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As many of us have been in quarantine or social distancing situations for months, we may find ourselves missing our favorite local restaurants. Small businesses, particularly in the food industry, have always provided opportunities for immigrants. Though immigrants make up only 13.5% of the US population, a report from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs estimated that 37% of small restaurant owners are immigrants. Immigrants can be formally encouraged to open a restaurant in their new country of residence, often by governments in their homeland, to exercise soft power through food. 

The term soft power, originally coined by American Political Scientist, Joseph Nye, in the 1990s, describes a more subtle approach to international relations. Instead of using coercion or payment, a nation may opt to influence others through economic or cultural persuasion. In his works, Nye describes a critical question for the United States following the end of the Cold War: “to what extent will the U.S. be able to control the political environment and get other countries to do what it wants?” 

In Nye’s example, getting others to follow the U.S.’s agenda often does not require force, and it can be much more beneficial to act in a less aggressive and more persuasive manner. The rise of technology and mass media have added further complexity to post-Cold War international relations. Influence can be exerted through digital and print means, and to Nye, conventional propaganda yields limited returns. Nye states, “In an Information Age in which credibility is the scarcest resource, the best propaganda is not propaganda.” 

For many nations, especially those with reduced monetary and military resources, food serves as non-traditional form of propaganda, aiming to captivate and court the mind of the adventurous eater.

For many nations, especially those with reduced monetary and military resources, food serves as non-traditional form of propaganda, aiming to captivate and court the mind of the adventurous eater. Some consider food to be the very essence of what it means to be genuine: it surfaces memories of childhood, of cooking with family, or travelling to new places with friends. After acquiring a taste for the cuisine, consumers can be convinced to add new destinations to their travel bucket lists—boosting an already $7.6 trillion global tourism industry. This creates an environment where new populations can be engaged, with governments promoting their culture as a way to increase visibility, tourism, trade, and education.

To leverage cuisine as a form of soft power, governments have officiated food diplomacy programs. Tucked within the U.S. State Department lies a corps of American chefs who travel the world promoting American cuisine. The Diplomatic Culinary Partnership promotes chefs as global diplomats, who aim to create bonds over a shared meal. 

In 2018, Mary Sue Milliken, an American chef from the partnership was sent to Pakistan to engage with a local celebrity, Chef Shai. The experience highlighted women’s empowerment in the culinary industry, entrepreneurship, and healthy nutrition for young populations. Ultimately, the experience also enabled both chefs to promote their culture and educate new demographics about their country’s respective traditions. 

Several other countries foster formalized food-culture programs. For example, Thailand began promoting its food overseas through a “gastrodiplomacy” campaign in 2002. This program was one of the earliest to sponsor restaurants, often started by immigrants or refugees, as a way to not only promote cultural awareness, but also encourage tourism and native agricultural products. 

As a result, from 1990 to 2002 Thai restaurants in the U.S. grew from 500 to over 2,000. Today, the trend continues with about 5,300 Thai restaurants nation-wide, according to the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington D.C. Interestingly, the U.S. has become an established market for coconut milk and peanut sauce, among other unique ingredients, in part due to the Thai government’s push for culinary representation.

South Korea, Taiwan, Lebanon, Peru, Malaysia, and Vietnam have also created formal culinary diplomacy agendas. In 2010, Malaysia began its “Malaysia Kitchen” program, within the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation. This organization targets foodies throughout Australia, the U.S., and the United Kingdom by combining a blend of history and food from its diverse populations. In 2013, over 30,000 people travelled to Trafalgar Square, where cuisine from a number of UK-based Malaysian restaurants were promoted to food tourists. Dubbed “Malaysia Night,” the event has been running annually, aided in part by leadership from Malaysia’s formal program. 

In the case of South Korea’s “Kimchi Diplomacy,” funding for food campaigns has reached tens of millions of dollars. Food globalization is used as an educational tool to promote local industry and the traditional cuisine—called ‘hansik’ in South Korea. According to South Korean Vice Food Minister, Min Seung-Kyu, “The plan aims to offer more and better opportunities for people across the world to relish hansik and understand Korean culture.” 

These stories of state-sponsored food influence seem unusual, but it’s not necessarily a sneaky or suspicious government initiative. In a time where dialogue may seem increasingly tense, especially regarding the status of immigrants and refugees in the U.S., gastrodiplomacy offers an opportunity to learn more about a nation through the lens of its food and tradition. 

Culinary soft power helps break down barriers and stereotypes by teaching restaurant-goers what a chef views as its authentic perspective and history—all through a shared eating experience. Next time you are searching for a new restaurant to try, especially during this time where they are adapting to COVID-19’s challenges, consider what can be learned about a country from its dishes. 

Speak softly and carry a big fork.

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