Brad Allenby: “Pluralism was designed for a time when information moved more slowly”

In this wide-ranging interview, Brad Allenby – a Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics at Arizona State University – warns us about the transformational impact of technology (including AI) on the existing institutions and shares his insights on the future of war.

Writing about the rise of AI, Henry Kissinger pointed out his concern with “the historical, philosophical and strategic aspect of it. I’ve become convinced that AI is going to bring a change in human consciousness exceeding that of the Enlightenment.” What worries you about the rise of AI (especially as the rise of AI happens in a context where advances in biotechnology and neuroscience seem to be opening new frontiers)?

One of the difficulties is that AI is one of those technologies like electricity, an enabling one across the technological frontier. We are going to be using it in the car navigation systems, in cellphones or refrigerators. It is not that we are going to have this integrated AI as a technological threat in the same way that we perceive a nuclear weapon. AI is going to enable new behaviors and new activities, which is one source of problems—just think about the intervention of the Russians in the 2016 American elections. At the same time, you are also going to have fundamental changes in the assumptions that underwrite our institutions. If you look at the American political system today we are arguing about the First Amendment [on freedom of speech]. But AI as integrated into social media, and the amount of information that we are generating means that that is an irrelevant question. If you can’t get on social media you don’t have free speech. You have AI integrated with other things acting in ways that are destabilising for the existing institutions. This is our biggest problem. The rate of change is accelerating, it is going to be more profound, so we are going to need to be able to develop new institutions that are much more agile and adaptive, and yet at the same time more ethical than the ones they are replacing.

How do you see the impact of AI and big data on democracy and pluralism at a time when the public square has increasingly moved online? Can they make democracy and pluralism more resilient and healthy, or are we going to see the opposite: AI-enabled malign information campaigns, tribalism on steroids (with societies that become divided along Hutu vs. Tutsi lines), or even Orwellian states where comprehensive surveillance is dominant?

Especially because there are so many dimensions to these changes, I think that you can’t predict; the only thing you can really do is to create scenarios. It is not an unreasonable scenario to ask if the integration of AI, the party and private firms into a network in China, which is part of the Social Credit System (SCS) doesn’t give authoritarianism a significant jump in fitness. Meanwhile the difficulty with pluralism is that the pluralistic structure was designed for a period when information in particular moved much more slowly. You see that in the First Amendment and with the checks and balances system. These are fine until the rate of change and technological reality decouple them from the governance system. Institutions that were designed for a low-bandwidth world suddenly find themselves overwhelmed by information flows. Once that happens, pluralistic societies have to think deeply how they reinvent themselves, because their authoritarian competitors are already reinventing themselves. A reasonable scenario is that the changes tend to weaken pluralism and tend to strengthen soft authoritarianism.

If the US is going to be successful going forward, it is going to have to figure out how to create a pluralism that embraces tribalism.

In this context, the thing to keep an eye on is how different cultures manage to use the integrated capability of the emerging cognitive ecosystem — 5G, social media, AI, the Internet of Things. Are they able to use that in ways which augment the effectiveness and the power of the state and party? Or does it rebound on their system in such a way that it fragments even more? The Chinese are putting together the Social Credit System (SCS) which integrates all of those. Everyone depends on the social credit system. You have a high credit score and you can get in airplanes, in trains, you can go to certain colleges. It becomes a very powerful way of nudging behaviour. They are creating a structure where unless people behave the way you want them to, they are going to hurt themselves.

Are the 21st century autocracies better positioned to compete and master AI/cognitive infrastructures than democracies?

Democracies in particular have a big problem. In the Constitution of the US we have this strong split between the military and civilian powers. That is great until your adversaries adopt a whole strategy of civilisational conflict (and both the Chinese and Russians have done it), in which case you are in trouble. Your military knows that it is a threat, but it is over the civilian infrastructure, so they can’t intervene. The pluralistic response may become more chaotic, and very importantly, it begins to take longer. The problem with authoritarianism has always been that it was fragile. But designed properly, a social credit system can not only nudge citizens to behave the way the authoritarians want them to do, but it can also detect when there are issues that might affect the legitimacy of the authoritarian. It can become a way of channeling information upwards as well. Designed right, the traditional problems of authoritarianism are ameliorated by this integrated AI/human capability. If that is the case, then you have pluralism getting more and more chaotic, more sclerotic, and you have soft authoritarianism becoming more effective.

