By Emily Nilsson
Food is one of the main ingredients of human life. For one thing, it provides us with subsistence to survive physically. At the same time, it is a source of social and emotional nourishment. The act of sharing a meal with others is one of the simplest, yet most powerful, ways in which humans gather and bond. This unique power of food has been exploited and employed to give birth to a flavoursome political strategy known as gastrodiplomacy.
The term gastrodiplomacy was first used, perhaps whimsically but certainly cleverly, in an article from 2002 to describe an ambitious programme of the Thai government – ‘Global Thai’. The programme aimed at promoting the opening of more Thai restaurants around the world, in hopes of winning foreigner’s enthusiasm through their appetite – promoting tourism, and in some ways perhaps even strengthening international relations. Since then, gastrodiplomacy has evolved into a sort of subdiscipline within politics and is even taught as a course at universities across the world.
Nonetheless, the relationship between food consumption and cultural exchange has existed for thousands of years. Archaeologists have found evidence of communal meals being prepared in Israel as early as 300 000 years ago. ‘The feast’ has always been a central element of social integration among different communities: tribes would come together for spiritual rituals, providing meals for each other, strengthening their bond.
Thereafter, as humans began discovering new horizons and interacting across waters, the importance of food was extended to be a source of political power. The Silk Road network, connecting the East with the West as early as the 2nd century, established a trade system where food was used as one of the main currencies. Merchants often accepted luxurious ingredients as payment, knowing that these could later be exchanged for coins or other goods in other parts of the world. Thus, food was exploited to build economic and political relationships, and likewise, ensure that they remained stable and without debt – building legacies that are still alive today.
Food is a powerful tool for strengthening social connections. This is likely to come from the psychological impact it has on us humans. Eating food triggers the release of endorphins, hormones connected to our happiness and mental wellbeing. For this reason, when we eat together with others, our brains associate this social interaction with the positive emotions elicited from the endorphins. Thus, we digest two things: food and social bonding. In this way, food can be used as a subtle, by no means insignificant, ingredient for persuasion. It can be thought of as a sort of “soft power” – a tacit way to influence other people and their decision-making.
It is therefore no surprise that gastronomy and diplomacy are intrinsically linked. Political gatherings, summits and meetings all tend to involve the consumption of food in some shape or form. One famous example is Barack Obama’s visit to Japan in 2014. The main purpose of the visit was to reach an agreement with the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, on a trade deal between the two countries. Yet, what was pictured in the media was no discussion of the deal per se, but instead descriptions of a dinner at one of Japan’s most famous restaurants – ‘Sukiyabashi Jiro’, which you might recognise from the popular Netflix documentary ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’. It was therefore the social intimacy of this dinner, rather than any economic or political decisions, that came to symbolise the strengthening of relations between America and Japan.
Food’s influential properties are not exploited during political negotiations alone: food also functions as a form of “nation-branding”. When people travel to Italy, they often return with extensive detail about the pizza and pasta they consumed. This constitutes an example of how the country has successfully exported its culture to the minds – and stomachs – of the world. Several governments have implemented their own extensive campaigns with the aim of promoting their national cuisine abroad; sponsoring restaurants, chefs or culinary education. Perhaps you have come across the terms: ‘Malaysia truly Asia’ or ‘Korean Cuisine to the World’. The marketing of food culture is an indirect way of increasing tourism as well as national exports, which has proven successful for the growth and trade promotion of many middle-income countries around the world.
What’s more, national food branding can be combined with political advocacy to achieve even more powerful aims. For example, American food is not known for its unique heritage. Instead, it is cuisine taken from other cultures and then “americanised” and commercialised: hot dogs actually come from Germany; fries from France; popcorn from Peru; bagels from Poland; ketchup from China and so on. In this manner, America has merged their own culture with other countries’ – and thus, indirectly, exerted their global hegemonic position even over our food.
If food is so important in shaping world politics, then what does this mean for the future? Food is currently one of the main discussions in the climate debate, as the consumption of meat and animal products is proving to be less and less sustainable. As the crisis intensifies, we will be increasingly pushed towards changing our eating habits, and perhaps we will be forced to give up some of our food culture. Thus, we are left with some food for thought: Will gastrodiplomacy then lose its value? Or will sustainable food become a political tool, making gastrodiplomacy even more powerful than before?
By Emily Nilsson
Illustration: Maria Ekstrand