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McDonald’s BTS Meal Signals US and South Korean Soft Power

In Indonesia the American franchise company, McDonald’s, is marketing a food package called BTS, named after a popular South Korean boy band. The BTS food package has become a runaway best seller, making McD thrive even more. This could be worrisome to the Jokowi government.

By Alfin Zulfikar Rizky

 “Yeah, we’re here for the BTS Meal.” – RM, a member of BTS

Who does not know the boy band from South Korea called Bangtan Sonyeondan or Bangtan Boys (BTS)? This boy band with a musical genre known as Korean Pop (K-Pop) has become a global phenomenon in recent years. 

BTS is said to be one of the most successful South Korean boy bands in history. Besides being loved by many people in various parts of the world, BTS now has several songs in English and also collaborates with many top international musicians from the United States – such as Halsey, Desiigner, and Steve Aoki. 

Not only that, the seven-member boy band (RM, Jin, J-Hope, Jimin, Suga, V, and Jungkook) has also managed to gain influence outside the world of music and entertainment. On several occasions, BTS has had the honor to speak in front of international forums, such as at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). 

With the popularity that BTS enjoys all over the world, it is only natural that it also occupies a dominant position in the commercial world. This is obviously why the US-based food franchise company, McDonald’s (McD), has partnered with the South Korean boy band. 

McD finally launched a BTS-themed food package with a unique wrapper. In no time at all, the package, marketed as the BTS Meal, became a commercial success in Indonesia. 

This is evident in the long queues that have been forming in McD outlets. Because of the large crowds that the product has attracted, officials of the central government and local governments have begun to worry that these outlets could become super-spreaders of Covid-19 infections.

Long before the rise of BTS, McDonald’s had already entrenched itself as a symbol and template of American culture in various countries all over the world. In this regard, Indonesia is no exception: there are today 227 McD outlets all over the country. 

Over time McD has packaged various food products that have appealed successfully to the Indonesian palate—aside from the standard fried chicken, French fries and burgers. Not infrequently, McD makes a nod to local culture and includes among its offerings such hybrids as rendang burgers. 

Of course, McD offering its Indonesian customers its BTS Meal is an interesting social phenomenon. And this phenomenon may be related to how politics works at the international level. 

It has to be noted that McD and its BTS Meal is extremely popular not only in Indonesia but also in such countries as Malaysia. What is the foreign policy impact of this phenomenon? 

From McDonald’s to McWorld

The phenomenon of the much-in-demand BTS Meal in Indonesia has to be understood in the context of McD’s global network. It’s no secret that McD is a cultural phenomenon that originated from the United States and has established a strong presence in many countries. 

Various experts and socio-political observers have looked into this McD phenomenon. Benjamin Barber, for example, uses the term McWorld to describe the competition between two kinds of groups in the world, namely groups that stand for international commercialization (globalism) on one hand and fundamentalist groups (retribalization), also called jihadist groups, on the other.

The term McWorld itself is often used to describe the globalization of McD, which is also referred to as McDonaldization. Of course, this McDonaldization has impacted the countries in which McD has established a presence, both economically and culturally. 

McDonaldization can also be associated with what has been termed by Thomas L. Friedman in his book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, as the Golden Arches Theory. This refers to the McD logo featuring two golden arches. According to this theory, McD has brought economic benefits to the countries in which it operates.

On that basis Friedman claims that countries in which McD’s has a presence are not likely to go to war against each other. This is because McD has fostered economic interests that bind these countries to one another. These countries will suffer great economic loss if armed conflict breaks out between them. Hence, Friedman believes that a country will lose interest in war once it becomes a “McD country” – a country that already has a developed economy and a middle class strong enough to support the McD network.

What Friedman describes is in line with neoliberalism in international relations, particularly the concept of complex interdependence. This concept has been put forward by Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye. 

According to this concept, the use of the coercive approach will decrease between countries as more interactions, connectedness, and interdependencies are built between them. With more interdependence –in the economic and other fields – countries will increasingly want to work together, thereby minimizing the potential for conflict.

However, if it is true that McD and other elements of globalization – such as BTS – can make the world more peaceful, then, is it possible that there will come a time when the dynamics of relations between countries will no longer be attended by competition? In that case, what should be the approach of the administration of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in Indonesia? 

Competition will persist

Although interdependence between countries can be fostered through McDonaldization, it does not mean that competition will no longer be the hallmark of international relations. The proof of this is that the two superpowers, the US and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), although joined at the hips in terms of trade and investments are still engaged in a tense rivalry for geopolitical influence. 

According to John J. Mearsheimer, a professor of politics at the University of Chicago, who wrote The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, countries will compete with each other to achieve the status of hegemony amid international political anarchy. This is why complex interdependencies are not always effective as deterrent to great power competition.

Of course, this does not mean that war is inevitable. It means only that competition will persist even in stable interdependencies. Geo-economics, for example, makes the economy a new instrument in relations between countries. A stark example of the use of this instrument is the way President Donald J. Trump pursued a trade war with China during his incumbency.

Now what is the significance of the phenomenon of the McD and BTS Meal in the light of the competition between countries, such as that between the US and China? This is an interesting question.

With the complex interdependence between countries, there is bound to be competition in more than one field, including in the realm of culture. This is why soft power is a force to be reckoned with in international politics in the 21st century. 

Nye explains the concept of soft power in his book entitled Soft Power. In essence, according to Nye, soft power is the ability of country A to make country B have the same desires as country A. Sources of this type of power come from culture, values, and policy directions.

McD, for example, can be used as an example of how the US has considerable soft power over other countries. The reason is that McD has become an element of culture that has penetrated the daily lives of the people all over the world. 

Another example is South Korea, which is said to have developed great soft power through its cultural exports – such as K-Pop and Korean telenovelas (soap operas on TV). This South Korean-style soft power wave is known as halyu, a Korean word that literally means wave.

The soft power that comes from this kind of cultural asset can indeed strongly influence the image and stature of the source country in the receiving country. Mearsheimer in an interview once explained that a smart country could simultaneously wield its soft power and its hard power (military strength and capability). 

The fact that McD is thriving commercially with the BTS Meal in Indonesia means that certain aspects of American and Korean culture are readily and widely accepted in Indonesia. On that basis it can be said that these two countries have considerable soft power in Indonesian society. 

Given the magnitude of the soft power of the US and South Korea, Indonesia would be well advised to be careful. It can happen that these two countries, which are allied to each other, will find it opportune to use their soft power to compete in Indonesia with another major power, namely China. 

Compared to the US and South Korea, China still has minimal soft power among Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia. Cultural products from the US and South Korea – even Japan with its anime and manga – are much more easily accepted by the Indonesian people. 

Perhaps, with China’s soft power still minimal in Indonesia, the government of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo must be careful when adopting policies that cater to China. The popular sentiment in Indonesia does not favor China and pro-China policies can therefore provoke a backlash. 

It is not surprising that the Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan often complains about the sentiments of the Indonesian people towards China. If China’s soft power is still minimal in Indonesia, negative sentiment and backlash may keep recurring if the Jokowi government is deemed by the public to be getting too close to China. 

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of PinterPolitik.

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