The West: too successful to adapt?

During the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was a hugely disruptive force that reshaped the international system and the balance of power globally. Some benefited and others lost. Are we in the early stages of a similar competition between the West and the Rest, spearheaded by a new technological revolution? With what implications?

Yes, we are. Successful institutions are going to be successful because they are fit for the current environment. That has been true for 200 years of Western models of governance. That also means that when things change fundamentally, they are the unfit ones. It is very hard for a successful organisation to adapt. AT&T used to be a great telephone company, but along comes internet telephony and AT&T goes away. The same is true of very successful governance systems. The problem that the Americans have is that they’ve been successful, and that is going to inhibit their ability to adjust to a world where the fundamental assumptions underlying those institutions have changed. Internationally, we may be entering a period where we are moving toward a kind of neo-medievalism: rather than having a single power we are going to have competing local power dynamics that tend to disrupt international commerce and could lead to higher levels of violence.

The amount of information that is available, the too many different stories, create an information overload so people fall back on their core narratives, not because they are stupid but because they are forced to. The only way they can continue to make sense of the world is to fall back on a tribal narrative that is more a matter of belief than of applied rationality.

This new type of medievalism might happen also inside the states not only in the international system. Tribalism is on steroids, the space for compromise-oriented elites is shrinking. This is a huge pressure for the US, as it used to function under the logic of E pluribus unum.

It is a problem that particularly the Americans have. To the best of my knowledge we never really had a world power that didn’t have an exceptionalist narrative. The problem is that today in their pursuit of identity politics the Americans have managed to destroy the integrating social narrative. The exceptionalist narrative in the US is very weak. Over time the US will become less competitive because tribal interests are going to grow to dominate the body politic. If the US is going to be successful going forward, it is going to have to figure out how to create a pluralism that embraces tribalism. That is going to be very hard. Tribalism, identity politics are here to stay. It is important to understand why. Individuals are information-processing mechanisms. If you fundamentally change the information environment you are going to perturb the performance of individuals and their institutions. Technologically-enabled trends are slowly undermining the core assumption of a pluralistic society — the individual as a rational citizen. That is exactly what we’ve done in the last 10 years. The amount of information that is available, the too many different stories, create an information overload so people fall back on their core narratives, not because they are stupid but because they are forced to. The only way they can continue to make sense of the world is to fall back on a tribal narrative that is more a matter of belief than of applied rationality. In short, a shifting away from System 2 thinking (predisposed to slow, applied rationality), back to System 1 thinking (predisposed to fast, emotional, intuitive thinking). That means that tribalism is not only going to continue, but strengthen.

The era of civilisational conflict

You have written a lot on the changes that affect conflict and war. What significant trend-lines do you see as shaping the future of conflict?

To me the deeper question is what fundamental structures have to change as we move into an era of ongoing, low-level civilisational conflict. Unless and until something dramatic happens, that is going to be the state of the world. If that is the case, what works and what doesn’t? You might say that clearly the military-civilian divide embedded in the US Constitution is obsolete and you should rethink it. That is never going to happen, but the deeper you get into what is happening to those assumptions, the more those kind of fundamental changes may need to be thought through.

