For Want of a Visa? Values and Institutions in U.S.-Philippine Relations


Losing a military alliance for the sake of a tourist visa seems like a poor exchange, but in the Philippines, it is an outcome that the United States must be willing to accept. The current crisis in U.S.-Philippine relations stems from the decision by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement; Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa — a key political ally — had his American tourist visa revoked. But this is about something much bigger than a visa. For nearly 20 years the United States has worked to strengthen professional norms within the Philippine security forces. Duterte’s dictum is not dependent on dela Rosa’s distant destinations, but a larger question of whether the United States is prepared to sacrifice its support for democratic governance and accountability in the Philippines in order to save the Visiting Forces Agreement.

Throughout the Cold War, Philippine national security existed as a division of labor. The United States assumed responsibility for external defense while the Armed Forces of the Philippines addressed internal threats like the Hukbalahap Rebellion and the New People’s Army. During the rule of President Ferdinand Marcos from 1965 to 1986, and especially after the declaration of martial law in 1972, this internal security mission became highly politicized with systemic abuses and intimidation serving as central tenets of the Marcos regime. More than just degrading the Philippine military’s effectiveness, Marcos gutted the professional norms, standards, and institutional infrastructure needed to sustain the security forces. Although Marcos was ousted by a popular uprising in 1986, Philippine defense institutions continued to be plagued by the rot entrenched during his 20 year reign well after his departure.



When the Philippine Senate voted in 1991 to close U.S. bases and evict American military forces from the archipelago, it created a security vacuum. This not only facilitated China’s 1995 seizure of Mischief Reef in the South China Sea and exacerbated the long-simmering conflict in Mindanao, but also exposed the inadequacies of the Philippine military as well as the lingering institutional damage dealt during Marcos’ dictatorship. Even as security conditions in the Philippines spiraled following the American departure, the 1990s continued to be defined by coup attempts, mutinies, human rights violations, and endemic corruption within the Philippine security forces.

The signing of the Visiting Forces Agreement in 1998 renewed U.S.-Philippine defense cooperation. However, Washington did not fully appreciate the extent of the institutional decay within the Philippine security forces until the start of joint counter-terrorism operations after the 9/11 attacks. The Bush administration identified the Philippines as a frontline state in the war on terror and dispatched American military advisors to Mindanao in 2002. Their mission was to assist the military in combating regional terrorist groups like Abu Sayyaf. Upon arriving in the Philippines, American advisors were dismayed at the condition of their Philippine counterparts and particularly the poor state of military equipment and training. Moreover, the advisors identified a larger issue at play in Mindanao. A long history of abuse and neglect had engendered an adversarial relationship between the Philippine military and the Muslim population of Mindanao. This fracture between the population and the military deprived the latter of local support, and hamstrung any attempt at effective counter-terrorism operations. Faced with these mounting obstacles, American defense officials realized that the problem of terrorism in the Philippines could never be solved without also addressing the institutional malaise that afflicted the Philippine security forces.

Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippine evolved from just combating terrorists to also aiding the fundamental reform of Philippine defense institutions. Through the efforts of key allies within the Philippines such as Secretaries of National Defense Avelino Cruz and Gilberto Teodoro, Philippine defense reform became a national priority in Manila. It also became a focal point within the alliance. Just as the United States sent advisors to Mindanao, so too were policy experts dispatched to Manila to address underlying issues like procurement, budgeting, and strategic planning. In addition to institutional reforms designed to combat corruption, the United States also helped overhaul the training program in order to emphasize issues like professionalization, accountability, respect for human rights, and community engagement.

By 2006, these changes started to have a clear effect. In Mindanao, the Philippine armed forces implemented a new strategy that combined targeted military operations with increased community outreach. This hybrid approach to counter-terrorism made significant gains in defeating Abu Sayyaf and helped to pave the way for meaningful progress in peace negotiations. At the time, Filipino officers were quick to credit American training initiatives for enabling this new strategy and for instilling civil engagement and professionalization as critical missions for the Philippine armed forces.

American efforts to bolster professional norms within the Philippine security forces and strengthen the rule of law did not end with Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, and have continued to be critical missions within the alliance. However, it is precisely these facets of the bilateral relationship and the progress that has been made within the Philippines that President Duterte threatens to undermine.

