(This interview was conducted online with Jose Abeto Zaide, a former Philippine diplomat who during a career of more than forty years served as ambassador to Austria, Germany and France. Since retirement, he cheers from the bleachers writing a column in the Manila Bulletin.)
George Thomas Clark – I checked my files and note that we’ve been corresponding, by email rather than diplomatic pouch, for more than three years. You’re a man of tact and insight, qualities that enabled you to flourish in your career. At the same time you must have written some confidential, and at times critical, assessments about leaders in your host countries. Please tell us how you, and ambassadors generally, operate in that regard.
Jose Abeto Zaide – We observe the Queensbury rules and as a rule do not include ad hominem comments on personages, especially heads of state and/or government officials. Dispatches sent in confidence report factually. (Although personal observations not for public consumption may be a little more colorful. In the event, allow for plausible denial.)
We report some alternative approach, which HQ in good judgment generally approves. But it is not rare for our counsel to be overruled; and after some exchanges, HQ prevails. I have had no reason to think otherwise, even during trying times when we were under martial law.
GTC – President Donald Trump, who’s so quick to insult people and even quicker to squeal when he’s criticized, recently went ballistic when the private diplomatic opinions of Kim Darroch, Great Britain’s ambassador to the United States, were leaked. Darroch wrote that the Trump administration will never “look competent” or “become substantially more normal, less dysfunctional, less clumsy and inept,” and other opinions that more than half the people in the United States agree with. Do you agree with Kim Darroch’s appraisal of Donald Trump?
JAZ – I do not have the privilege of knowing if the British dispatches were taken out of context. But public disclosure of snippets of some, followed by unexpurgated Presidential hyper-reaction, necessitate the recall of Her Majesty’s envoy to Washington to restore the privileged relations between the two nations.
Furthermore, it appears that the U.S. President remains in form, neither inhibited nor cramped by the disclosures.
GTC – What caused these leaks, presumably from within the British foreign service? Do you think British adversaries of Darroch, and probably admirers of Trump, scattered this information to force him out even earlier than his projected retirement at the end of 2019?
JAZ – I do not see how exchanges benefit one side to the detriment of the other. Nor do I image the leak would cause the premature retirement of a professional diplomat, who should remain on Her Majesty’s Service.
GTC – If you were the Philippine ambassador to the United States now, how would you deal with people like Trump and his national security advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who presume American superiority in all matters and seem to be eager to start a war with Iran?
JAZ – An envoy is respectful of the Head of State and all high level officials of the country to which he is accredited. If I were privileged to serve in Washington, I would venture to bend the ear of those who would listen. Even those of contrarian opinion, if they would listen to test ours.
But that probably doesn’t get the message nearer to the dramatis personae. Perhaps, to send the message through their minders?
However, one must also be sensible to the reach (or the lack of it) of the country you represent.
GTC – Relatively few people born in the United States speak another language fluently. The Republicans, in particular, seem proud of being unilingual louts and have cut foreign language opportunities in American schools. In the Philippines most people speak Tagalog and English and either Ilocano or Visayan or another dialect. Do you think Americans are culturally and psychologically isolated by the vast oceans to their east and west?
JAZ – Filipinos speak Pilipino (Tagalog) as the national language, English as language of commerce and with the outside world, and there are some 120 (and still counting) languages of this country of 7,107 islands. This babel does not always give us one voice; (but a pundit said that Filipinos dream in English).
Americans have the advantage of a large country and a language shared with Great Britain; and Post WW II and Hollywood, English was promoted universally. Americans may be excused for thinking that theirs is the lingua franca of the times.
GTC – I’ve always assumed that you speak German and French. Is that correct? If so, did you start studying those languages in college or high school or even before? Do you also speak Ilocano and Visayan?
JAZ – I speak better German than French. (Just enough, my teacher said, to get into trouble.) I Iearned the first for my first foreign posting; the latter I had to try to learn a working knowledge for my last assignment. I studied both languages prior to and during my foreign postings.
My first language was Visayan; my first foreign language was English spoken the way Americans do.
GTC – In the United States and China and North Korea, and Italy and Poland and Hungary and elsewhere, there are movements lumbering to the right. This also appears to be true in the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte and his henchmen are reportedly gunning down thousands of “drug dealers” without trials or even discussion. Does this trouble you? Or, are reports exaggerated, and is Duterte really a selfless law and order man trying to help the country?
JAZ – Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” got him elected Mayor. The use of force, (or the threat thereof), was his very effective approach. He did not aspire for higher office as President Rodrigo Duterte did successfully.
I am frankly concerned about allegations of extrajudicial resolutions. But the jury hasn’t yet ruled on this.
GTC – Can reporters and columnists for major newspapers in the Philippines write frankly about President Duterte and his administration?
JAZ – Reporters and columnists from major dailies are free to write frankly about President Duterte. The Philippine Inquirer, a major daily, is one such.
GTC – As the husband of a Filipina, I’ve had many opportunities to meet successful Filipinos who flourish in American business, health care, and government work. But in the Philippines there’s a lot of poverty. Is the weather, which Filipino Americans returning from vacations describe as “intolerable,” partly to blame?
JAZ – It is a critique from time immemorial that Filipinos excel abroad, (rather than at home). Blame the weather (or humidity) for it; perhaps, also our local politics.
GTC – Are better educational opportunities needed in your country?
JAZ – We have some and enough of them. But we should use our education to bring about better governance. You might say the same thing about what someone whose name I can’t recall said of Christianity – about the best religion that hasn’t been tried.
GTC – What is your general advice for the Philippines?
JAZ – Behave as we do abroad.
GTC – And what is your advice for the United States?
JAZ –The incumbent doesn’t like unsolicited advice.
GTC – I know you’ve written two books about your diplomatic adventures but they’re out of print. I hope you’ll someday transform them into eternal ebooks so people all over the world can learn more.
JAZ – Thank you. Old stories get better in the retelling.
GTC – Merci beaucoup, Mr. Ambassador.