AS we seek to encourage President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines to ``return to democracy,'' we should be clear about the circumstances we are facing. As Americans, we see our efforts to be in his interests as well as ours. On the basis of experience elsewhere, we believe that a ruler -- and our stake as well -- is severely threatened by a major loss of public esteem, by a growing guerrilla movement, and by his unwillingness to face the facts of his circumstances. We believe his only salvation lies in holding a completely free election and in being prepared to live with the results.
Mr. Marcos, clearly, does not see it that way. He appears confident that he can ride out the storm of pressures, retain power, and preserve his interests and, perhaps, ours as well.
Ego is involved. So is the macho image, important in that society. Standing firm against pressures has meaning there as well as here.
A ruler in a situation such as this -- particularly in Asia -- faces obligations: to his family, his supporters, and to the security forces that have protected him. Their pressures increase his determination to resist other advice. They fear the loss of privilege, of wealth, and even, perhaps, of life.
For rulers confronted with mounting opposition, there are few desirable alternatives. A political figure forced out after 20 years of absolute power can flee into exile, face the humiliation of capture and trial, or risk being killed. The choice is likely to be to hold out to the bitter end.
Marcos might still win a fair election. But he seems unwilling to take that chance. He might lose.
In the current situation, the options of the United States government are also limited. We can seek, in a variety of ways, as we have, to convince him that a different approach is esential.
We can send envoys and make public statements, but these can be counterproductive. Such approaches enter an arena of legalistic argument and nationalistic rhetoric, at which Marcos excels. Few of the recent visitors or interviewers of Marcos, whether officials or journalists, have come out ahead in the discussions.
Marcos does not ignore the attitudes of the United States. The tie with us is important to him and to the majority of Filipinos. Whatever the messages conveyed to him, he probably believes our stake in the islands is so high that we are not likely to make any move that would genuinely threaten his hold on power. He can afford to fence with us and parry our thrusts.
What would probably be of more concern to a leader such as Marcos would be a studied silence on the part of the United States that would breed uncertainty in his mind regarding our intentions. But silence and inaction are not characteristic of the diplomacy of the United States.
In the face of a deteriorating situation, we feel the need to ``do something.'' Our political leaders fear, not only the effects on our security of a change in the Philippines, but charges that we ``lost'' another country. The matter is further complicated, not only by the need for the two US military bases in the Philippines, but by the need to upgrade them. The submission earlier this month of a request to Congress for substantial funds for future construction at the bases does not give the kind of si gnal that would support an effective diplomacy of ambiguity. Perhaps we cannot take the risk of such a policy any more than Marcos feels he can take the risk of fair elections.
Ironically, our overt efforts to encourage Marcos to change his ways probably do not help us with much of the opposition. It sees our policy as one designed to change Marcos so that he can stay in power -- even though our embassy and other official envoys make clear their desire to meet with opposition figures and to avoid any endorsement of candidates, whether it is Marcos or anyone else. The opposition would like to see us firmly withdraw any evidence of support for Marcos.
We have faced the dilemma before of how to react to leaders of friendly countries who either believe firmly they can retain power or care little about what follows them. Some have rejected our counsel, and the results have been disastrous for them as well as for us.
In the Philippines, with deep bonds between our two countries, we can only hope that Marcos's insistence on holding on to power will not have the same result. We should be under no illusions, however, regarding his determination to avert any risk to his power, or regarding the odds we face in encouraging him to change.
David D. Newsom, associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, was US ambassador to the Philippines in 1977-78.