But back to this paradigm change. The easiest way to think about the civilisational conflict is that over the last 30 years, the US has become the preeminent traditional military power. If you are China or Russia you are not going to be able to accept that that limits your freedom to protect what you feel are your vital interests. So you are going to figure out some way of developing effective asymmetric warfare and strategies. Overall, strategic and technological imperatives are changing how war and conflict are framed, generating a shift from military confrontation to a much broader and complex conflict waged across all domains of civilisation. Both Russia and China have gone in the same direction moving toward coherent theories of 21st-century conflict, and contemplating the inclusion of all dimensions of a civilisation in a very deliberate, strategically integrated process of long-term, intentionally coordinated conflict. You see this trend with the so-called ‘Gerasimov doctrine/New-generation warfare’ and the ‘Unrestricted warfare’ doctrine of the Chinese, and the implication is that all elements of an adversary’s culture and society become fair game for conflict. It does mean that you will be constantly attacking across that entire frontier. The idea that war is restricted to certain times and certain forms of combat becomes obsolete. Something that we need to recognise is that Russia is in constant war with the West; they have been over a long time, and they are continuing to fight it. The problem that NATO has is that it is more like a digital system. It is either on or off, it is either war or not. With the Russians it’s analogue. That is not something that the West is well designed to meet, either in terms of strategy or institutions. As much as the West may not like it, our adversaries have chosen civilisational conflict, and that is where we are. We need to adapt.

You can see the different ways in which major powers structure, for example, their cyber-activities. The Russians tend to use both internal government and criminal organisations. The Chinese tend to keep their high-technology companies very close and integrated with the state, so the party, the state and the private companies are all generally aligned in their behaviour. The Americans tend to let their companies go and view their private sector as being the innovative sector. That kind of fragmented approach means the Americans are unable to coalesce and align, even informally, the way the Chinese are. They have a different idea of what constitutes a civilisational conflict structure than the Americans do.

Something that we need to recognise is that Russia is in constant war with the West; they have been over a long time, and they are continuing to fight it. The problem that NATO has is that it is more like a digital system. It is either on or off, it is either war or not. With the Russians it’s analogue.

How do you see the implications of the emerging cognitive infrastructure for the traditional Boydian OODA loop? Visions of the war of the future talk about ‘algorithmic warfare’, where decision dominance is of the essence.

Conflict at the level of world powers of all kinds is going to be faster, more complex, and more systemic. Being fast and understanding your environment better – accelerating the OODA loop beyond the point that your adversary can follow – is going to provide the strategic advantage. At the same time, there will be many conflicts, such as in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, that are going to be low-level communal and tribal violence powered by deep ideological differences – the so-called neomedieval environment. Speed, agility, access to large data pools, and adaptability are key, so the nations that figure out how to do that – how to get inside the OODA loop of one’s adversaries – are going to dominate over time. The West is not doing particularly well on any of those metrics, which should be a cause of concern.

What do we want to save about the ancien régime?

What are the implications of how we should think or rethink about the resilience of a pluralist democracy?

If pluralism is going to prosper, it needs to develop a way to reinvent itself from the foundations up. In doing so it may lose something that we value, but that is because it is becoming obsolete. In some ways we should think about the task as sitting down in 1788 – what do I want to save about the ancien régime? Because things are going to change and are going to be different. France was France before 1789 and it was France after 1789. So the question for the West is, what kind of West do we want to be?

Let’s also discuss the main ethical implications. People fear a future where robots might control us. What principles should regulate/govern the use of AI? Do you see the potential to educate and programme the intelligent machines in the spirit of the 10 commandments? Or are we becoming too much dependent on the old assumptions when imagining the future?

All of the above. I think we are already too dependent on the assumptions that were valid during the first Enlightenment, but they are going to change. The first Enlightenment didn’t fail – it succeeded brilliantly, but now it has obsoleted itself. The second Enlightenment is going to require us to rethink our ethical structures. As far as robots are concerned we are going to find that we have a far more complex environment, but the ethics are not part of what the robots bring to the table. We always tend to think about the robots and AI as being kind of like us. But they are not going to be. We are the product of the things that were evolutionarily necessary for a species like ours to prosper and become the dominant species on the planet. But there is no reason why the Internet should develop that same cognitive structure. For humans, emotion is among other things a shortcut to decision-making. If the situation is too complex, emotions kick in and we respond. An AI should not have the same constraint. It may have different ones, but it is not going to think the way we do. It is going to think profoundly differently. We keep thinking of AI as the Skynet. It may not be Skynet, it may be like Google maps or Alexa, that just become more and more part of your life.

Brad Allenby is a Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics and co-chair of the Weaponised Narrative Initiative of the Center for the Future of War at Arizona State University.