Since assuming the presidency in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte has worked to erode, disregard, and violate nearly all standards of democratic governance. As part of his brutal war on drugs, Duterte has promoted an air of impunity within law enforcement that has normalized extrajudicial killings and led to the deaths of over 20,000 people. During the siege of Marawi in 2017, Duterte instructed his military to simply kill all enemies because he did not want to feed any prisoners. And when rebuked for his autocratic actions, Duterte moved to silence critical media outlets and imprison political opponents. These actions are not only an affront to American values, but indicative of the behavior that Washington downplayed during the Marcos era and that it has spent the past 20 years trying to overcome.

Despite pressure from the Malacañang Palace, the Philippine armed forces have worked to defend their professional standards and avoid participation in the drug war. This reluctance on the part of the military is a reflection of both how far the Philippine military has come since the Marcos era, and how much the Philippine military values its security cooperation with the United States and is wary of jeopardizing that relationship. Indeed, the ability to leverage U.S. military cooperation as a moderating influence within the Duterte administration is a key reason why such cooperation should continue despite the volatility within the relationship.

The Philippine National Police have not been as fortunate. Then known as the Philippine constabulary, this service was the primary instrument of regime security for Marcos. Separated from the Armed Forces of the Philippines and rebranded as the Philippine National Police in the 1990s, the national police force has continued to struggle with a reputation for corruption and a history of abuse. Under Duterte the national police force has again been wielded like a cudgel to assail drug users, everyday citizens, and regime critics. As Duterte’s first chief of police from July 2016 to April 2018, Bato dela Rosa personally oversaw the violent implementation of Duterte’s war on drugs as well as the arrest of key political opponents, including Sen. Leila de Lima.

Unlike during the Marcos era, the United States has been unwilling to passively watch this erosion of professional standards within the Philippine security forces. The Philippine National Police has already been targeted for severe cuts in U.S. support. During the Obama administration, human rights became a major flashpoint within the bilateral relationship. Although the dispute between Duterte and Obama imperiled the alliance, it also helped forestall efforts to have the country’s military play an active role in the drug war. The Trump administration has proven to be less keen on championing human rights in the Philippines. However, a bipartisan group of senators has taken the lead in condemning the systemic abuses occurring in the Philippines and has worked to hold those responsible accountable for their actions. As such, the State Department’s decision to revoke dela Rosa’s visa was not an arbitrary decision. Instead it was an act of principle in line with American laws, ideals, and longstanding strategic interests in promoting professionalism within the Philippines security forces.

Now that the United States has received Duterte’s official notice to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, the dispute can no longer be construed as a disagreement over a visa. Washington instead must decide whether it will overlook the erosion of democratic norms within an ally in the hope of preserving its military prerogatives. During the Cold War, Jeane Kirkpatrick lampooned the Carter administration for its refusal to make such tradeoffs. She argued that pushing for democratic reform within friendly dictatorships only fostered instability at the expense of American strategic interests. Yet, the Philippines has proved the danger of such a pernicious disregard for values. Washington’s backing ultimately did not save Marcos. Rather, it abetted the decay of Philippine institutions and stoked the popular resentment that led to the expulsion of American forces in 1992. Duterte provides Washington with an opportunity to learn from this history rather than repeat its follies.

This is not to say that the alliance with the Philippines should be abandoned in the face of Duterte’s diatribes. Despite the ongoing drama, the Philippines has remained a close American ally. Where there are substantive areas of Philippine dissatisfaction within the alliance, it is important for the United States to be responsive and amenable to changes. This is particularly true regarding increasing Philippine self-reliance. Even if the Visiting Forces Agreement cannot be saved, the United States should continue to support the alliance and use initiatives like the International Military Education and Training program to sustain the partnership with the Philippine armed forces. Yet, the alliance’s salvation cannot come at the expense of abandoning reform and accountability within the Philippine security forces. The history of the U.S.-Philippine relationship has repeatedly shown that sacrificing professional standards for expediency ultimately undermines Philippine national security and the viability of the alliance. Surrendering on these issues will harm only Washington’s friends in the Philippines and America’s long-term strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific.



Gregory H. Winger is an Assistant Professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.  He is also a former Fulbright Scholar to the Philippines and a Fellow with the National Asia Research Program.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Staff Sgt. Donald Holbert)