How a boiling Black Sea is slowly cooking NATO frogs!

The recent harassment of the HMS Defender near Crimea is just the latest episode in a broader Russian behaviour to claim waters illegally and challenge freedom of navigation. In fact, for quite some time, Russia is practicing a form of hybrid warfare at sea – warns Admiral (Ret.) James Foggo.

Seven years after the Crimea annexation, the Black Sea remains what has been called the ‘soft underbelly of NATO’. How do you see the transformation/the changes in the Russian way of warfare and what worries you about them? There is a term that I found very useful in this context coined by David Kilcullen in his most recent book where he talks about a special type of warfare, that of liminal warfare  – essentially ‘riding the edge’, exploiting the ambiguity of blurred lines of conflict to challenge an established order and exert control on key parts of the regional commons – practiced in a certain ecosystem, a geographical area ‘transitioning between two states of being…that are in limbo, that have ambiguous political, legal and psychological status’.

My introduction to the Black Sea took place in early 2011. In 2010, I became a one-star admiral in charge of Submarine Group 8 in the Allied Submarine South that included the navies of the Southern Mediterranean and Black Sea region countries that operated submarines (Greece and Turkey). At that time, we were bringing the Arleigh Burke Class Destroyers to Rota, Spain as Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF). It was our desire to use those ships in multi-mission capacity, not just for missile defense, which is their primary mission, but to perform other multi-missions: anti-submarine warfare, anti-air warfare, maritime interdiction operations, etc. The US DDG is really a versatile platform. We sent one of these destroyers then to the Black Sea for the first time and the Russians were not happy about it. The Burke Class Destroyers have the ability to carry the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) and the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3)–the best ballistic missile interceptor in the world. When the Russians protested against the destroyer sailing in the Black Sea on a legitimate Montreux convention request, the response of the Sixth Fleet Commander at the time—Admiral Harry Harris was –“Well, send another one!”  The important lesson learned here is that you have to be present for both your allies and partners to receive reassurance and to let others that want to challenge you know that you are going to be there with like-minded nations in solidarity. In other words, “Virtual presence equals actual absence!”  Eventually, the Russians got used to a US DDG entering and operating in the Black Sea.   

As this relationship progressed with the post-Soviet era Russian Federation, there was actual dialogue, we had joint military activities with their forces.  Every year, it became a milestone event to build and approve the “Russia Work-Plan.” Everything done in collaboration with Russian Forces was approved at the Secretary of Defense level. In fact, during the run-up to the Olympic Games in Sochi we had two ships in the Black Sea, but then out of the blue came the illegal annexation of Crimea and the Russia Work Plan ground to a halt. We should have seen this coming after the 2008 attack on Georgia but for some reason we didn’t. As a community of western allies and partners we were completely surprised. This was accomplished through what David Kilcullen calls liminal warfare or essentially hybrid warfare by a different name. Personally, I don’t like the “little green men” expression, but I do appreciate and understand hybrid. Undermining a sovereign nation can be done without firing a shot through intimidation, spawning social or nationalistic unrest, capitalising on social-media and utilising the new domains of cyber and space in coordinated attacks that occur under the threshold of a NATO Charter Article 5. All these things happened and now Crimea has been annexed and there exists a continuing tension along the border in Donbas or what is often called a frozen conflict. Sometimes this area heats up, as we saw most recently with the build-up of a 100,000 Russian forces along the line of demarcation between Crimea and the rest of the Ukraine.  In the final analysis, I was relieved that the Russians stood down, but they proved they can do this quickly and that it wouldn’t have taken much to go from an exercise to a real-world operation and cross that line in Donbas. Accordingly, we need to continue to maintain our presence in the Black Sea – the soft underbelly of Eastern Europe.

The boiling frog scenario

What does the hybrid component mean when applied to maritime issues? I think we’ve seen a glimpse of that when we look to the Russian actions in the Azov Sea or in the broader Black Sea ecosystem.

Hybrid or liminal warfare conveys that something is “brewing” as I said earlier, and brewing below the threshold of an Article 5 violation. We have this expression in the West called the “boiling frog.”  The frog sits in a pot of water that is slowly brought to a boil. In the final analysis, the temperature change is so subtle over time, that the frog never realises that it’s been cooked. Some of the incremental changes or encroachment that have taken place in the Black Sea region during the last decade and my tenure of seven commands in Europe remind me of the boiling frog scenario. 

You have to be present for both your allies and partners to receive reassurance and to let others that want to challenge you know that you are going to be there with like-minded nations in solidarity. In other words, “Virtual presence equals actual absence!”

For example, beyond Russian actions in Georgia in 2008 and the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, I was the Commander of Naval Forces Europe in 2018 when the Sea of Azov incident (where Russian FSB vessels fired on, rammed and captured Ukrainian naval vessels) took place. The regulation of the Sea of Azov is different than the regulation of the Black Sea or other body of waters under the UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS). The Sea of Azov is regulated by a bilateral agreement between Russia and Ukraine that was signed in 2004. As a result, it is the business of these two signatories to resolve their differences in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, thereby limiting what Western powers can do on the other side of the Kerch bridge and up to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol. Nevertheless, when I was the Naval Forces Europe Commander, I said both publicly and privately, that left unchecked the West might see an export of this protocol/pattern of bad behaviour from the Sea of Azov into the Black Sea. In other words, the Russians could export this protocol of restricting access to the Sea of Azov to the rest of the Black Sea. I believe this is exactly what happened recently, coincident with the build-up of Russian land and air forces near Donbas, followed by Russian Navy forces announcing a number of closure areas in the approaches to the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea throughout this summer and into the fall. This is a form of hybrid warfare.

