Why the Philippines Is America’s Forgotten Colony

The two countries ought to have some kind of special relationship. Thanks to Americans’ discomfort with its imperial past, they don’t.

LEYTE, PHILIPPINES - NOVEMBER 12: A man carrying provisions walks through an area devastated by Typhoon Haiyan on November 12, 2013 in Leyte, Philippines. Four days after the typhoon devastated the region many have nothing left, they are without food or power and most lost their homes. Around 10,000 people are feared dead in the strongest typhoon to hit the Philippines this year. 
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Matthew Cooper
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Matthew Cooper
Nov. 15, 2013, 1 a.m.

Provid­ing aid to the Phil­ip­pines fol­low­ing Typhoon Haiy­an puts the U.S. in a grim and fa­mil­i­ar role. As the world’s su­per­power, Amer­ica helps the earth­quake-stricken and storm-rav­aged around the globe — wheth­er it’s provid­ing satel­lite im­agery, dis­patch­ing air­craft car­ri­ers, or send­ing fin­an­cial as­sist­ance. In the wake of the storm, Pres­id­ent Obama went through the ritu­al of call­ing the pres­id­ent of the hard-hit coun­try to re­as­sure him of U.S. com­mit­ment and sym­pathy.

In his pub­lic state­ments, Obama has noted that “the friend­ship between our two coun­tries runs deep,” but there’s been no men­tion of the Phil­ip­pines hav­ing once been an Amer­ic­an pos­ses­sion. To some ex­tent, that might be un­der­stand­able. Re­mem­ber, this is a pres­id­ent who was raised in part in the Pa­cific Rim and who is ac­cused by some on the right of hav­ing an an­ti­co­lo­ni­al men­tal­ity. But it also be­trays a dis­com­fort with this coun­try’s im­per­i­al peri­od, an un­eas­i­ness that ex­tends to our ac­tions in the present day.

The U.S. rarely ac­know­ledges its co­lo­ni­al past, which is, per­haps, not sur­pris­ing for a coun­try proudly formed as a break­away colony it­self. By con­trast, oth­er co­lo­ni­al powers, par­tic­u­larly France, re­tain an act­ive role in their former domin­ions and nev­er for­get how those ties came to be. Great Bri­tain is hold­ing its an­nu­al Com­mon­wealth Heads of Gov­ern­ment meet­ing next week. When French Pres­id­ent François Hol­lande dis­patched troops to the former West Afric­an colony of Mali to battle a Qaida-af­fil­i­ated in­sur­gency, the co­lo­ni­al ties seem­ingly ap­peared in every ac­count.

The dif­fer­ence between France and the U.S. isn’t just about tone. Amer­ica not only is loathe to ac­know­ledge its oc­cu­pa­tion­al his­tory in places like the Phil­ip­pines (or Cuba or Pu­erto Rico), but also is re­luct­ant to ac­know­ledge its cur­rent he­ge­mon­ic role. “We don’t do em­pire,” Don­ald Rums­feld said at the start of the Ir­aq War. True, the U.S. isn’t im­per­i­al in the strict­est sense, but it might be hard to make the dis­tinc­tion in some na­tions, wheth­er its war-torn Afgh­anistan or peace­ful Panama, whose in­de­pend­ence was forged by U.S. sup­port so we could build a canal and which uses the dol­lar as one of its of­fi­cial cur­ren­cies.

The eco­nom­ic his­tor­i­an Ni­all Fer­guson, who’s of­ten con­tro­ver­sial, was surely right when he said Amer­ica is “an em­pire in deni­al” — a glob­al power that doesn’t think of it­self that way and thus stumbles in­to for­eign en­tan­gle­ments without the sense of his­tory or com­mit­ment that oth­er former co­lo­ni­al powers once brought, and oc­ca­sion­ally still bring, to their con­duct of for­eign af­fairs. His point is that if the U.S. thought like an em­pire, there would be no de­lu­sion that you could be in and out of Ir­aq in five years without a long, linger­ing in­volve­ment or that tak­ing out Ir­a­ni­an nuc­le­ar fa­cil­it­ies could be a mat­ter of air strikes. Memory helps breed wis­dom.

Most Amer­ic­ans are ob­li­vi­ous to the fact that the Phil­ip­pines was an Amer­ic­an pro­tect­or­ate un­til the end of World War II. The U.S. grabbed it after win­ning the Span­ish-Amer­ic­an War rather than seiz­ing it from in­di­gen­ous peoples, but it lost some 4,000 sol­diers put­ting down re­bel­lions after it was over. And Amer­ica kept a heavy hand after 1945, es­tab­lish­ing mil­it­ary bases to pro­sec­ute the Cold War and the Vi­et­nam War, and sup­port­ing the “con­jugal dic­tat­or­ship,” to use the phrase of writer Gina Aposta, of Ferdin­and Mar­cos and his shoe-crazed wife, Imelda. Today there is a more re­spect­ful rap­port. While Ma­nila has en­shrined a no-for­eign-base rule in its con­sti­tu­tion, the U.S. stra­tegic pivot to Asia has been well re­ceived in the Phil­ip­pines, where ter­rit­ori­al dis­putes with China are prob­lem­at­ic. At the same time, per­son-to-per­son con­tacts are wide­spread: Some 600,000 Amer­ic­ans live in the Phil­ip­pines and there are 3 mil­lion Filipino-Amer­ic­ans, many of whom are de­vot­ing them­selves to typhoon re­lief.

But that’s a far cry from France’s re­la­tion­ship with Africa, where it snapped up coun­tries and nev­er en­tirely let go. The French even have a word for the con­tinu­ing ties to the re­gion: França­frique. It began as a pos­it­ive term coined by the pres­id­ent of Côte D’Ivoire in the 1950s but now has a neg­at­ive con­nota­tion — the use of soft and hard power to keep a hand in Afric­an af­fairs. Wheth­er the French pres­ence on the con­tin­ent is a pos­it­ive one or not, it’s a com­mit­ment that hasn’t wavered. France has staged 30 mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tions in Africa since 1960. In Mali, it was eager to be the tip of the spear. It’s telling that this comes at the same time France with­drew early from Afgh­anistan. The ties that bind are the co­lo­ni­al ones. “While there have been changes in em­phas­is, there has been tre­mend­ous con­sist­ency in French gov­ern­ments main­tain­ing a role in former colon­ies,” says Nich­olas Dun­gan of the At­lantic Coun­cil.

Many factors drive the French con­nec­tion to Africa — trade, cul­ture, mil­it­ary — but it’s more a sense of na­tion­al self-in­terest than noblesse ob­lige, ex­perts say. “I don’t think there’s any guilt,” says one West­ern dip­lo­mat who served in the re­gion. As François Mit­ter­rand said in 1957, long be­fore he be­came pres­id­ent, “Without Africa, France will have no his­tory in the 21st cen­tury.”

The les­son here for the U.S. isn’t to emu­late France’s mus­cu­lar at­tach­ment to her former pos­ses­sions. It’s not that France is kinder to its colon­ies. “I think we’d have the same re­sponse to any coun­try we had a good re­la­tion­ship with,” says Joshua Kur­lant­zick, an Asia ex­pert with the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, com­ment­ing on our re­sponse in the Phil­ip­pines. But re­cog­niz­ing that we were once an old-style co­lo­ni­al power can help us un­der­stand what our re­spons­ib­il­it­ies are as a mod­ern it­er­a­tion of one. It’s something to keep in mind as we help the Phil­ip­pines and pass the 13th an­niversary of the Afgh­anistan War.

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