1. THE BTS PHENOMENON AND “K-POP” DIPLOMACY: If you haven’t heard of BTS, you either have no access to old or new media, or you live on another planet! The wildly successful, squeaky clean, seven-member boy-band from South Korea continues to take the world by storm with its popular music and powerful social media messages. (The group’s name in Korean, Bangtan Sonyeondan, is an abbreviation for Bulletproof Boy Scouts.) BTS is more than just another slick, foreign pop or hip-hop group that has hit it big and managed to penetrate the U.S. market and do online concerts. The beloved group is unique and worthy of attention because it is a transnational phenomenon that personifies the convergence of entertainment, pop culture, marketing, social consciousness, and youth political activism on the international stage.
Band members — as individuals and a group — are widely perceived as nice, genuine, authentic, vulnerable, multi-cultural and socially engaged. But what truly sets BTS apart from many other groups is its massive, pro-active, global fan base known simply as “ARMY” (Adorable Representative MC for Youth). The hard-core fan group is famous not only for its intense loyalty but also its pro-active, strategic use of a variety of social media to support BTS and promote its causes and solidarity. BTS has proven that not only can it dance, sing and sell music (it currently has the #1 and #2 hits on the Billboard Chart) and products and lifestyles (it has endorsed everything from Coca-Cola to Hyundai electric cars, from Korean tourism to Fifa sportswear), but also spread social messages.
The amazing group has spoken out at the UN and in other venues against problems such as bullying and youth unemployment, and for education and the environment. When the Black Lives Matter protests sprung up, BTS donated $1 million, and within 25 hours its passionate fans had contributed another $1 million to help fight racism.
The group recently made headlines after it was honored with the James A. Van Fleet Award by the Korea Society, the New York-based nonprofit which promotes U.S.-Korean friendship and is chaired by former U.S. Ambassador to Korea Kathleen Stephens, a retired FSO and former Acting Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. At the Society’s annual dinner held virtually October 7, 2020 to mark the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, BTS member Kim Nam-joon — better known as RM, or Rap Master — gave a brief acceptance speech which included the remark: “We will always remember the history of pain that our two nations shared together, and sacrifices of countless men and women.” The seemingly innocuous and apolitical remark caused a bit of a blacklash and social media firestorm in nationalistic China, where some felt offended since China and North Korea had suffered losses during the Korean War when they fought against South Korea, the United States and their allies. The international flap even prompted a comment by the Chinese Foreign Ministry and reportedly led to a boycott in China of a few brands endorsed by BTS.
To view the BTS message recorded in Seoul for the awards dinner, go to youtube.com/watch?v=xTv9N2V2gMo. To view a recent Korea Society webcast featuring New York-based journalist Tamar Herman discussing her new book. “BTS: Blood, Sweat and Tears,” go to
The BTS ARMY is said to be obsessed with both the band’s business strategy and metrics. For an interesting interview with a young American scholar who is an expert on the impact of BTS fans and social network analysis, see unlv.edu/news/article/remote-interview-nicole-santero.
Why is BTS at all relevant to public diplomacy? The answer is simple: The group has shown how contemporary music and social media are powerful tools to connect diverse people and promote international understanding.
2. LESSONS FROM “DEEPLY FLAWED” PANDEMIC RESPONSE: Few issues in recent times have dominated conversation and stirred up heated debate and frustration in this country and around the world as much as has the COVID-19 pandemic. It is refreshing, therefore, to find a bipartisan, independent report that steps back and takes a clear, sober look at the on-going crisis, which has exacted such a heavy human and economic price, and tries to identify ways that we can all learn from the costly mistakes of a lack of domestic and global preparedness. The prestigious Council on Foreign Relations has issued an important task force report titled Improving Pandemic Preparedness: Lessons from COVID-19. The co-chairs were Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President, American University, and former Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Obama, and Frances Fragos Townsend, former chair of the White House Homeland Security Council under President George W. Bush. Task force members included 22 public health and international policy experts, including former U.S. Ambassador to Burkina Faso and Uganda Jimmy Kolker.
