Rodrigo Duterte: Whom should he emulate?

What great leaders of the modern age established was what Max Weber, one of Germany’s greatest social scientists, would call a "modern bureaucracy." The 21st century, with its dizzying array of policy conundrums, is after all about strong institutions rather than strongmen. It’s about rule of law, rather than the rule of men. Without a robust and capable state, the Philippines stands little chance of upgrading to the next stage of development.

Building a strong state

“Where the bureaucratization of administration has been completely carried through, a form of power relations is established that is practically unshatterable,” Weber wrote in Economy and Society (Naim 2013: 42). It is precisely the “iron cage” of bureaucracy, which allows large, complex organisms such as modern societies to achieve internal coherence, maintain order, and rationally pursue collective goals such as national development.

One of the most misguided aspects of contemporary debates in development economics is the quarrel on whether “big” or “small” states or whether “open” or “closed” policies are responsible for the success stories of late-developing countries in Asia. The partisans of Laissez-faire economics fondly cite the (more contemporary) openness of city-states such as Hong Kong and Singapore, while partisans of developmental statism enthusiastically attribute the success of mid-sized countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan in the middle of the 20th century, and more recently, in the case of giant China, to their strategic protectionism, particularly in their early stages of development.

What this binary debate tends to miss is the appreciation of the unmistakable commonality among all of Asia’s industrialized states. “Regardless of the degree of government intervention, the fast-growing economies of East Asia share a common feature: they all possess competent, high-capacity states,” Francis Fukuyama (2014: 335) brilliantly explains in Political Order and Political Decay. “A capable state is particularly important for activist governments,” Fukuyama explains, during their “catch-up” phase of development.  

Now contrast Northeast Asian strong states with Southeast Asian strongmen, from Marcos to Suharto and Myanmar’s generals, who, after ravaging their countries for decades under an iron fist, never managed to establish even a single world-class technology or national manufacturing niche. At best, especially in the case of Marcos, the country established, over a span of decades, a wide network of basic infrastructure, which was, however, built on the back of crushing foreign debt. Until today, the Philippines is still paying the Marcos-era debt – and until 2025! 

Aside from the sheer incompetence and the legendary decadence of Southeast Asian dictators, what they lacked, compared to their Confucian counterparts, were precisely the “competent, high capacity states” that Fukuyama sees in the case of China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and Vietnam.

Role models

But as the case of North Korea poignantly shows, bad leadership and wrong-headed policies can turn robust state institutions into a beast of tyranny, something that is not far from the memory of fellow Confucian countries, who had their own share of despotic leaders in the past. In short, the Confucian state is a double-edged sword: it can be deployed for national development, whether via autocratic or democratic means, or for the attainment of the objectives of a “bad emperor.”

This is not too dissimilar from the experience of Germany, which, thanks to Frederick the Great and his Prussian predecessors, was also able to develop robust state institutions. But the country faced disaster as soon as the kinds of Kaiser Wilhelm II and, even more tragically, Adolf Hitler took over the state institutions. The result was two World Wars that changed human history.

From Lee Kuan Yew to Deng Xiaoping, we see examples of good (but not imperfect and often autocratic) leaders who showed constant penchant for self-education and ascentism, learned from the best minds, and employed a competent cadre of subordinates, who – leveraging the vast  bureaucratic machine – deployed a sustained stream of innovative policies geared towards national development. Instead of mindlessly listening to (self-serving) foreign or Western-trained advisers, they tried to understand the unique developmental challenges they confronted and dedicated their lives not to narrow interests, whether ethnic or sectoral, but instead the wellbeing of the entire body-politic. Thus, they served as true “national” leaders.     

Nonetheless, Duterte will operate in a very different context. First of all, unlike Lee and Deng, Duterte is an elected official in a presidential system with a time-bound mandate, operating within the constitutional framework of a liberal democracy. Thus, America’s 20th century experience could prove more instructive. In democratic countries like America, visionary leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt Jr who busted oligopolies, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) who introduced the New Deal, and Lyndon Baines Johnson who built on FDR’s welfare programs in the context of the civil rights movement, were responsible for the empowerment of American bureaucracy and expansion of public services to ordinary citizens.

All these visionary democratic leaders also built on landmark legislations such as the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act (1883), which reduced political appointments in favor of meritocracy. And unlike the case of Germany and Confucian states, bureaucratic empowerment in America, Britain and other major democracies didn’t undermine public accountability and transparency. In fact, it did the complete opposite. So clearly, one can’t also deny that leadership matters. And, crucially, that democratic leaders can also achieve great accomplishments while remaining accountable to the electorate and operating within boundaries of the constitution.

Second, the 20th century provided a significant space for strategic protectionism and strong-minded leadership that is no longer available in today’s globalized world of hyper-connectivity.

Trade liberalization regimes, 24-hour television, and citizen-driven journalism, inter alia, present a unique set of constraints on the powers of 21st century state leaders. As keen observers such as  Moisés Naím, in The End of Power, note: Power is decaying, diffused, and diminishing in its returns, mainly thanks to advances in information technology, the advent of economic globalization, and the emergence of a new array of players on the political chessboard.

In today’s world, great leadership is about acknowledging the limits of power and, accordingly, pursuing necessary reforms within the coordinates of possibilities. Not making grandiose and unrealistic promises.

Modern leadership

What about contemporary leaders? Well, Duterte will be wise to carefully watch the fate of his fellow democratically-elected leaders in India, Indonesia, and Turkey, who, despite their larger-than-life charisma, have had to constantly wrestle, with varying degrees of success, against the weight of bureaucratic inertia, political opposition, and vested interest.  

Erdogan, in particular, should serve as a reminder of the risks of the emergence of illiberal democracy in rapidly-developing countries, while the experiences of Jokowi and Modi, so far, should serve as a brutal reminder of how weak state institutions can frustrate even the most purposeful and popular leaders. A look at Duterte’s recently-revealed (prospective) cabinet evinces the newly-elected president’s likely plan to rely not only on his own political will, but also the competency of seasoned technocrats, trusted friends, and a proportionately large number of individuals with military background.

Moving forward, Duterte’s grandiose plans to suppress crime and proliferation of drugs, ameliorate Metro-Manila’s suffocating traffic, and end the conflict in Mindanao will constantly run against the grain of political reality. To achieve his goals, albeit within a more realistic timeframe, he will have to heavily invest in the capacity of state institutions.

The police forces, for instance, need better compensation, training and equipment to fight against organized crime. The armed forces will have to be similarly empowered to fight against domestic and external threats – meaning the Armed Forces of the Philippines modernization should continue and be further upgraded. Such bureaucracy-boosting measures should definitely be extended to other corruption-vulnerable bureaus such as internal revenue, immigration, and customs.

Investing in the capacity of the state institutions is sine qua non to effective delivery of basic services, improved tax collection, and an enhanced business environment, which is crucial for sustained national development.

What the Philippines needs isn’t a new set of laws, or another autocrat, but instead a competent state, which can actually implement a wide array of existing laws. Similar to Lee Kuan Yew, Duterte can become a good leader by not only inspiring discipline and diligence, but also investing in a meritocratic, clean, and effective state that fulfills its basic functions in an efficient and sustainable manner. –

Richard J. Heydarian teaches political science at De La Salle University, and is the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific (Zed, London).