Food: the Secret Ingredient of Cultural Diplomacy

This article will give you a taste of culinary diplomacy.

April 15th, 2019
Elisa Vallette, News from Berlin

It is already well-known that a country’s cuisine abroad serves its soft power. However, the second half of this article will focus on food as a cultural diplomacy tool to persuade others.

First, governments promote their national cuisines abroad to increase their soft power. Hence, some governments have launched culinary diplomacy programs to promote their cuisine abroad. In 2002, Thailand launched the "Global Thai" program, offering loans to Thai nationals wanting to open restaurants abroad, from elegant master restaurants to fast food. In 2009, South Korea launched The Global Hansik program which emphasizes on the unique nature and health qualities of Korean cuisine (hansik). Similarly, Malaysia’s program aimed to boost the number of Malaysian restaurants worldwide.

Even when governments do not have official programs, typical food dishes cross borders. The United States, for example, may not have official relations with Cuba, but one can find Cuban cuisine in many parts of the United States beyond Miami. Cuisines travelling outside their national boundaries promote cross-cultural interactions, mutual understanding and respect. Hopefully, these new cultural ties favor diplomatic cooperation.

In our globalized world, and particularly in big cities, one can easily taste the various cuisines of the world. The Italian cuisine is one of the most popular, with pizzas available almost everywhere. In addition to increasing the soft power of the country of origin, foreign cuisine can also boost the attractiveness of a place, as a multicultural culinary destination. Berlin is a great example as the city enjoys a diversity of restaurants (from Döner Kebab to Indian specialties).

Recognizing that food is an integral part of a country’s culture, the UNESCO has recognized a few countries’ food specialties as intangible cultural heritages. On the list figure: the Mexican traditional cuisine, the Mediterranean diet, Croatian gingerbread, Turkish coffee, Washoku Japonese cuisine, and the French gastronomic meal.

In addition to soft power, food is a powerful persuasion tool. Rockower wrote that "the easiest way to win hearts and minds is through the stomach.”

A great example of food cultural diplomacy for persuasion occurred shortly before the Brexit vote when a group of about fifteen French volunteers brought hundreds of croissants to London on the Eurostar train from Paris. The British police rapidly intervened to prevent the French activist group from distributing croissants to the British in the capital, saying it would be illegal to offer food that could corrupt the result. Britain's Electoral Commission confirmed that this act violates guidelines banning the use of food to influence votes. Still a lot of British felt touched by this well-intentioned “opération croissant” that advocated for the remaining of the UK in the European Union.

During diplomatic meals, food can appease tensions and relax the atmosphere, therefore negotiations over a meal are usually easier. Aside from facilitating communication, prestigious dinners are a medium to display national power. The kind of food served matters. Indeed, some studies have demonstrated that people who taste something bitter such as unsweetened black coffee or dark chocolate tend to show increased hostility toward others. They also tend to judge acts more harshly. By contrast, tasting something sweet tends to make people feel a little bit more romantic and increases their likelihood to agree. The expressions “A sweet deal” or its inverse “The deal soured” reminds us that taste truly matters in decision-making.

Culinary diplomacy culminates at the gathering of “Le Club des Chefs des Chefs (C.C.C.).” Chefs from head of states not only promote their national kitchen, but also act as diplomatic representatives. Indeed, the chefs are often in contact with their own heads of state and form a unique international network. Current club members include Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford from The White House, Chef Bernard Vaussion, formerly of the Élysée Palace, Chef Mark Flanagan, Chef to Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom, and Chef Machindra Kasture, Chef to the Indian President.

As Rockower said "the easiest way to win hearts and minds is through the stomach,” culinary diplomacy has a bright future ahead. Guten Appetit!


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