A key finding is that “the national and international dimensions of the pandemic challenges are mutually reinforcing, above all when it comes to the role of the United States. If the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed anything, it is that strong and sustained U.S. global leadership remains essential.” It recommends that the U.S. revamp its current approach to pandemic preparedness and response internationally, and remain a member of WHO, working with other nations to strengthen it from within. According to the report, “The UN agency is not a perfect institution, but no multilateral substitute exists to advance U.S. interests in the current pandemic or the next one.”
The report makes clear that there is plenty of blame to go around, including the responses of China and WHO. The task force describes the U.S. performance during the pandemic as “deeply flawed.” On the specific issue of public communication, the report concluded: “Elected U.S. officials, including President Donald J. Trump himself, often fell short as communicators, failing to offer the American people clear, reliable, and science-based information about the risk of infection; to adequately defend public health officials against harassment and personal attacks; and to release timely guidance on the utility of the public health measures implemented to combat the spread of the disease.” To read the full report, go to www.cfr.org/PandemicPreparedness.
For a “soft power” approach to the pandemic, let me recommend a timely analysis by the thoughtful Harvard Prof. Joseph S. Nye, Jr. In COVID-19 Might Not Change the World, he argues that pandemics are not always transformative events, and no one yet knows whether COVID-19 will reshape the world order. To read how Nye addresses myths such as “that the pandemic has given China a long-term advantage in soft power over the United States” or “that COVID-19 spells the end of liberal democracy and the rise to dominance of an authoritarian political model,” go to https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/10/09/covid-19-might-not-change-the-world/
3. NEW WARNINGS ABOUT ENGAGING WITH CHINA: The Administration has continued to show great concern about the negative influence on the United States of China’s authoritarian government and its cultural and education activities like the Confucius Institute and Classroom programs. The latest moves by the Department of State and the Department of Education have implications for U.S. educational institutions and think tanks and for public diplomacy and human rights and academic freedom concerns.
On October 14, 2020, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released joint letters to presidents of American institutions of higher education and affiliates and to state commissioners of education. Noting fear about free speech on American campuses being suppressed by China, the letter to the presidents pointed out “a real and growing threat: the malign influence of the authoritarian government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on our nation’s campuses” and emphasized that “our universities and colleges must remain a safe and welcoming environment for all students, researchers, and scholars.” The letter does not compel any action, but does ask officials to “examine carefully all PRC regime-related activities” and “assess the capacity of PRC-funded programs to withstand open intellectual inquiry.”
The letter to chief state school officers expressed concern over “the presence of an authoritarian slant in curriculum and teaching” and specifically cited Confucius Classrooms, a PRC program that sends curriculum and China-trained teachers into hundreds of U.S. K-12 schools. The letter does not compel any action by state education officials, but it does ask that schools ensure that our academic freedoms are respected and that classroom instruction be free of “foreign influence and interference.”
A third message, “on transparency and foreign funding of U.S. think tanks,” came in the form of an October 13, 2020 statement from Secretary Pompeo. It noted that “some foreign governments, such as those of the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation, seek to exert influence over U.S. foreign policy through lobbyists, external experts and think tanks.” The statement requested that “think tanks and other foreign policy organizations that wish to engage with the Department (of State) disclose prominently on their websites funding they receive from foreign governments, including state-owned or state-operated subsidiary entities.”
Although think tanks are not being asked to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) in order to access State Department officials, it is clear that the Department is concerned that funding from foreign governments could be influencing research and policy debates within U.S. civil society institutions and wants institutions to be more transparent. Embassies and other foreign entities, of course, have long sought to influence U.S. policy in various ways, and many of the leaders and staff of leading American think tanks are former U.S. Government officials who presumably are well aware of foreign influence. And some of the bigger U.S. think tanks have overseas offices or affiliates.
