“While gastrodiplomacy is a relatively new field in the realm of public diplomacy, the idea itself can be traced back to the ancient Romans, who often made peace with their enemies over a good meal” (Poon, 2014).
Culinary diplomacy refers to the use of meals in a context of intergovernmental relations to convey a non-verbal message. This definition is not limited to good dishes and fine wines served to relax the atmosphere and facilitate negotiations. Meals can also to better “ingest” words or “digest” an agreement. Political science historians and researchers evoke many situations where the choice of ingredients, place or arrangement of tables is deliberately made to convey a message. At the opposite, gastrodiplomacy is a form of public relations that has emerged more recently. Some governments decide to promote their nation as a brand. They develop strategies, with institutions and budgets, in order to export their culinary heritage. The aim is to promote a country through its cuisine, but also indirectly, to encourage investment, promote trade and tourism.
Can a macaroon be more powerful than a diplomatic telegram? Maybe, if we refer to the theory of gastrodiplomacy. Formulated for the first time in 2002 in an article by The Economist, this term refers to a state’s strategy of using its culinary traditions as a vector of international power (The Economist, 2002). Food thus becomes a tourist argument, attracting foreigners; a factor of economic dynamics, stimulating local industry, and a tool of soft power, valorising the symbolic aura of the country. Gastrodiplomacy is, therefore, to use its country as a brand, by focusing on the cultural identity of a state.
In the United States, until the 1960s, State dinners were prepared by the American army’s kitchens. It is Jackie Kennedy who, hiring a French chef, decided to create in 1961 the position of White House Chief Executive, to reinforce the radiance of the White House. Subsequently, succeeded French chefs, Swiss… until 1994 when Hillary Clinton, the First Lady, separated from the French chief of the White House, to assign the post to an American. In 2012, while she was at the State Department, she launched a Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, aimed at increasing the role of cuisine in American diplomacy (Albright, 2015).
Gastrodiplomacy refers to the time when states promote their cuisine abroad. Thailand, for instance, has launched major training plans for cooks, from 5000 restaurants to more than 15000 in the world. This is the Kitchen of the World program. Since 2002, there has been a conscious and concerted effort in gastrodiplomacy. The country is becoming a brand that we are trying to promote using soft power strategies of public diplomacy, like for instance the truck cruising large American cities.
Besides these initiatives aimed at the broad public, we can see the development of a real struggle among international elites since in 2010, France registered its cooking at the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, thus engaging a battle of many states to record their traditional dishes or emblematic cuisines also. Nevertheless, there are still some faults, since this fervour sometimes turns gastronationalism, using cuisine to fuel political and religious conflicts. For instance, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine are fighting for the origins of hummus (Frum, 2015).
Food can ease tensions and even help to find an agreement. For instance, Gilles Bragnard founded the “Clubs of Chef of Heads State” with the aim of making the cooker’s kitchen apron a symbol of peace by grouping, for instance, Israel and Palestine around the same table.
But paradoxically, it can also create disputes. It can become the symbol of a diplomatic crisis. This is what happens in 2003 in the United States after President Jacques Chirac refused to join the coalition led by Washington in Iraq. The cafeterias of the House of Representatives of the United States decided to change the name of French fries to “freedom fries”, in support of a popular mobilisation against France (Silver, 2011).
There are no quantitative criteria to measure the effectiveness of food in diplomacy. In managerial societies that like to measure everything using performance indicators, counting the number of meals organised by an embassy to measure its influence is a temptation of all diplomatic administrations. But what is true of meals is of diplomatic practice in general: to create empathy by the relational belongs to a register whose evaluation will always remain purely qualitative.
Albright, M. (2015), “Culinary Diplomacy is on America’s Menu”, National Geographic, 25th April 2015, accessible at: http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2015/04/25/culinary-diplomacy-is-on-americas-menu/
Chapple-Sokol, S. (2014), “War and Peas: Culinary Conflict Resolution as Citizen Diplomacy”, Public Diplomacy Magazine
Frum, D. (2015), “The Israeli-Arab Hummus Wars”, Huffington Post, 6th December 2015, accessible at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/danielle-crittenden/food-adventures-israel-pa_b_4864334.html
Silver, A. (2011), “French Fries to ‘Freedom’ Fries”, 28th March 2011, Time Magazine, accessible at: http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2061530_2061531_2061545,00.html
Poon, L. (2014), “Gastrodiplomacy: Cooking Up a Tasty Lesson on War and Peace”, accessible at: http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/03/24/291980375/gastrodiplomacy-cooking-up-a-tasty-lesson-on-war-and-peace