Culinary Diplomacy vs. Gastrodiplomacy

What is the meaning and distinction of these two concepts? How do they play out in daily life and foreign policy?

By Valerie Gecowets

When you think of ‘diplomacy,’ what comes to mind? Typically, we think of diplomacy as our government’s representation abroad, at embassies or in international conferences; we might also think of foreign dignitaries meeting with heads of state and important leaders in our own country. These are forms of diplomacy, to be sure, but there is a unique form of diplomacy gaining popularity in recent years that revolves entirely around food – I am talking, of course, about culinary diplomacy and gastrodiplomacy.

In the book “Soft Power,” Joseph Nye extensively discusses culture as a source of power.[1] It is within this framework that cultural diplomacy, particularly culinary diplomacy and gastrodiplomacy, falls.  But what are ‘culinary diplomacy’ and ‘gastrodiplomacy’? Similar but not the same, these terms refer to different ways in which food acts as a medium for diplomatic exchange. Sam Chapple-Sokol defines culinary diplomacy as “the use of food and cuisine as an instrument to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions and cooperation.”[2] In other words, ‘culinary diplomacy’ refers to a government’s use of food to promote its power; this takes form in official diplomatic dinners, the U.S. State Department’s chef corps[3], and the promotion of a country’s cuisines and food products abroad, to name a few examples.

If culinary diplomacy is the high cuisine of broader cultural diplomacy, then gastrodiplomacy is the street food; the sharing and exchange of foods between cultures on a more grassroots level.  Gastrodiplomacy encompasses the individual exchange of food culture between people, whether through the ethnic restaurants of migrants around the world, or the growing movement of food tourism.  The difference between culinary diplomacy and gastrodiplomacy is small, but marked; gastrodiplomacy is easily accessible and dependent upon ordinary people around the world. Culinary diplomacy, meanwhile, is the official manifestation of a state’s power through food, representing an entire country by the choices of an elite few. Both are critical to the cultural exchanges of our modern, globalizing world.

Paul S. Rockower differentiates “’gastrodiplomacy’ as a public diplomacy pursuit,” from “‘culinary diplomacy’ as a means to further diplomatic protocol through cuisine.”[4] While culinary diplomacy is a major component of a nation’s foreign food policy, it is gastrodiplomacy that has a more visible impact on our daily lives. One Swedish woman’s initiative to bring immigrants and Swedish nationals together over dinner is an example of gastrodiplomacy in action – in connecting Sweden’s fairly homogenous society with its immigrants, Ebba Akerman combats anti-immigrant sentiments and helps integrate migrants into their new home. [5]

An even simpler example of gastrodiplomacy is the act of ordering Thai food for dinner – though this is also an example of how gastrodiplomacy and culinary diplomacy are inexorably linked. Eating at a Thai restaurant is a form of gastrodiplomacy because you, the individual, are partaking in a cultural exchange with the owner and chef of the restaurant, likely Thai immigrants. But there is another, less visible, layer of culinary diplomacy involved, because of Thailand’s ‘Global Thai’ initiative. The Thai national government launched this initiative in 2002 to sponsor the creation of hundreds of Thai restaurants around the world, promoting not only Thai cuisine, but a greater awareness of Thai culture and Thailand’s ‘national brand’.[6] Thus, the culinary diplomacy of government sponsorship meets the grassroots exchange of gastrodiplomacy, at once showing how the two are separate, but related, concepts.

Culinary diplomacy and gastrodiplomacy, two terms virtually unheard of even a decade ago, are now rapidly growing forms of cultural and inter-governmental exchange globally. It is impossible to ignore the impact food has on diplomacy and international exchange. An individual chef may never become part of the elite American Chef Corps, or open a restaurant abroad under the sponsorship of their home government, but the impact of culinary diplomacy through programs such as these is undeniable. More visible, though no less important, are the ways in which gastrodiplomacy affects us all – something to consider next time you eat at a Thai restaurant or travel somewhere for a ‘culinary vacation.’ The very existence of “Conflict Cuisine” as a university course[7] indicates that food is a crucial form of soft power that is, and will continue to be, extremely significant in our ever-globalizing world.

About the Author

Valerie Gecowets is a graduating senior in the School of International Service at American University, with concentrations in International Development, Public Administration & Policy, and Africa. She spent the 2013-2014 academic year abroad in Kenya and South Africa, and in her free time she enjoys cooking, eating, and exploring the nation’s capital.

[1] Nye, Joseph S. “Sources of American Soft Power.” In Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New

York: Public Affairs, 2004.

[2] Chapple-Sokol, Sam. “Culinary Diplomacy: Breaking Bread to Win Hearts and Minds.” The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, 2013, 161-83.

[3] Sietsema, Tom. “Chefs Are the New Diplomats.” The Washington Post, September 4, 2012. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/chefs-are-the-new-diplomats/2012/08/31/d67b5714-ead3-11e1-b811-09036bcb182b_story.html>.

[4] Rockower, Paul S. “Recipes for Gastrodiplomacy.” Place Branding and Public Diplomacy 8, no. 3 (2012): 235-46.

[5] Daley, Suzanne. “Filling Stomachs to Open Minds on Immigration.” The New York Times, July 30, 2014. <http://nyti.ms/1lYUCWp>.

[6] Chapple-Sokol, Sam.

[7] Mendelson Forman, Johanna, and Sam Chapple-Sokol. “Conflict Cuisine: Teaching War Through Washington’s Ethnic Restaurant Scene.” Public Diplomacy Magazine, March 2, 2014. < http://publicdiplomacymagazine.com/conflict-cuisine-teaching-war-through-washingtons-ethnic-restaurant-scene/>.

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2 Comments

  1. Pingback: “Culinary Diplomacy vs. Gastrodiplomacy” on Conflict Cuisine | Another Twentysomething's Thoughts

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