They tried the same thing during the Trident Juncture 2018 off the coast of Norway and the Norwegians told me it was the first time that they had seen a declaration of a closure area for a missile exercise in their EEZ very close to their territorial waters, as well as in the middle of Trident Juncture maritime operations. When you declare closure areas, under the auspices of the UNCLOS – you don’t “own” that piece of ocean. The oceans are called the “global commons” for a reason. Nations declare closure areas to notify their intent to conduct dangerous military activities (like a missile exercise) for the benefit of civilian traffic in the impacted areas. It is intended to be a safety mechanism but can be abused to cut off sea lines of communications and normal transit routes. This is what is happening today—it is an unfair practice and it should be stopped—so what can you do about it?  There is no reason you can’t sail into those areas, particularly if nothing is going on at the time. Demonstrating the will and the ability to project power and presence is very important. Both sides eventually get used to it. It is important to challenge this kind of hybrid warfare at sea with presence operations that are non-hostile. 

It is also important that in doing so, we reduce the chance of mistakes and miscalculations on the high seas during close encounters between US/NATO and Russian warships. There needs to be a broader NATO multilateral agreement on this and I would suggest that NATO Navies conduct a closer examination of the Code on Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) for risk mitigation during “unplanned” encounters, particularly in the Black Sea.

Let’s reflect a bit on the broader consequences of Russia investing massively in counter-power-projections bastions to neutralise some of the traditional features of the American/Western way of war. How do they change local balances of power? What worries you the most? How should US and NATO forces change how they operate in such increasingly non-permissive environments?

This should not come as a surprise to the West. It was back at the turn of the millennium, around 2000, when it was recognised at least in Washington, in some think tanks and amongst the strategic minds in the Pentagon – one of these was Andy Marshall, who was the head of the Net Assessment – that an anti-access/area denial strategy was a very real and rather inexpensive manner in which to secure an area of a coastline or airspace against any potential threat or amphibious landing of an opposing force. Early in this century, we started to see the build-up of the highest density of weapon systems (an interlocking system of coastal missiles, interceptor aircraft, air-defense systems, surface ships, and submarines) in one geographic area – Kaliningrad in the Baltic Sea. It was really the first A2/AD bastion that was created in this post-Cold War Russian Federation world. An A2/AD strategy can be very effective. It builds on the proliferation of weapons of asymmetric warfare and although it is effective in protecting a coastline, it can also reach out much further than territorial waters and into the open ocean where it can restrict the ability of commercial shipping to conduct freedom of navigation on the sea lines of communication in international waters.

When talking about A2/AD, I always refer back to a famous war game in the United States called Millennium Challenge where a retired Marine Corps officer, Lt. Gen. Paul van Riper took command of the Red Force (the opposing force) and created an A2/AD strategy that was so effective that the exercise had to be re-set and had to start over. Over time, because the A2/AD strategy has been successful, particularly the Russians and now the Chinese are both investing their resources to protect their interests and project power far from their respective coastlines. Who would have ever thought that the Russians would have established such a significant presence in Syria? In fact, they’ve created an A2/AD cordon around Syria and out into the Mediterranean which raises tension in the Eastern Mediterranean. With the annexation of Crimea in Black Sea they’ve done the same thing with S-300 and S-400 systems that form a cordon of early warning well beyond 12 miles from land. There are also increasing numbers of reported incidents of GPS jamming or spoofing in the Black Sea and other maritime domains where we operate. These are all functions of the expansion of the domain(s) of warfare from what used to be 3 domains (land, sea, air) into now 5 domains (+ cyber and + space).

One of the things I’ve told to my friends in the Black Sea was that if this A2/AD strategy is being effectively employed by our adversaries, why don’t you try it yourself? In fact, building a network of connected surveillance along the coastline is exactly what Romania and Bulgaria are doing. The challenge is to connect on the other side with Georgia, Ukraine and Turkey as well.

It’s becoming very busy in the Black Sea, especially when you add the 6 Kilo class submarines (2 that are operating in the Eastern Med, 4 that are operating in the Black Sea) that carry the very capable Kalibr cruise missile which Russia proved works very well in combat. With the reach of the Kalibr weapons system, they can essentially target any capital city in Europe. We need to know where those vessels are at any one time. This can be very challenging.

The need for a new NATO maritime strategy

The traditional discussion when you try to counter any A2/AD posture is either to incentivise allies to build their A2/AD capabilities, or to adopt an ASB (Air Sea Battle) kind of thinking. Is this also part of the broader picture that NATO should have in mind for the Black Sea ecosystem?

The new strategic review that was conducted by NATO happened to be led by one of CEPA’s own Dr. Wess Mitchell, a brilliant diplomat and scholar. To my great delight the report underscored the need for a new NATO maritime strategy. The last one was published in 2011, before of the return of the Russian Federation and the rise of China as a peer competitor. 

Oftentimes when a crisis occurs, we are late to recognise it because of a failure of indications and warnings: we are not paying attention to signals and then we respond by “running to the sound of guns.” I had two grandfathers in the First World War in the trenches and my father hit the beach in Normandy after D-Day—they ran to the sound of guns…

An A2/AD strategy can be very effective. It builds on the proliferation of weapons of asymmetric warfare and although it is effective in protecting a coastline, it can also reach out much further than territorial waters and into the open ocean where it can restrict the ability of commercial shipping to conduct freedom of navigation on the sea lines of communication in international waters.

