant states write (or rewrite) history. In war and in peace, physical size matters. From the Roman and the British empire to Pax Americana—and recently, China’s rising imperial might—power, emanating from a hegemon’s powerful civilization, military force and control of vast land, economic and maritime resources, dictates the course of history.

During periods of relative peace, dominant states accomplish their foreign policy goals through a combination of robust diplomacy, clandestine activities such as economic sabotage and regime change (including assassination of hostile leaders), persuasive economic and financial leverage, and, as China recently demonstrated in the Philippine Sea, brazen occupation of disputed territory by naked force.

Rule No. 5: There are no permanent friends, only interests. Foreign policy is governed by the morality of hard-nosed pragmatism. Today’s friends may be tomorrow’s enemies, and vice-versa. Consider the following:

China and Russia, once America’s implacable and nasty Cold War enemies, may now be considered (albeit guardedly) “partners” in addressing world issues such as trade, global warming, and terrorism; Germany, a formidable and despised enemy, is now a special and reliable US ally; similarly, Japan, the country that inflicted a near-mortal blow on US naval forces in the Pacific theater, has been a close American ally since the end of the war.

Again, the end (economic and security interests) justifies the means (sleeping with a once-hated enemy).

Narciso Reyes Jr. ([email protected]) is an international book author and former diplomat. He lived in Beijing in 1978-81 as bureau chief of the Philippine News Agency.

Subscribe to our opinion newsletter

Read Next
Don't miss out on the latest news and information.

Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.

TAGS: Commentary, economy, leader, opinion, Power, president, world leader
For feedback, complaints, or inquiries, contact us.

© Copyright 1997-2022 INQUIRER.net | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.