Parts of this interview were published in Romanian in the printed issue of Cronicile Curs de Guvernare, No. 91.

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’. 

References: 

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Harvard University Press.

Chua, Beng Huat, and Koichi Iwabuchi. 2008. East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. 

Doobo, Shim. 2008. ‘The Growth of Korean Cultural Industries and the Korean Wave’ in East Asian Pop Culture: Analyzing the Korean Wave, by Chua Beng Huat and Koich Iwabuchi, 15-31. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1990. History of Sexuality. New York : Random House

Hoggart, Richard. 1957. The uses of literacy. Transaction publishers.

Holyk, Gregory G. 2013. ‘Paper Tiger? Chinese Soft Power in East Asia’, Political Science Quarterly 223- 254.

Iwabuchi, Koichi. 2010. ‘Globalization, East Asian media cultures and their publics.” Asian Journal of Communication 197-212.

Iwabuchi, Koichi, and Chua Beng Huat. 2008. “East Asian TV Dramas: Identifications, Sentiments and Effects.” In East Asian Pop Culture: Analyzing the Korean Wave, by Chua Beng Huat & Koichi Iwabuchi ed., 1-13. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Nye, Joseph Jr. 2004. Power in the Global Information Age: From Realism to Globalization. New York: Routledge.

Kim. 2016. “Korea’s Cultural Juggernaut is a Soft-Power Strategy Worth Copying’, National Interest, 14 August.

Kuwahara, Yasue. 2014. The Korean Wave. Korean Popular Culture in Global Context. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. 

Lake, David A. 2009. Hierarchy and International Relations. Cornell University Press. 

Lee, Geun. 2009. ‘A theory of soft power and Korea’s soft power strategy’, The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis 205-2018.

Lyan, Irina. 2019. ‘Welcome to Korea Day’, International Journal of Communication 3764–3780. 

Lyan, Irina, and Nissim Otmazgin. 2019. ‘Fan entrepreneurship. Fandom, Agency, and the Marketing of Hallyu in Israel’, Kritika Kultura 289–307.

Nye, Joseph Jr. 1991. Bound To Lead: The Changing Nature Of American Power. New York: Ingram Publisher Services. 

Nye, Joseph. 2004. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public Affairs.Swartz, David L. 2013. Symbolic Power, Politics, and Intellectuals: The Political Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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.

The AURo-Atlantic Romania

The illusion generated by Romania’s pro-European political choice has led to a collective blindness towards the country’s backsliding from European values. Increasingly, one of our core security threats comes from within, rather than outside our borders. 

Romania’s accession to the European Union and NATO was backed by almost unanimous popular support, and throughout the years the country has maintained its position among the states which held the EU and the US in the highest esteem. One generation after another has learned in school that the Latin origins of the Romanian language and people (through which we are related to France, Italy and Spain, countries that many Romanians call home today) are defining for our national identity. Through the royal family we have become related to Europe once again.

The post-1989 strategic choice Romania made was firmly pro-Western, even during the times of Ion Iliescu and Adrian Năstase, when very little of what was happening in our country was reminiscent of the realities in the EU. The Bucharest-London-Washington axis was not derailed even by Brexit, Donald Trump or Liviu Dragnea. Currently, in the EU Parliament, Romania votes consistently along the lines promoted by the Western Franco-German nucleus, and is methodically avoiding any association with the democratic backslidings of other Eastern European states. Everything in our history and identity is European, and the pinnacle of our post-1989 aspirations was always to be sought in the West.

EU membership has brought us the possibility to work and study in the West. In spite of repeated and considerable pressures on the rule of law and democracy, over the past years Romanians have supported the anti-corruption agenda, whether at the ballot or in the streets through protest. Romania’s presence at the head of the fastest-growing EU economies has been constant in recent years, its GDP increasing eightfold since the 1990s. We are among the most reliable European countries regarding the NATO defence expenditure pledges.