In the NATO maritime domain, oftentimes we will also run to the sound of the guns. Is it in response to a snap exercise in the High North or the Arctic region? Is it in response to high tension in the waters off Kaliningrad or is it in response to the most recent build-up in Donbas both at sea and on the land?  

With a strategy you have a plan. There are branches and sequels to that plan. These plans are adapted to geographical regions, like the GRPs. When you have a plan then you understand what tools, capabilities and what capacity and types of ships you need to successfully deter or defend. When you articulate those types of platforms and the capabilities that go with them (anti-air warfare, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare), that costs the Alliance in terms of resources from individual nations or NATO Common Funding. A strategy can provide some form of coalescence and agreement on who provides what to support the plan.

The last piece of the puzzle that is really important about any strategy is what we in the United States call a Time Phased Force Development Doctrine (TPFDD) – i.e. who goes first and when and where do follow-on forces arrive?

Incorporating all of these things in the paragraphs preceding will constitute a maritime strategy that is much overdue.

The Fourth Battle of the Atlantic

What are the implications for the West of what you call the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic? How should NATO adapt its maritime posture to deal effectively with it?

When I coined the expression the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic with my brilliant co-author, Dr. Alarik Fritz back in 2016, neither of us realised how popular that expression would become.

At the time, we were sounding the alarm on the fact that ‘Russia employs an “arc of steel” from the Arctic through the Baltic and down to the Black Sea. Russia has the capability to hold nearly all NATO maritime forces at risk. No longer is the maritime space uncontested. For the first time in almost 30 years, Russia is a significant and aggressive maritime power’.

This response to our warning order on the return of the Russian Federation (particularly in the undersea domain) was met with strong resolve on the part of the Alliance. We are able to assign an extra fleet to augment the 6th Fleet and MARCOM and our NATO Allies in deterring and defending the euro-Atlantic theatre. When people asked me during my time as Naval Forces Europe Commander—Is the US withdrawing from Europe?—I said absolutely not. Let’s look at some recent events. We just re-inculcated the Second Fleet that’s been decommissioned for a while. We agreed to create a Joint Forces Command HQ in Norfolk, Virginia to bolster the pillar of the transatlantic bridge from North America to Europe. That was a significant event and expenditure of resources on the part of the United States. Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, USN, has done a great job taking that organisation from initial operational capability to full operational capability. He deployed forward and took command of the BALTOPS and established an expeditionary HQ in Iceland in advance of one of our Carrier Strike Group deployments.

It should be also stated that the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic is not only about the Atlantic Ocean. It is also the other oceans and seas that connect with the Atlantic Ocean including the Arctic Ocean, Baltic Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea. In fact, the Arctic Ocean represents the trans-Polar bridge between Northern Europe and the Barents Sea in the Western Pacific. It is an area of common ground between the Pacific and the Atlantic and Northern Europe and it brings us together with our Asian allies and partners. In this region, encompassing the coastlines of eight bordering Arctic nations, including the Russians (they have 40% of the coastline and a lot of the natural resources are on their continental shelf) we have a new arrival—a self-declared “Near Arctic Nation” – China.

The Baltic Sea is another important region. Like the Black Sea, it is a closed area of water, you have to get through a strait to get there, so there is a choke point. It is a thriving economic area and nobody wants to disrupt that through major power conflict or regional crisis. We want it to be calm, prosperous, stable, secure and safe for all the Baltic Sea nations. The same situation exists in the Black Sea or Mediterranean Sea. The concept of the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic and how you respond to it or how you prevent it from getting worse is important to all these important bodies of water.

The precursor to war becomes the war itself

You commanded one of the biggest post-Cold War exercises of NATO – Trident Juncture 2018. Core dimensions of NATO adaptation after Crimea annexation such as VJTF or NRF were exercised then. What were the lessons that you’ve learned from Trident Juncture 2018?

It remains the most successful NATO exercise since the Cold War. For me, Trident Juncture was the pinnacle of my 39-year career and the chance to command a force of 50,000 NATO soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines on-board 70 ships, 265 aircraft and 10,000 tracked or rolling vehicles.  It was an Article 5 exercise and even though we used a fictitious adversary’s name, as reporters continued to press me I acquiesced that it was all about the Russians and our ability to deter and defend in the euro-Atlantic theatre. We spend 90% of our time deterring but we wanted them to understand that we are capable of moving a very large preponderance of force into the territory of a NATO nation whose sovereignty had been violated in order to defend it.

Under the Total Defence Concept, we received tremendous support in Norway from “Viking” military and civilian forces alike, including hoteliers, air traffic controllers, cab drivers, barbers and stevedores. The logistical statistics were stunning for the period of the exercise: 58 container ships arrived, 2100 containers delivered, 150 road convoys conducted, 1 million meals served, 660 tonnes of laundry washed, 35,000 beds established in the field.

It was the equivalent of moving 7 brigades in about a month. There was significant planning up until that event and in the future we are not going to have the time to plan in this time horizon, but what Trident Juncture demonstrated was that there is an incredible dependence in the Alliance on logistics and military mobility.

