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Philippines President-Elect Rodrigo Duterte (L) and outgoing President Benigno S. Aquino III (R) Philippines President-Elect Rodrigo Duterte (L) and outgoing President Benigno S. Aquino III (R) Ryan Lim
27 Jun
Klaus Dodds investigates the policies and characteristics which lead to populist politicians around the world

How does geopolitics become popularised? Many journalists and academics will use ‘geopolitics’ to attract intellectual ballast to their arguments and suppositions about security planning, national sovereignty and global political trends.

But political leaders might enrol ‘geopolitics’ on a different register, one less analytical and more emotive. When Republican Party nominee Donald Trump articulates a plan to build a wall across the US-Mexican border or prohibit Muslims from entering the United States, he is articulating a geopolitical vision designed to appeal to his electoral base of conservative, low to middle income, predominantly white Americans.

Popularising geopolitics involves two fundamental qualities – simplification and amplification. Simplification might, at its very best, involve a process of making complex situations more accessible for a wider public unfamiliar with the minutiae of international treaties, global political events, and issues such as the migrant/refugee crisis affecting the Middle East and Europe. Making things simple is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if it helps to clarify the main challenges or threats that need to be addressed. Being simplistic, however, might be more problematic if in the process one deliberately distorts, exaggerates or ignores anything that might act as a coda to a particular geopolitical topic or theme.

Even if it never transpires, the idea of banning Muslims from America feeds a geopolitical atmosphere that is suspicious of ‘others’ whether they are Muslims and/or foreigners

Amplification, meanwhile, refers here to the role of the emotive, and what we might term geopolitical atmospheres. So when Trump talks about his wall, his appeals are intended to reassure and calm those anxious or even fearful of the United States being overwhelmed and transformed by mass migration.

Geopolitics is always embodied in that sense. It provokes reactions within us but those reactions can be very different depending on who and where we are. For a Muslim American citizen, for example, the idea of banning other Muslims might well provoke both fear and anger. Even if it never transpires, it could be argued that it feeds a geopolitical atmosphere that is suspicious of ‘others’ whether they are Muslims and/or foreigners.

A strong example of this comes from a country that has seen a great deal of the United States over the last hundred years, the Philippines. The incoming president, Rodrigo Duterte, has been highly critical of the US’ relationship and attitude towards the country.

Duterte is a long-standing mayor of Davao (he swapped the post periodically with this daughter to extend his tenure) and hails from the island of Mindanao. For his supporters, he is widely credited with bringing peace and stability to the troubled island, which was wracked by Muslim separatist struggles and criminal violence. But he also has many critics and detractors who continue to raise questions about the nature of political leadership and the manner in which criminal gangs were violently confronted.

Duterte won the presidential elections held in May 2016, and formally takes office at the end of June. Even before he became the President he enjoyed a reputation for blunt speaking and geopolitical popularisation. In April, he was reported as telling the US and Australian ambassadors to stop interfering in the internal affairs of the country. What sparked the row was an ill-judged ‘joke’ about the rape and murder of an Australian missionary in the Philippines in 1989. Foul-mouthed tirades are now part of his stock in trade as he promises to rid the country of criminality, poverty and extra-territorial interference within six months of taking up office.

Whatever you think of Duterte, he is the elected president and his term will deserve close scrutiny

His victory was grounded in his appeal to disaffected voters who were tired of what was perceived to be the perpetuation of the cultural, political and economic norm. Duterte, speaking in a mixture of English and Filipino, uses deliberately short sentences (easier to tweet and turn into sound bites) and revels in being offensive. When he tells ambassadors to ‘shut up’, he is amplifying a mood of dissatisfaction with the country where many of its 98 million residents struggle to get by on $1.50 per day.

Duterte is an advocate of geopolitical simplification. Electorates can be reassured by appeals to emotion and sentiment as opposed to more rational appraisals of the country’s geopolitical state of affairs. He has suggested that the Philippines might drop long-standing War on Terror allies Australia and the US and work more closely with China, even though past Filipino governments were concerned about China’s on-going projects to strengthen maritime security over the contested South China Sea. At one stage he proposed to take a jet-ski and plant the national flag on one of the contested ‘islands’. He wants to re-position the Philippines as a country that is not automatically beholden to the grand strategic designs of the US and Australia. While keen to attract foreign investment from China, there does remain a strong security relationship with the US.

Whatever you think of Duterte, he is the elected president and his term will deserve close scrutiny. He is immensely skilled at appealing to disaffected voters and in using his speeches and policy initiatives to energise the electorate. The voter turnout was high in the election and part of his appeal is that he came to the voters with a long-standing record of public service. He is a textbook example of popular geopolitics – he knows how to simplify and amplify.

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction

This was published in the July 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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