Getting the Philippines to Denmark (Part I)

The Philippines had recently celebrated its 125th Independence Day. It is a celebration that symbolizes how Filipino forefathers have broken the shackles of centuries-long Spanish imperialism and colonialism. It also serves as a reminder to reflect on the sacrifices of Filipinos in pursuing the path towards self-determination. As June 12, 1898 became a date when the Filipino people attempted to liberate itself from its powerful Western colonizers, two questions continue to persist even after 125 years, and seem to attract no conclusive answers. Is the Philippines a free country, and do Filipinos live lives with freedom? The first question pertains to the Philippine state, while the second question is about the Philippine society. These types of multi-dimensional questions require multiple points of view and perspectives to answer.

Technically speaking, the Philippines did not enjoy its freedom after General Emilio Aguinaldo declared the country’s independence from Spain. With the signing of the Treaty of Paris, Madrid sold and transferred the ownership of its colonial possessions to the United States, then a rising global hegemon. Aside from the Philippine Islands, Guam, Cuba, and Puerto Rico were also included in the aforementioned treaty. With these territories, the United States began acquiring new territories beyond its home continent, which is eerily similar with how their European counterparts in the United Kingdom and France expanded their respective empires.

Washington’s geopolitical ambitions began to take shape during the McKinley administration as the United States became politically powerful and economically wealthy. With the United States becoming more involved in protecting its own economic interests, the Philippines became its newest gateway to Asia. With Paris holding French Indochina, and London occupying British India and the Malay States, France and the United Kingdom had an advantageous geographical proximity to the biggest treasure chest in Asia: China. Having the Philippine Islands under American leadership afforded Washington an ability to extend its influence and engage in economic activities in the Pacific. American occupation of the Philippines was veiled with the sugar-coated words benevolent assimilation, where Americans bear the responsibility to civilize the savages, thus the concept of the White Man’s burden that even prominent writer Mark Twain openly criticised. Eventually, American exceptionalism and Japanese militarism came into a collision course.

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Tokyo’s geopolitical ambitions on the other hand were based on the failures of Qing China in the Opium Wars. In the eyes of the Japanese, modernization, westernization, and reformation were the keys to a strong country which they pursued relentlessly after the Tokugawa Shogunate came to an end. With a burgeoning economy and a population with a rapidly-growing appetite for natural resources, Imperial Japan annexed territories from its immediate neighbors in Qing China, Korea, and Imperial Russia. Deteriorating relations with other major powers didn’t help as Tokyo eyed more territories to carve up for itself, most specially the lush rubber plantations and hydrocarbon fields in modern-day Malaysia and Indonesia through its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. What had barred the Japanese military juggernaut in exploiting those resources is the Philippines which housed a significant number of American armed personnel making Manila a necessary capital city to take over.

Foreign powers portrayed their global ambitions on the Philippines, where Manila became the Warsaw of the Orient with the conclusion of the Pacific War. As a way to lessen its load as it became a significant player in global politics, the United States granted official independence to the Philippine Islands, albeit with various economic restrictions that favored American investors and companies. Nevertheless, the Philippines made its official entry in the international theater as a founding member of the League of Nations’ successor, the United Nations. A few decades after 1898, the Philippines became its own nation, its own state.

How did the Philippine Islands become a state? It is because that the Philippines has achieved four requirements that makes a state a state — a permanent population, a defined territory, government, and recognition by other countries. Nevertheless, the Philippines continues to be seen to be a weak, fragile state. Weak states are characterized by dismal government services, inefficient judiciary systems, graft and corruption, internal security issues, massive wealth inequality, and fractionalization. Is this the kind of freedom that is present and enjoyed in the Philippines?

Prominent economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have thoroughly discussed in their book The Narrow Corridor the subject of what genuine freedom is all about. Imagine the slavery institutions of the past. Slave labor has seen a long history in human civilizations, from Ancient Egypt to the Belgian Congo, even in pre-colonial Philippines’ with the aliping saguiguilid and aliping namamahay. What made slavery institutions last was the existential risk of being free. Tracing English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, where man, by nature, is selfish and focused on self-preservation as vital for survival. Despite being at the bottom of the social strata, slaves existed and persisted because a social contract exists that guarantees their survival. Running out free in the wild, away from institutional slavery is a more dangerous option than being tied to owners as slaves, or being tied to land as serfs. That is why despite the victory of the Union against the Confederacy during the American Civil War, black slaves weren’t fully accorded the economic and political opportunities that white Americans enjoyed during that time because their labor through slavery had been thoroughly institutionalized most specially in the plantation-based economies of the Southern states.

According to Acemoglu and Robinson, freedom exists in a narrow corridor where it is safeguarded by a strong state and a strong society. These state and societal institutions should be both formidable and inclusive. In their words, Scandinavian countries, most specially Denmark, demonstrate such strengths. Thus the term “Getting to Denmark” becoming a development benchmark in political science and economics.

A state is considered strong when it possesses the capabilities to take on and carry out responsibilities efficiently and handle internal and external shocks effectively. On the other hand, a strong society is characterized by strong familial or patrimonial ties and an ability to mobilize groups of peoples to forward a cause. There are countless instances in world history where state and society have competed to undermine, weaken, and overpower the other. However, when both powers of the state and society effectively and efficiently check and balance each other, where benefits of having a strong state are reaped without upending the society, a “shackled leviathan” exists. It is in this shackled leviathan where genuine freedom exists.

For the Philippines, having a strong state that doesn’t undermine but instead engages the strong civil society is the most important ingredient to lead the country towards Denmark. This makes sense when linked with then-President Gloria Arroyo’s slogan, Matatag na Republika. However, this is easier said than done as both political order and development have the state as one of its three central pillars. Renowned political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s two-part masterpiece about political order may provide us with better insights in enhancing the powers of the Philippine state, which will be discussed in the second part of this article.

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