Liminal or hybrid warfare is not going to result in great tank battles in the Fulda or Suwalki Gaps. It is going to be these little pressurised pockets of intimidation below the threshold of article 5 and the boiling frog scenario – it happens and it’s done before we know it.

The Russians were also invited. They were able to see with complete transparency what NATO accomplished during the exercise. We demonstrated what we wanted to – that the NATO alliance is extremely strong, cohesive, capable and so… don’t mess with us!

Trident Juncture contributed to deterrence not only just in the High North and Arctic but also all the way to the Black Sea. The more you raise the risk calculus for the adversary, the less likely they are to cross the line. In the case of hybrid warfare in Ukraine (not a full member of the Alliance), the risk was low enough to make it attractive. I think that’s what’s gone through the Russian leadership’s decision calculus. In particular, Russian leadership concluded that it could cross this line and take this territory without firing a shot, and so they did it.  

We must consider this carefully in preparing for the future.  Liminal or hybrid warfare is not going to result in great tank battles in the Fulda or Suwalki Gaps. I don’t think that traditional symmetrical warfare is what is going to happen. It is going to be these little pressurised pockets of intimidation below the threshold of article 5 and the boiling frog scenario – it happens and it’s done before we know it. In conclusion, I submit that if the precursor to war becomes the war itself, then we’ve got to re-evaluate the whole manner in which we conduct warfighting. I think that is where we are today. The next battle of the Atlantic is going to look a lot different than the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic that we are fighting today.  Let’s do what it takes to be ready for it…

Excerpts from this interview were previously published in Small Wars Journal and Cronici Curs de Guvernare (in Romanian).

Admiral (Ret.) James Foggo is a distinguished Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Over the last decade in Naples, Italy, he served in multiple major commands as Commander, Naval Forces Europe/Africa; Commander Allied Joint Force Command, Naples; Commander, U.S. Sixth Fleet; Commander, Submarine Group 8; and Commander, Submarines, Allied Naval Forces South.

A Question of Trust. Why is China not as sexy as Korea? A Romanian perspective

The problem with China’s soft-power push is that, in Romania and some other CEE countries, it simply does not generate trust.

In spring 2018, a convenience store selling Korean and Japanese products opened in central Bucharest, behind one of the city museum’s buildings. The shop sells various foods produced in South Korea, including ramyeon, nori, frozen dumplings, spring rolls, kimchi, noodles, tofu, and even Korean ice cream. It also sells Korean cosmetics – from lipstick and eyeliner to aloe vera-based skin care from Jeju Island – and K-pop albums released by various artists, as well as memorabilia.

At the entrance, before picking up a shopping basket, the customer has to pass life-size cardboard effigies of the Bang Tan Boys/BTS, one of the most successful Korean boy bands. The shop is more than a minimarket; it is designed to resemble a convenience store in Seoul, South Korea. The shop also has a food court where customers can sit and enjoy a box of freshly prepared instant ramyeon while listening to K-pop songs. 

By the summer of 2019, the shop had become already a meeting point, a ‘third place’ for K-pop fans from Bucharest and travellers from other regions of Romania who were K-pop fans and had heard about the shop on vlogs, blogs and other social media groups dedicated to Korean popular culture. 

At the beginning of 2020, there were scores of Romanian language groups and pages on social media dedicated to Korean pop bands, idols, movies and movies stars, and blogs and vlogs with news on Korean music and dramas, as well as all things Korean, including food recipes, cosmetics and how they’re used. 

Several online shops opened delivering Korean food and cosmetics, while other online shops specialised exclusively in Korean cosmetics  or in K-pop band memorabilia and music albums which otherwise could not be found in the mainstream commercial outlets.

Pop culture is not only about fashion and music, but also about political ideas, freedoms or lack of them, experience, social and moral values that a group in a distant geographical location can choose, based on its local already-existing culture, to like, adhere to, trust, digest and internalise.

Moreover, several crowdsourced websites with Asian (but predominantly Korean) movies and dramas have acquired over 200,000 followers. Community members translate drama episodes into Romanian, in real time and for free, to support their passion for Korean actors and Korean culture. 

The popularity of the Korean Wave in Romania has also spotlighted other East Asian pop cultures, including Chinese. 

C-pop, just like K-pop, means billions of dollars: China has a self-sustaining entertainment industry. Chinese internet giant Tencent’s four music platforms – QQ Music, Kugou Music, Kuwo Music and WeSing – have a combined 800 million monthly users, compared to Spotify’s 207 million at the beginning of 2019 (Russell 2018). 

Moreover, Beijing has started to invest in foreign policy research, and is currently funding several doctoral programmes at British universities that have opened campuses in China in the past few years. The main focus of these programmes is to determine how audiences in the countries of the Belt and Road Initiative react to Chinese cinema and television and the political ideas included in the Chinese pop culture project. 

C-pop has not generated the same type of soft power effect as Korean pop culture – at least not yet. According to some insiders, this is because Beijing has not yet been that interested in promoting its entertainment products outside the East and South-East Asian region, where they are already a hit (Kelley 2019). 

However in the rest of the world, where Korean popular culture is gaining ground and is able to influence foreign societies by creating a largely positive and desirable image of Korea, markets with Chinese noodles and dumplings are not becoming third places for groups of C-pop fans to put on Chinese make-up, sing Chinese pop songs and eat Chinese noodles. 

Nor do C-pop and C-drama fans gather in ‘We love China’ cultural groups to spread Chinese culture and language. Cultural activities like these have been directly backed by the Chinese state through its Confucius Institutes, but they have not won the hearts and minds of millions of people around the world. Neither have they won the hearts and minds of C-pop fans in Romania. 