The forest of backwardness hidden behind the European trees

In such a context, how could one ever suspect that we are anything but the quintessential expression of Euro-enthusiasm? We have fed ourselves with the illusion that the only possible direction was ‘further and further to the West’; that modernisation and Europeanisation are inevitable processes; that we are invulnerable to the problems faced by our neighbours – from the rise of the far-right and the intolerance towards migrants and minorities of any kind, to the slide into authoritarianism, the spread of Russian propaganda and attempts at destabilisation, simply because ‘we are so pro-West and anti-Russian’.

There is another reality represented by a version of Romania that looks more and more different from what Europe really represents structurally and in terms of values and identity.

Notwithstanding these realities which some of us share, there is another reality represented by a version of Romania that looks more and more different from what Europe really represents structurally and in terms of values and identity. The political class is using the pro-European discourse opportunistically, rather than with the purpose of genuinely promoting a set of values to Romanian society. The policies adopted in the past decades have effectively marginalised the people that do not live in large urban centres, and thus see themselves trapped in a context that does not offer them many of the opportunities that promised to be so abundant at the time of the country’s accession to the European Union: a country with families split between those that have left to a seek better income in the West and those that have stayed and have been supported by them, a country in which some of us have prospered because of the new economic trends, whilst others have felt overwhelmed by changes that we did not understand and that nobody prepared us for.

The success of AUR, inconceivable until recently, as well as all the instances of ultraconservative and antidemocratic actions are primarily a consequence of this trend.

The traditional parties have fostered a radical electorate behind their democratic rhetoric

Until the moment the exit poll in December’s parliamentary elections was announced, the Romanian media’s interest in the AUR party was close to zero. The shock generated by the collective realisation that a party unknown to most people was to become the fourth-largest political force in the country generated an avalanche of articles that either presented the profile of the AUR candidates and their most outrageous declarations, or commented in an alarmist tone on the consequences of Romania’s entry in the ranks of the European states with extremist representation in their parliaments. However, all these approaches are distant from the essence of the problem.

The Romanian electorate with sympathies towards populist or nationalist narratives is not new. Although the 9% score obtained by AUR may seem very high, in the parliamentary elections with the lowest turnout since the Romanian Revolution this translated into little more than around 540,000 votes. This number seems less impressive if compared with the one million votes received by PPDD in the 2012 elections, when this (now-defunct) party capitalised upon the ongoing hardships associated by the economic crisis through its staunchly populist discourse.

AUR has achieved prominence because it gives a voice to a part of the population, and promises to fill the void that they feel.

The duplicitous rhetoric used by Romania’s main political parties is one of the reasons why this segment of the population has remained largely under the radar in the past years. Hence the Social Democratic Party (PSD), along with smaller parties such as PRO Romania or ALDE, and even the National Liberal Party (PNL), have adopted a nominally democratic pro-European rhetoric meant to gain the sympathy, or at least the trust, of Romania’s international partners. At the same time, these same groups have not shied away from adopting socially conservative and even antidemocratic positions when this promised some easily obtained electoral points. In fact, such electorates were actively cultivated.

Apart from social values, the main parties have also pushed for policies that led in the end to an uneven, imbalanced development. After three decades when PSD, nominally a social-democratic party, has regularly governed Romania, our country is still at the very bottom of the risk of poverty rankings in the EU: according to Eurostat, in 2018, 23.5% of Romanians were in a difficult or very difficult financial situation. At the same time, although the PNL defines its vision as promoting a ‘respect for diversity’, among others, this party voted almost unanimously in favour of the illiberal 2018 referendum aimed at banning same-sex marriages in Romania. It is also fairly clear that repeated declarations with nationalist and anti-Hungarian undertones by some PNL leaders did not do much in helping promote the party as a defender of liberalism in our society.

Although it may seem that the rise of AUR comes from its clear, simple and ideologised discourse, this dimension comes only second among the factors that have contributed to its success. Although undeniably persuasive and well-adapted to the dynamics of social media, the discourse of AUR only represents a vehicle being used with great effectiveness. First and foremost, AUR has achieved prominence because it gives a voice to a part of the population, and promises to fill the void that they feel. This void is the key, and not the fact that an agile and opportunistic actor has observed a vulnerability and has learned to exploit it. The current excessive focus on AUR, as if it represents a sole and exhaustive expression of political radicalisation in Romania, is moving the spotlight away from the true issue: the practices of the main parties and the failure of their development policies.

