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Freedom and diplomacy

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I was in a crowded room full of American diplomats, officials, pundits, and international and regional media when the historic U.S.-North Korea summit happened two years ago (June 12, 2018) in Singapore. I was in the city-state, working for the U.S. State Department’s Asia-Pacific Regional Hub, playing my small part in promoting diplomacy and peace.

A big room at the Capella Hotel was cramped, at that time social distancing was not yet a thing, and President Donald Trump entered the stage to apprise the guests and the media of his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. As expected, he was optimistic about the comprehensive agreement he and KJU signed, and the US’ goal for a complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) of North Korea.

Later that day, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former CIA chief who led the initial talks with NoKor in 2018, met with the team that worked behind the summit, including me and some American diplomats who flew in to Singapore from different Posts. It was my first time meeting our super boss from Washington, D.C. I tried to squeeze in past the tall American diplomats and managed to get Secretary Pompeo to agree to take a selfie with me.

He reiterated to the team his objective of re-energizing American diplomacy and went as far as calling the State Department as the “Department of Swagger”. His energy promised to lift the spirits of the diplomats, months after his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, left the office moribund.

That day was Independence Day in my homeland, the Philippines, yet I was in Singapore to amplify the blossoming relationship between the U.S. and North Korea. While I was away, it made me see the bigger picture, and showed me how freedom is perceived differently by other nations. Celebrating freedom was different this time around, I told myself then, it meant celebrating the achievement of the aspiration for a much larger freedom: freedom from nuclear weapons, and freedom from conflict. In short, world peace.

Unorthodox diplomacy

I admire Secretary Pompeo’s unorthodox style of diplomacy. The unprecedented Trump-Kim Summit made me realize how a country can maximize its gains with non-traditional partners for the benefit of the many. At least for two years, conflict in the Korean Peninsula has been stalled, even if the high hopes in 2018—from the words of Pyongyang’s top diplomat–‘faded away into a dark nightmare’.

A couple of years later, I am now working for the Philippine government, applying a “friend to all, enemy to none” policy in our media engagements with the PCOO Office of the Global Media and Public Affairs. Learning from my previous job, I patterned some of my strategies to the unorthodox approach to diplomacy. I talked with journalists from the U.S., Europe, Singapore, Japan, China, Russia, Thailand, HK, South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Middle East, and Turkey, among others. But a lapdog of a superpower asked me why I was talking to the Russians. He told me that the Russian media was not influential and that the country does not have a free press.

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I said to him: What’s so wrong about talking with them?

For the Philippines, it is high time that we reach out to other foreign journalists, especially at a time where the spotlight is on President Duterte. This is also part of our approach to diplomacy. As part of our duties, we have been engaging with the Western and Asian media, regional and international media, not only with the Russians and Chinese. We bring them together for a reporting tour, engage with them in our virtual pressers, create more engagements in collaboration with them, and for me personally, when I am out of the country, I would meet up with them to grab coffee. We make sure that we keep in touch to maintain our relationship with them. This is where unorthodox diplomacy strategy applies. I do not normally share our approaches, our strategies so to speak, but that lapdog minced no words, so nor will I, in my response.

Recall that U.S. President Ronald Reagan talked to Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev that eventually led to the end of the Cold War. President Richard Nixon met with China’s Chairman Mao Zedong, which ended decades of estrangement between the U.S. and China, and reshaped the global geopolitical map and the balance of the Cold War. One can even count Donald Trump whose talk with Kim Jong-un, managed to somehow delay nuclearization in Pyongyang at the time. These engagements between two countries whose relations were icy or even non-existent at the start, are the reasons why individuals around the world enjoy a peaceful environment.

One can say that effective diplomacy makes for strange bedfellows. But had these countries not taken the unusual step of engaging with each other, even the mere act of just having a meeting, they would not have enjoyed the improved relations, or at least a step toward the right direction, as a result.

Applying that to the Philippine media landscape, new media cooperation agreements have started to sprout between the Philippines and many countries. Under the leadership of PCOO Secretary Martin Andanar, the Philippines has inked agreements with China, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore, Myanmar, Russia, and other countries to strengthen information and media cooperation and people-to-people exchanges, and share the best practices in the media industry.

These agreements seek to enrich both countries’ media space, as well as to promote tourism, arts, culture, and education. Secretary Andanar is also prioritizing the welfare and betterment of our state media workers in every agreement that we have been negotiating. Such agreements will allow the next generation to access diverse sources of information through the public and private media. But most importantly, we get to share the Filipino story and the Filipino culture across the globe.

Going back to Pompeo and his predecessors’ unorthodox diplomacy, there is nothing wrong with engaging with people outside our comfort zones, or any nation for that matter, as long as it promotes our national interest.

Going outside our social circles to cater to other audiences promotes the multiplicity of voices. And this, in turn, enriches the most-valued of freedoms that the Philippines enjoys—press freedom. The country’s current independent foreign policy and diplomatic stance of “friend to all, enemy to none” has benefitted the media industry of the country. But this approach embraced by the Duterte Administration, also includes agreements that have benefitted or stand to benefit our economy, trade, research and technology, and peace and security.

JV Arcena is the Assistant Secretary of the Global Media and Public Affairs of PCOO. Prior to joining the Philippine government, he previously worked for the U.S. Department of State’s Asia-Pacific Regional Media Hub. A former journalist and Palace reporter of TV5, Arcena covered politics, foreign affairs, global and regional issues, calamities, the judiciary, among others.

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