So why does China have a hard time generating soft power in countries like Romania?

Soft is the new strong

In sociology, it was Pierre Bourdieu who first spoke of symbolic power, which finds its expression in cultural practices and forms which sustain unequal distribution of scarce resources (Swartz 2013). In Bourdieu’s view, power is not only a matter that should concern the political domain, but it is also linked to culture and economics, and it is present in all human relations; symbolic forms of power, capital, and violence sustain social hierarchies.

But in the case of states in the international system, the same symbolic forms of power, capital and violence, form political hierarchies. Bourdieu’s work was largely focused on the idea of the state as a holder of symbolic power on the domestic level. However, looking at the international system at any point in time, despite its de jure anarchic character, the symbolic power and capital of various states and non-state actors play a role in the de facto international hierarchic system that David A. Lake speaks of in Hierarchy in International Relations (Lake 2009). He argues that the world is made of patron/client bargained relations between dominant states that provide security or know-how and subordinate states in exchange for support or compliance.

In a decentralised world where it is increasingly easy for information to travel, the relations between states rest less on coercion and more on attraction, common values and popular culture – on soft power, rather than hard power, as American political scientist Joseph Nye, Jr. argued in his book Bound to Lead (1991), a critique of realism in international relations. 

Later he developed a theory of soft power as a means of success in international relations in a changing world where attractiveness gradually becomes more important than coercion (2004). 

According to Nye, states do not only resort to military or coercive diplomacy to exert influence or dominate other states and international institutions, but they can also ‘charm’ them into supporting certain policies or actions at the international level, or simply in order to pacify them. 

His theory is based largely on the United States and its influence over numerous states at a time of liberalism when coercion had become frowned upon in international relations (Nye 2011). 

Nye argued at the time that pop culture in itself is not necessarily soft power; soft power, he says, rests on a country’s culture, the legitimacy of its foreign policy and political values. The more its values are universal and globally shared, and its domestic policies in tune with the global trend, the greater the country’s potential (Nye 2004, p. 11). The more parochial a culture (including its political ideas and social rules), the less potential it has for soft power, even if its cultural goods are well received outside its borders. 

South Korean political scientist Lee Geun (2009) realised that his own country was being cited more and more as a model of soft power at the dawn of the 21st century, and developed a theoretical framework based on Nye’s concept. 

Lee makes the actual connection between soft power resources and the power conversion mechanism, and insists on the power of ideas, but also on the fact that soft power is more than just public diplomacy, development aid and planned cultural exchanges (Lee 2009, p. 207): it is also about changing the thinking framework of a recipient community and/or society. 

Soft resources, which he defines as ideas, images, theories, know how, education, culture, traditions or national and global symbols, are applied to a recipient in order to change their behaviour. But they only produce soft power when the attractiveness or fear they produce on a short term becomes ‘common sense’ in the recipient group/community/society, changes the way of thinking and the interpretative frameworks, and produces long-term effects. 

And, based on tens of interviews of consumers of Korean and Chinese pop culture, I argue that the key in whether pop culture becomes soft power or does not is trust.

The K in soft power 

In Korea’s case, the K is in everything that makes up the ‘Korean Wave’ – K-pop, K-drama, K-beauty, all of which are anchored in Korea. 

K-pop has been mentioned by various political scientists as a manifestation of soft power (Watson 2012) (Kim & Hogarth 2013). The association of terms is well enough established in the literature, and has grown to be a model for other East Asian countries, including China and Japan.

The penetration of Korean pop culture, especially K-pop and K-dramas, began with the East Asian markets in the late 1990s, right after the Asian Financial Crisis when the Korean economy was in shambles and the export of popular culture seemed a resource that needed to be exploited (Iwabuchi & Chua 2008). 

The rise of the ‘Korean Wave’ in the new millennium happened because of governmental and corporate support (Doobo 2008). The wave started in 1994 with government support for the domestic cinema production as a national strategic industry as an effect of the liberalisation of the media markets in East Asia and the success of US made cinema. Due to the tax incentive, the investments of chaebols (Korean business conglomerates) facilitated processes of capital accumulation in the media sector, but also attracted many talented human resources. 

The political ideas that Romanian K-drama and K-pop fans spread most when they speak of Korea are that the country is seen as a democracy, which shares freedom of speech and transparency, two values that are globally cherished and are also shared by Romanian society. It is a question of trust. 

At the same time, after the 1990s financial crisis, when Korea’s economy took a big hit and it prioritised its media industry, other East Asian countries also liberalised their media markets, making it easy for the Korean blockbusters to sell abroad and become a regional phenomenon.

By 2006, Korean media products were becoming widely consumed in East and South-East Asia and started to spread across the world (Chua and Iwabuchi 2008), creating a mass of fans that not only shared the consumption of Korean media products, but also the love for South Korea as a country.

In some cases, K-culture fans become political agents promoting South Korean nationalist ideas in their own home societies, spreading knowledge and normalising the ideas spread through K-culture. 

Irina Lyan (2019) points out that non-Korean Hallyu fans in Israel, for instance, often become the voices of South Korean nationalism. By looking at who participates in and what happens in events organised on Korea Day during 2000-2010, she found that it was the local non-Korean fans that celebrated the state’s national day and spread the culture, and took on the roles of experts and educators, and even of cultural ambassadors.