Romania has the largest disparities between the regions with the highest and lowest GDP per capita in the entire European Union (the most developed region in our country is 3.6 times more prosperous than the least developed one).

AUR remains the least of our worries

What we are seeing is fundamentally a problem of social exclusion and absence of opportunities. The chronic distrust in the state authorities and moderate political forces, or even the quintessential institutions of representative democracy, stems from their sustained incapacity to generate prosperity. Although not alone in facing this issue, Romania has been performing exceptionally poorly in this chapter, year after year. In September 2020, essential democratic institutions received abysmal trust ratings: only 9.5% of Romanians trusted the country’s parliament, while 13.7% had confidence in the country’s government. 

If there were truly a climate of public trust in the country’s institutions, the conspirational and anti-system discourse of AUR could not have resonated in such a way. Their nationalist and illiberal rhetoric lacks rigour if it is not assembled upon a frame of distrust and alienation amongst segments of the society. Unfortunately, the unequal socio-economic evolution of our country has led precisely to this reality. 

Between 2014 and 2019, Romania prided itself in one of the biggest GDP increases in the EU, over 40%. In recent years, some areas of the country have experienced a remarkable growth, with standards of living coming to a par with those in Western Europe. According to Eurostat, in 2019 the Bucharest-Ilfov area had a GDP per capita (at purchasing power parity) larger than that of cities such as Helsinki or Berlin. The contrasts within the country, however, are enormous. Romania has the largest disparities between the regions with the highest and lowest GDP per capita in the entire European Union (the most developed region in our country is 3.6 times more prosperous than the least developed one). All other regions of our country feature on the lower third of the EU’s development ranking.

Romania has a major social mobility issue as well. According to the 2020 Global social mobility index from the World Economic Forum, Romania is the second most difficult place in the EU to improve your social and financial situation if you are from a low-income background. Only Greece, a country devastated by an economic crisis spanning almost 10 years, fares worse among EU states at this indicator.

Marginalisation – a national security risk

An analysis conducted in 2016 by the Romanian National Institute of Statistics revealed that the counties with the largest percentage of former residents that have emigrated over the shortage of jobs were in the province of Moldova. In Neamț, the number of emigrants almost equals the number of existing workplaces in the county. There is no coincidence that such regions lacking any opportunities have the constituencies where AUR obtained its best results. For as long as the socio-economic developments leave behind winners and losers separated by such a large gap, the conditions favouring the success of nationalist parties will linger on. And as economic and political results are oftentimes attributed to the European Union in the public psyche, the resentment towards a West perceived as not delivering on expectations can be expected to rise (which will also be amplified by parties keen to find a scapegoat for all of the country’s misfortunes). 

Abandoning such a large portion of our population to underdevelopment represents a major vulnerability for our country in the face of rising authoritarianism and illiberalism, and therefore poses a structural risk that malign foreign actors will be very keen to exploit in order to slow down and reverse the country’s modernisation and Europeanisation.

Abandoning such a large portion of our population to underdevelopment represents a major vulnerability for our country in the face of rising authoritarianism and illiberalism, and therefore poses a structural risk that malign foreign actors will be very keen to exploit in order to slow down and reverse the country’s modernisation and Europeanisation. When people see themselves systematically neglected by conventional political actors and the institutions that are meant to serve them, they turn their hopes and support to whichever options promising a change. AUR has communicated effectively; it knew who its target-audience was; it has indeed been helped by the context of heightened uncertainty and distrust amplified by the pandemic, and it has exploited the popularity of the church in the countryside to attract the most visible and vocal part of the dissatisfied. However, many more have remained under the diffuse influence of PSD, PNL and their smaller satellites, where they serve as an exploitable demographic that is much larger than the 500,000 votes which AUR won last time.

The Romanian version of the article was published on Adevărul.

About the projectSupported by the National Endowment for Democracy, Political Capital and its partners from Austria, Bulgaria, Czechia, Poland, Slovakia and Romania are researching value-based attitudes to foreign policy and authoritarian influence in the European Union’s institutions.