Meanwhile, Brookings Institution has posted The Deception and Detriment of US-China Cultural and Educational Decoupling, an October 14, 2020 piece by Cheng Li and Ryan McElven. Arguing that “the people-to-people ties that have bound the U.S.-China relationship together over decades of engagement have frayed and the fabric is very near unraveling,” the two Brookings Thornton China Center researchers concluded: “While worrying Chinese actions have pushed Washington to rightly adjust its China policies, the costs of eliminating educational and cultural exchanges far outweigh the benefits.” For their analysis, go to https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/10/14/the-deception-and-detriment-of-us-china-cultural-and-educational-decoupling/
4. PEACE CORPS “ZOOMS” INTO AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE: Supporters of people-to-people programs and development got some good news recently. In a surprise announcement timed for the 60th anniversary of the so-called “founding moment” of the agency, Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen announced on October 14, 2020 that volunteers will be permitted to once again serve abroad starting in January. Following months of extensive preparations and review, she said public health conditions will permit the return of volunteers to the Eastern Caribbean. Since March, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, no Peace Corps Volunteers have been posted abroad. More than 7,000 volunteers in some 60 countries were unceremoniously evacuated and terminated due to health and security concerns. The announcement that the Peace Corps would soon be operating again was especially welcomed by the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA), the non-profit which represents the nearly 230,000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.
Just a few hours before Director Olsen’s announcement, the NPCA had hosted an unusual Zoom gathering at 2 am (EST) – yes, 2 am! The virtual gathering marked the exact moment 60 years ago when Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy stood on the steps of the University of Michigan student union and, in brief, impromptu campaign remarks, first proposed the idea of the Peace Corps. The rest – as the saying goes – is history. (What many people do not realize is that in Kennedy’s famous 1960 Michigan remarks he not only asked how many in the crowd were willing to volunteer to work in a place like Ghana but also how many students were willing to work in the Foreign Service.)
As part of its online anniversary event, NPCA raised a virtual toast to the Peace Corps, played an audiotape of Kennedy’s actual historic words and showed an inspiring interview with Judy Guskin, longtime activist, Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, filmmaker and educator. She was in the crowd that 1960 early cold, drizzling morning and then with her fellow graduate student-husband, Alan, helped propel the creation of the Peace Corps through a petition which hundreds of enthusiastic young people signed to show their eagerness to volunteer. The idea of sending idealistic, young Americans abroad took hold, and President Kennedy formally created the Peace Corps by executive order on March 1, 1961.
Over the next 12 months, the Peace Corps and NPCA will be celebrating the 60th anniversary in a variety of ways. Both recognize that – given current political and social realities — the Peace Corps faces some huge challenges. These include not only coping with the effects of the March shutdown and planning for the recruitment, training and posting of volunteers around the world as soon as health conditions permit, but also responding to widespread demands in the post-George Floyd era that the Peace Corps be made more diverse and welcoming to Blacks and other American minorities.
5. BATTLING ONLINE EXTREMISM: During these confusing, even scary times of growing threats of domestic and international extremism through social media, it is encouraging to see the rise of civil society groups that are committed to eliminating extremism content and activity on social media platforms and internet infrastructure support companies. One relatively new and promising organization is the Coalition for a Safer Web, which has been established by former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco and White House Middle East Adviser Marc Ginsberg.
As the group’s president, Ginsberg explained the work of his nonpartisan organization during recent testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce. His basic message was that Congress and the major social media companies need to urgently act because “the American people confront a grave and present danger from the torrent of violent extremist incitement on social media platforms.” Among the group’s many recommendations is a public/private sector solution called a new Social Media Standards Board, which it says would serve as a “transparent content moderation auditing organization” to monitor the conduct of social media companies.
For more information about the Coalition, go to www.coalitionsw.org. For the text of Ginsberg’s September 24, 2020 testimony, go to https://energycommerce.house.gov/committee-activity/hearings/hearing-on-mainstreaming-extremism-social-media-s-role-in-radicalizing
Dr. Michael H. Anderson is a public diplomacy and Asian affairs specialist with nearly 30 years of Foreign Service experience serving in the US Department of State and the US Information Agency (USIA) and working in South Asia and Southeast Asia. His Public Affairs Officer (PAO) postings included New Delhi, Jakarta, Karachi, Singapore, Manila and Port Moresby. He also has been a journalist, a teacher, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malaysia, an information officer with UNICEF, and an East-West Center grantee. He is a member of the PDC Board.