She calls the phenomenon fan-nationalism: fans are mobilised by the idea of promoting a positive image of Korea in their home societies.

I have found that this happens to some extent in Romania too. 

The experience on the demand side 

What exactly makes certain groups in a distant society be attracted to a popular culture like that of South Korea; and following Lee’s theory, how does this attractiveness become soft power?

This can only be achieved by looking at culture through the lens proposed by Richard Hoggart (1957), which includes not only music, entertainment and the arts in general, but also political ideas and social behaviours which, in an age of information, can become part of pop culture. 

Pop culture is not only about fashion and music, but also about political ideas, freedoms or lack of them, experience, social and moral values that a group in a distant geographical location can choose, based on its local already-existing culture, to like, adhere to, trust, digest and internalise. 

When discussing this process of transforming pop culture into soft power, it is also imperative to not only look at states, but also at the level of the individual and their immediate surroundings and social relations. 

The body is central to post-modern geopolitics

The human body is the first territory conquered by soft power, if you look at the matter from Foucault’s perspective. At about the same time Joseph Nye came up with the idea of soft power in international relations, Michel Foucault (1990) established a theory of biopower, as opposed to the idea of sovereign power, or the power over death which ruled over society until the French Revolution.

If sovereign power was exercised by states whose ultimate expression of power was the monopoly of capital force, then biopower in fact means power over life through regulatory controls which result in the biopolitics of the population. Foucault looks at the human being – le vivant – from the relationship between the body and the surrounding tools, spaces constraining and enabling physical or mental movements. The object of the power relationship becomes the living, due to mutations in social relations in modern times. 

However, Foucault believes that the state no longer needs to be an oppressive or coercive factor on living bodies, but can also charm them into submission.

Our bodies, all of us, are, therefore, central to post-modern geopolitics. Following Foucault’s idea, the body becomes a consenting object of soft power, remaining central to the new paradigm of geopolitics. 

Falling in love with a foreign country, at the individual level, becomes a manifestation of geopolitical power when the individual starts acting as a political agent in the interest of a foreign state by replicating political ideas and social norms in their home society. 

A five-stage apprenticeship – from Netflix to political embodiment

For most of the respondents interviewed, the journey starts with one K-drama they either found by accident on Netflix or another streaming service, or they get referred to by a friend who is already a consumer and acts like an expert in ‘Korean affairs’. They like one of the actors starring in the drama, they look for more information about the celebrity in the media and also on social media, and look for other dramas he/she starred in. 

Phase 1: ‘Alice in Wonderland’

“I really want to understand more what is actually happening to me. I started to watch a couple of weeks ago and I am already hooked. I simply think about it all day and want to escape in that world, which is super-colourful, with insanely beautiful people and where everything ends happily,” one of the interviewees explained.

Phase 2: Networking

When asked, fans said that most of their knowledge of South Korea comes from the dramas themselves and, although they are aware that reality might not be the same, they are still tempted by the Korean dream and want to be transported into that fantasy world. Many K-drama fans look for other fans on social media, join groups on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, and they also join international communities.

Phase 3: Internalising the new culture

Fan group members also start using words they hear in movies when they speak to each other, or make up inside jokes with references to both the Romanian culture they have learned and embodied since childhood and the Korean popular culture they see in dramas. 

They call each other jeonha (‘majesty’ in Korean) the way they learned from historical dramas, or they say sarang-hae instead of ‘I love you’ to each other. 

They dress like K-drama characters, they order and wear Korean cosmetics, put on make-up the Korean way, they cook Korean food. 

The imitation can also go as far as making gestures considered polite in Korea, but adapting them to Romanian society. The culture they see and absorb from dramas becomes embodied in the way they relate to other people in their own society.

The K-culture consumed and metabolised from K-drama also impacts their physical and social bodies, as well as material culture: they bow to people when they say hello, or use both hands to offer an object, as is polite in Korean culture. 

Last but not least, the demand for Korean language classes has increased dramatically during the past ten years in Romania: Korean-language programmes in universities are receiving higher numbers of applicants, and some private universities have set up Korean-language classes with native teachers, regularly host Korean professors as guest lecturers, and send more students on exchange programmes to Korea. 

Phase 4: Experts on all things Korea

The first result of this embodied hybrid Korean popular culture in groups of fans in Romania is that they become agents who spread Korean cultural and social ideas, values, and become experts in everything Korean. 

While going through their lists of favourite actors, many of the fans interviewed (mostly women) became interested in Korean history and researched the characters portrayed by the favourite actors, read English-language Korean media and started looking for more in-depth information about government and society in the country. 

Romanian K-pop and K-drama consumers, especially if they visit Korea for a vacation or have studied for a few months in Korea, act like experts on Korean society and often explain it to friends. Several conversations I have had with K-drama and K-pop fans have turned into long hours of explainers on what Korean popular culture is about, social pressures in Korea, gender issues, expat issues, as well as the way the Korean government handled the coronavirus pandemic without imposing restrictions, as well as how the society reacts to corruption, the culture of protesting for labour rights, and the political class. 

However, when members of the Romanian fan base act like experts, it is the political ideas contained in the Korean popular culture that they first express about Korea and spread among friends and Romanian society in general, rather than their preferences in terms of music or dramas. 

Phase 5: Economic and political entrepreneurship 

After the K-drama and K-apprenticeship phase, some K-culture fans become Korea fans and seek to boost their link to Korea more than simply by reading and expressing their expertise and views and comparing their home society to that of Korea. 

