June 22, 2020

Putting the “Diplo” in Diplomacy: Music as Soft Power

Jonathan Wynn author photoBy Jonathan Wynn

This summer, I’ve been obsessing over Wind of Change—a podcast about the CIA’s possible involvement in the titular 1990s global mega hit by the German rock band, The Scorpions. The story unravels the sometimes-shadowy threads between music and foreign policy, and gets us to think about how culture is used.

I absolutely remember ”Wind of Change,” but didn’t think it was as big a hit as ”Rock You Like A Hurricane,” a song U.S. readers might recognize from a commercial. But “Wind of Change” was a theme song for the revolutions behind the Iron Curtain, culminating in the end of the cold war, and I was shocked to learn that it is the fifteenth most purchased song in history, outranking any Beatles song. The podcast is a fantastic journey into how the U.S. government has secretly used American music, from jazz to hard rock, to further its own interests overseas.

This is what we call soft power: nurturing (particularly in terms of foreign policy) sympathies and preferences through more intangible means of culture, art, language, and values. By contrast, hard power has to do with economic and military force. Soft power is a coercive and can be a more subtle approach to persuasion. As political scientist Joseph Nye, Jr. wrote in 2004:

American popular culture, embodied in products and communications, has widespread appeal... Soviet teenagers wear blue jeans and seek American recordings, and Chinese students used a symbol modeled on the Statue of Liberty during the 1989 uprisings.

(More, via video, here.)

Based on this little-known rumor of American soft power, the hypothesis of Patrick Radden Keefe’s podcast is: Did the CIA write the lyrics to “Wind of Change,” and organize a massive hard rock festival behind the iron curtain in order to sow the seeds of dissent among disaffected youth in Russia? (DISCLAIMER: Diplo is a DJ and producer… The inclusion of his name in the title of this blog post is strictly for the pun, not an implication that he’s associated with the CIA in any way… That I know of!)

The CIA’s song hit its pinnacle, perhaps, at the Moscow Music Peace Festival, in 1989, according to Rolling Stone, “the Soviet Union’s first unfiltered experience of the freedom and abandon of rock & roll.” Or so the story goes, anyway.

One thing that we do know is that music has been used for political gain for decades. (And not just music: There’s a great story about the novel Dr. Zhivago, and the story of Argo is a dramatization of a real CIA operation.)

Predating the hard rock festival by 24 years, the U.S. government had global superstar Louis Armstrong tour behind the Iron Curtain in 1965. Armstrong, for what it’s worth, had a challenging relationship with requests from the U.S. government to play overseas: On the one hand, he wanted to spread American jazz across the globe and yet, on the other hand, he was uncomfortable doing it on behalf of a country that was deeply invested in Jim Crow segregation. Armstrong and Dave Brubeck collaborated on The Real Ambassadors—a critique of the experience. (Read more here.) Other musicians were also used by the U.S. government to wield soft power and didn’t realize it, including Nina Simone—who was highly critical of the U.S., eventually leaving the country.

In a blog post from 2019, I noted how surprised I was that sports figures were far exceeding the music world when it came to influence in national politics. Who is our contemporary Woody Guthrie? (Maybe Tom Morello, the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, who recently made news when some listener was disappointed to learn that his songs were, ahem, a little political. Morello studied political science at Harvard.) So, I’ve been interested in how music is used by fans and everyday folk, but less so about how music can be used by our government.

This isn’t a thing of the past, either. Sociologist Tim Gill discovered—through Freedom of Information Act requests—that the National Endowment for Democracy (a soft power foundation) funded ten bands in 2011 to write songs critical of Hugo Chavez’s leadership in Venezuela. The Guardian found that USAid (a development aid organization) attempted to secret fund acts in Cuba’s underground hip hop community in order to rouse a youth movement against Raul Castro’s government, only to undermine the subcultural scene in the process.

Americans aren’t the only ones who use culture as soft power, of course. The Winds of Change podcast describes a rock club owned by the KGB.

And take, for another example, the rise of Korean pop (K Pop) music. (See Teen Vogue’s Beginner’s Guide to K Pop here.) K Pop is a carefully crafted brand of music that has been, according to John Walsh, a “government construct” that has carefully crafted economic and cultural policy “used to promote Korea and Korean society in a friendly and non-threatening manner.”

Youjeong Oh’s book Pop City: Korean Popular Culture and the Selling of Place, offers additional details on the marketing and promotion of Seoul. (Here’s another deep dive into Hallyu.) There is likely some good research being done on the collaborations between Korean industrial mega-groups (called chaebols) and the one-time president Park Geun-hye’s Creative Economy Policy Enforcement Process. Has K Pop shaped Korea’s foreign policy? Well, one headline read: “Rising number of [North Korean] defectors are citing music as one factor in their disillusionment with their government.”

But, while K Pop is carefully crafted to be inoffensive and saccharine soft culture on the production-side, fans can do with it what they want. For example, South Koreans have gone against their government’s wishes and sent flash drives with Korean soap operas and K Pop to North Korea in an effort to undermine Kim Jong-Un’s authoritarian regime. (Apparently, soft power is acceptable when the state does it?)

K Pop fans successfully pranked President Trump’s Tulsa rally on June 20 by registering to attend with no intent on actually attending, leaving him to address a 1/3 full stadium. K Pop fans have also joined with Black Lives Matter. And then, when white supremacists sought to promote #whiteoutwednesday in response to #blackouttuesday, K Pop fans began flooding the hashtag with K Pop music to ruin their effort. (This prompted a glorious meme, placing K Pop fans as part of The Avengers.) They also spammed a police app that asked citizens to upload videos of illegal activity. K Pop fans’ effort to donate over $1 million to BLM reminded me of how country music fans would raise money for causes at the annual Country Music Association festival, until the association started to marshal all the funds into music education.

So, when thinking about how culture works, it is quite instructive to think about how it is produced, but also the different kinds of actors who use music. It is not, apparently, just for listening!


Soft power is a coercive and can be a more subtle approach to persuasion.

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