NEW YORK – Looking to “reintroduce the Philippines” to the world, new President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has ambitious plans for his nation on the international stage and at home — if, that is, the twin specters of pandemic and climate change can be overcome or at least managed.
And if he can surmount the legacies of two people: his predecessor, and his father.
He also wants to strengthen ties with both the United States and China — a delicate balancing act for the Southeast Asian nation — and, like many of his fellow leaders at the United Nations this week, called on the countries that have caused global warming to help less wealthy nations counteract its effects.
Marcos, swept into office this spring, is already drawing distinctions both subtle and obvious between himself and his voluble predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who alienated many international partners with his violent approach to fighting drug trafficking and the coarse rhetoric he used to galvanize supporters.
Asked if Duterte went too far with his lethal drug crackdown, Marcos redirected the criticism toward those who carried out the plan.
“His people went too far sometimes,” Marcos told The Associated Press on Friday. “We have seen many cases where policemen, other operatives, some were just shady characters that we didn’t quite know where they came from and who they were working for. But now we’ve gone after them.”
Marcos, 65, sat for a wide-ranging interview in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly’s annual leaders’ meeting. Three months into his administration, he seemed energetic and enthusiastic — and eager to project his vision for the nation beyond its borders.
On Thursday, he met with U.S. President Joe Biden in a bid to strengthen the sometimes complicated ties that have ebbed and flowed between the two nations since the Philippines spent four decades as an American colony in the early 20th century.
“There have been bits and pieces where they were not perhaps ideal,” Marcos said. “But in the end, that overall trajectory has been to strengthen and strengthen and strengthen our relationship.”
In addition to Duterte, Marcos also must draw distinctions between himself and the most iconic figure in the Philippines’ public sphere: his late father, whose name he shares. Ferdinand Marcos Sr., hero to some and plundering dictator to others, ruled from the 1960s to the 1980s, including a tumultuous period of martial law and repression. He made the family reputation an indelible part of Filipino history.
Addressing the family legacy directly is something the son has been loath to do, at least explicitly, though he vehemently rejects use of the term “dictator” to describe his father’s rule. To him, the political baggage of his parents is a remnant of the past.
“I did not indulge in any of that political back-and-forth concerning the Marcos family,” he said. “All I spoke about was, ‘What are we going to do to get into a better place?’ And people responded.”
Engaging, he said, would have simply been a retread — and an unnecessary one. “It doesn’t help. It doesn’t change anything,” he said. “So what’s the point?”
The elder Marcos placed the Philippines under martial law in 1972, a year before his term was to expire. He padlocked Congress and newspaper offices, ordered the arrest of political opponents and activists and ruled by decree. Thousands of Filipinos disappeared under his rule; some have never been accounted for.
When it comes to his predecessor, Marcos treads a nuanced political line as well. Distinguishing himself from Duterte’s in-your-face rule can benefit him at home and internationally, but Duterte’s popularity helped catapult him into office, and the former president’s daughter Sara is Marcos’ vice president.
The extrajudicial killings associated with Duterte’s yearslong crackdown provoked calls that his administration should be investigated from the outside, and he vowed not to rejoin the International Criminal Court — a precept that Marcos agrees with. After all, Marcos asked, why should a country with a functioning legal system be judged from elsewhere?
“We have a judiciary. It’s not perfect,” he said. “I do not understand why we need an outside adjudicator to tell us how to investigate, who to investigate, how to go about it.”
Marcos cast the coronavirus pandemic as many other leaders have — as a balancing act between keeping people safe and making sure life can push forward.
“We took a very extreme position in the Philippines, and we eventually had the longest lockdown in any country in the world,” he said. “That was the choice of the previous government. And now, we are now coming out of it.”
In recent days, he has both removed a national mandate to wear masks outdoors and extended a “state of calamity” — something he said he didn’t necessarily want to do, but keeping the declaration in place allows more people to continue getting help.
“It’s not very encouraging when people look at your country and they see, ‘Well, it’s under a state of calamity.’ That’s not good for tourists. It’s not good for visitors. It’s not good for business,” Marcos said.
Encouraging ties with China, particularly given Beijing’s aggressive maritime policies, might be a daunting prospect for a nation so closely and historically aligned with the United States. But, Marcos says, it’s possible — and necessary.
“It is a very fine line that we have to tread in the Philippines,” the president said. “We do not subscribe to the old Cold War ‘spheres of influence.’ … So it’s really guided by national interest, number one. And second, the maintenance of peace.”
Peace comes in many flavors. Last week, Marcos traveled to the southern part of the nation — a predominantly Muslim area of a predominantly Catholic country — to express support for a multiyear effort to help a onetime rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, give up their guns and govern their autonomous region effectively.
While Moro has come into the government fold, smaller militant groups including the violent Abu Sayyaf have continued to fight the government and wage sporadic attacks, especially in impoverished rural regions with weak law enforcement. Marcos dismissed Abu Sayyaf as a group that no longer has a cause other than “banditry.”
“I don’t believe they are a movement anymore. They are not fighting for anything,” Marcos said. “They are just criminals.”
Marcos did not specify precisely why the Philippines needed to be reintroduced, though the country’s image took a hit from 2016 to 2022 under the Duterte administration.
“The purpose, really, that I have brought to this visit here in New York … has been to try to reintroduce the Philippines to our American friends, both in the private sector and in the public sector,” he said.
And after the pandemic truly ends, he said, the nation needs to find a fruitful path and follow it.
“We have to position ourselves. We have to be clever about forecasting, being a bit prescient,” he said.
“We do not want to return to whatever it is we were doing pre-pandemic,” Marcos said. “We want to be able to be involved and be a vital part of the new global economy, of the new global political situation.”