Some become K-entrepreneurs: they establish businesses that sell Korean products (mostly food and cosmetics). Others become social and/or political entrepreneurs. 

Most countries use cultural diplomacy as a tool to spread their culture and their political messages to other states, but most of the cultural institutes are usually funded by governments, and are managed by their ministries of Foreign Affairs. South Korea does not need to advertise its cultural activities in Romania too much. 

The association that serves as a Korean cultural institute is founded and operated by Romanians who act as local cultural ambassadors: they organise cultural events such as Korean movie festivals (twice a year) with some backing from the Korean embassy, run stands at Asian cultural festivals around the year, offer Korean language classes and organise Korean speech contests or karaoke contests for K-pop fans. They also participate in events organised by the Korean embassy in Bucharest on various occasions, including Korea Day. They also publish a magazine about all things Korean. 

These activities, together with a number of personal blogs and the social media presence of many ‘experts in all things Korea’, promote and generalise the idea that South Korea is a “cool and interesting country”.

However, there is a catch. Not just any country with a huge entertainment industry can follow in South Korea’s steps. 

So why is China not that attractive? 

It is not really attractive to Romanians in particular; and it is indeed about the political culture that Beijing infuses its media content with – which it does too obviously for this particular audience. 

Most K-culture fans I interviewed and observed during months of research consumed both Chinese and Korean pop culture. However, in the case of most Chinese productions, they say they feel the intervention of the state-driven political propaganda and the government’s grip on social relations, as well as individual freedoms. 

The political ideas that Romanian K-drama and K-pop fans spread most when they speak of Korea are that the country is seen as a democracy, which shares freedom of speech and transparency, two values that are globally cherished and are also shared by Romanian society. It is a question of trust. 

“The fact that I know that China is not a democracy, and I know how people live in a Communist country, because we lived through that before 1989 in Romania makes me distrust Chinese movies to a certain extent,” one fan bluntly put it. 

Young K-pop fans explained that they felt that in the Chinese media they consumed there was a certain amount of Communist propaganda, conservatism and censorship which they defined as ‘a certain degree of fake’. They said that Korean products were closer to Western culture and they could identify more with them, especially because they did not feel there was any political infringement of individual liberty. 

They shared the idea that South Korean pop bands, despite the fact that they knew the artists are subjected to a strict regimen that is sometimes abusive, were not submitted to censorship by an explicit political actor (i.e. a government institution). “In the Chinese dramas, however cool the topics are, you just see people acting really awkward and naïve. Koreans are simply more genuine,” a 17-year-old respondent said.

The problem with China’s soft-power push is that, in Romania and some other Central and Eastern European countries, it simply does not generate trust. 

Most Chinese period dramas portray a mythical Chinese society, with fantastic heroes and well-designed costumes, Taoist cultivators of immortality, or historical heroes that conquer kingdoms. However, when in the middle of an episode of a drama about demi-gods and fairies such as Ashes of Love, one peripheral character says, “Don’t trust the fairies, they are as unreliable as Hong Kong”, an eastern European audience may not see it as a very good joke, but as a clear sign of state censorship. 

Western European consumers of Chinese movies, novels, videogames are more inclined to absorb the idea of mythical historical China as a great civilisation, and more readily dismiss the topics of authoritarianism, Communism and China’s human rights problems.

Western European interviewees who consume Chinese pop culture and who absorb cultural ideas much more quickly become fans of Taoism, and they begin to study the language and history – which also creates a more fertile ground for receiving political ideas and norms. In some Western societies the mythical representation of China as the world’s greatest civilisation in pop-culture (movies, music, web novels, animation, or video games) is a niche hobby which is more successfully accepted by the youth. 

As opposed to Eastern European consumers of mainland Chinese popular culture, Western European consumers of Chinese movies, novels, videogames are more inclined to absorb the idea of mythical historical China as a great civilisation, and more readily dismiss the topics of authoritarianism, Communism and China’s human rights problems.

But in the former Communist bloc, consumers of pop culture are already skilled at detecting state pressure on media and individual freedoms and can smell government enforced censorship from afar. In societies like Romania it is difficult for China to rely on its charm based on an image constructed on the idea of its mythical civilisation, because the trauma of having survived Communist rule is greater than the fascination for cosmeticised Chinese cultural products. The C-culture consumers who also admire the Chinese political model are a tiny minority in comparison with the K-pop and K-drama ‘armies’. 


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Information wars and regime stability. How can nations respond?

If civilians are engaged in conflict, then the solution can only come in a ‘whole-of-society’ approach, and not from government only.

Increasingly, as global competition steps up and technology affords ever more efficient ways of compelling the enemy into submission without firing a shot, we will continue to see information warfare being used more often and by a wider range of state and non-state actors. Since the very essence of such campaigns is to remain below the threshold of conflict – where their perpetrators may be identified and proportional response may be triggered – there will be no non-combatants. What is more, the civilian population will be the target of choice, because the modus operandi of ‘influence’perhaps a more adequate name than ‘war’, campaigns is to turn the native populations, or part thereof, into unknowing accomplices/ domestic agents of the attacker, most often by inciting them to contest the very institutions tasked with preserving stability, continuity and legitimacy of the state. 

If civilians are engaged in conflict, then the solution can only come in a ‘whole-of-society’ approach, and not from government only. Quite on the contrary, the role of government is often a delicate one, since malign foreign influence seeks to deepen the mistrust that citizens already have in their own governments and in the very ability of the institutions of representative democracy to deliver on their mission. The most fragile balance to maintain, under the circumstances, is between countering information manipulation, and preserving information integrity and the freedom of expression.

The simple truth is that technology and communication have progressed at a rate unmatched by either human emotional and cognitive development, or adaptation of institutions. We remain unable to cope with information overload and speed, microtargeting and the pushing of all our emotional triggers without enormous effort.

To be clear, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, as dis-/misinformation and manipulation are versatile weapons and they adapt to the target, and no definitive comprehensive answer yet. The simple truth is that technology and communication have progressed at a rate unmatched by either human emotional and cognitive development, or adaptation of institutions. We remain unable to cope with information overload and speed, microtargeting and the pushing of all our emotional triggers without enormous effort. This is why advocating that responsibility for facing this onslaught of emotionally – and bias- loaded information lies ultimately with the individual only to decide what is best for oneself hugely underestimates the toll that the information environment that we live in takes on our ability to cope. Similarly, institutions and democracy itself have not evolved to effectively deal with the challenge, while preserving fundamental principles: they remain slow, often hierarchical and bureaucratic, in a world that is increasingly horizontal, ad-hoc, and empowering for a whole new range of citizens.

That being said, there are a number of things to do – and fast – to limit the impact of information operations, while safeguarding democracy and civil liberties. They are grouped along an axis that goes from ‘detection’, to ‘damage limitation’ and ‘deterrence’ and involve two lines of action: Resilience and Response. The goal is both to equip societies to deal with the threat when it presents itself, and to take preventive measures to avoid it materialising at all, given that once falsified information has made it into the public space, damage has already been done. Hence, one of the main challenges is to get ahead of the game and pre-emptively reduce exposure to manipulation, rather than simply be reactive.

The difficulty of ‘detection’ derives from the competitive edge of information operations: they are often detected only after they have produced effects. Attribution, the determination of what constitutes the threshold for calling ‘an attack’ and what constitutes proportional response are equally challenging. All these decisions will of necessity be highly political, not just a military or technical matter. Yet, for effective ‘deterrence’ to work, one needs to increase the costs of carrying out information operations for the adversary; and for ‘response’ mechanisms to be activated, the ‘enemy’ needs to be clearly identified in national strategic documents, especially in cases where subversive behaviour is employed repeatedly and/ or with a manifest purpose.

Both detection and damage limitation (through building resilience) can improve if an ‘early warning’ system is put in place, by means of a self-assessment of permeability to information manipulation. Since foreign actors will use existing rifts, grievances and perception biases and aim to amplify them, the identification of such vulnerabilities will make it easier to plug the gaps before others can take advantage of them. That is not to say they will always be easy to address, since many are structural and closely linked with the overall resilience of state and/ or democracy: Critical thinking, scientific education and media literacy among the population, confidence in government, perceived inequality, corruption, intra-societal trust, etc. Also, singular measures are unlikely to significantly reduce the risk. Media literacy education is always good, but it’s a long-term endeavour and it is insufficient; debunking alone, rather than setting the facts straight, is likely to reinforce false narratives by repeating them, as well as to induce the belief that no one can be trusted – which plays right into the hands of manipulators.

To boost resilience, governments and societies need to focus primarily on those segments of the population who are not hardcore believers of fabricated ideas or ideology, but represent the ‘swing’ segment, who can be turned relatively easily by a malevolent actor, but can also be protected from manipulation with the right and timely actions.

To boost resilience, governments and societies also need to focus primarily on those segments of the population who are not hardcore believers of fabricated ideas or ideology, but represent the ‘swing’ segment, who can be turned relatively easily by a malevolent actor, but can also be protected from manipulation with the right and timely actions. To this end, the government needs to develop a robust strategic communications strategy (StratCom) and infrastructure, to make sure it has the upper hand on relevant communication and it is not only in a position to refute falsehood, but also persuade the public, in a manner that is both truthful, efficient and respectful of existing biases, without appearing to challenge the core beliefs and values of its constituency. Both StratCom and anti-disinformation measures need to be well-coordinated across relevant agencies, with a clear focal point, placed with an authority that has the constitutional and executive ability to direct other institutions. Too often, at present, government works in silos and information or intelligence-sharing is deficient.

More widely, cooperation among official institutions, the private sector, especially social media and online platforms, and civil society is key. On the one hand, the public will be better protected if these platforms help identify automated inauthentic behaviour online (trolls, bots) and through real-time fact-checking and flagging, limit the access of perpetrators to their audience, as well as their financial incentives. On the other hand, the capacity of platforms and of those using them to microtarget individuals and use emotional response triggers needs to be limited, while the transparency of algorithms and policies needs to be greatly improved. This is also the case with the ease of access and understanding of the user concerning any dangers he/she faces in operating the respective platforms, to empower the individual in relation to these companies. In so doing, the role of independent watchdogs is crucial, because these are, after all, private entities working for profit, while governments themselves can be seen as having a stake in the regulation and non-/disclosure of information. The principle that offline rules should naturally extend online is gaining widespread approval, but only international standards (such as the EU Code of Conduct, Five Eyes and other collective arrangements) will realistically make a difference in addressing a problem that is inherently a cross-border one and can easily elude a single state’s jurisdiction.

This article was first published as part of the series — Raisina Edit 2021.