“The culinary art follows diplomacy and every prime minister is its tributary." - Antonin Carême (1783-1833)

It has been said that a hungry stomach has no ears. As such, food deserves careful consideration as a most valuable tool of diplomacy. Certainly it has played an extremely important – if sometimes overlooked – role in traditional diplomacy and statecraft. According to the celebrated 18th Century French diplomat Francois de Callieres, an ambassador’s “table should be served neatly, plentifully, and with taste. (Tallmadge) Or, in the words of poet and literary critic George Santayana, “There is nothing to which men , while they have food and drink, cannot reconcile themselves." French diplomats have long recognized the importance of entertaining with food and wine as a critical component of diplomacy. Indeed, at the signing of the Treaty of Paris, Thomas Jefferson appears to have been “as much in thrall to Sally Hemming’s brother, a French-trained chef, as to the sister." (Kelly) The Chinese have also traditionally excelled themselves in this department, as have others.

At the same time, failing to do so can be a source of embarrassment or perhaps even less successful diplomacy. Take for example India, as derided by its countryman Swapan Dasgupta in the online magazine Samachar [link]: “Not only are our official banquets excruciatingly boring, the are also marred by shoddy arrangements, indifferent food, and no drink." Or worse, he writes, during a recent visit to Delhi by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, the visiting leader was “feted with the same food he enjoys at the burra khana in the Rawalpindi Cantonment. This is such a shame and reflects a profound attitudinal problem Indians have in dealing with Pakistan."

And what of those champions of culinary excellence the French today? In the words of Jacqueline Grapin, president of the European American think tank the European Institute, “The most important weapon the French ambassador has is his chef. He entertains the most important people in Washington and their weaknesses are obviously fine French cuisine." (Tallmadge) In The Washington Diplomat [link], Katherine Tallmadge explains:

“Mindful of the notion that the best way to hearts and minds of the world’s most powerful is through their stomachs, the French embassy goes all out to provide unforgettable meals. Great food and fine wine are the aphrodisiacs the French apply to nourish diplomatic relationships. They soften the mood and lull guests into a state of food-induced receptivity, a wonderful way to make a diplomatic point or to advance a commercial endeavor."

Indeed, the Chef de Cuisine at the French embassy in Washington was in 1999 awarded the Chevalier de L’Ordre National du Merite by President Jacque Chirac for distinguished service to his country. Almost unheard of for a chef, this award is an illustration of the top value the French place on the chef’s contribution to its diplomatic mission in the US.

Of course, it follows that in a more abstract sense food can also be used as a tool for so-called cultural diplomacy. The assumption is that sharing cultural values through exchanges and education can be a dynamic instrument of public diplomacy. Just as touring ballet companies and traveling exhibitions are key ways through which different countries share their culture with the world, so to is cooking a powerful form of cultural expression and heritage that every nationality is proud of, representative of “an art of imagination and taste. (Food Reference) Cuisine and the customs surrounding them are not only a tool for wooing the powerful in an embassy, but for representing a culture more generally. In the words of Anthleme Brillatsavarin, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are."

Many countries use cuisine as an important representation of their national character at international exchanges, festivals and other events. For just one example, the annual ‘Singapore Season’ in London (a multi-agency government effort to promote the city state in the UK) this year included “a showcase of our favourite local delights at the Singapore Food Festivals. (Singapore MICA) Recently, a number of retail food-marketing executives from Bosnia-Herzegovina visited Chicago to “learn from their American counterparts�? by visiting food retailers such as 7-Eleven. (Heartland International) Food has also played a major role in Australia’s cultural diplomacy efforts with its neighbors in Southeast Asia. To again return to the French, the entertaining at the embassy is also critical because “France is particularly well-known for food, quality of living, and elegance, so the entertaining must reflect this." (Tallmadge) On the other hand, to return to Dasgupta’s critical example of India’s use culinary foreign relations, “For a country that has a rich tradition of hospitality and a richer tradition of sheer indulgence, India goes about showcasing itself in a remarkably slipshod…way. We lack style."

Food can even be an analogy for a national character. In India’s relations with Pakistan, Dasgupta writes, “we persist in informing out guests from across the Radcliffe Line that we are just more kebab, biryani, and Anarkali." For the US, as former Ambassador to Germany Daniel Coats remarked in an address in Berlin in 2002: “Someone called American diversity our ‘gumbo national character’ and I think that’s accurate – not a savory Spargel or Kartoffel suppe, but gumbo – a stew of different tastes and textures that’s unusually delicious."

Lastly, food itself can be used as an element of strategic public diplomacy, to ‘win hearts and minds’ by filling bellies. In the words of English essayist Aldous Huxley, “A man may be a pessimistic determinist before lunch and an optimistic believer in the will’s freedom after it." On the other hand, there is the old adage that a hungry man is more interested in four sandwiches than four freedoms. Regardless, currying international favor and support through food aid is quite common place. As professor and propaganda expert Nancy Snow has said, “To counter Osama and Saddam, the US deployed food drops, initiated short-wave radio broadcasts, and tasked a Madison Avenue veteran in advertising who formerly sung the praises of Uncle Ben’s rice to do the same for Uncle Sam." And this is no new strategy.

In the 1993 conflict in Somalia, for example, as in countless other humanitarian / military operations, food distribution has been a key part not only of the humanitarian campaigns themselves, but of the psychological operations (‘Psyops’) employed in the field by the US and others. Beginning in the 1960s, American scientist Dr. Norman E. Borlaug earned global praise for his efforts to share high-yielding wheat varieties with then-warring India and Pakistan. This American agricultural technology soon spread throughout the Middle East and Asia, eventually winning Dr. Borlaug the Nobel Peace Prize and the World Food Prize. (Humanities Iowa)

Today, the United States is largest donor of food aid in the world, and it continues to play an important role in America’s foreign policy in the Middle East, Africa, North Korea, and elsewhere. Just this year, following her appointment as US Secretary of State, Dr. Condoleezza Rice reaffirmed America’s commitment to food aid in terms of public diplomacy: “We will demonstrate the compassion of the American people in other ways as well. Through our continued support of international and non-governmental organizations, we will ensure that America remains the world’s most generous food and non-food humanitarian assistance provider. We are requesting $2.59 billion in food aid and famine relief and non-food humanitarian assistance."

However, food aid can only ever be a part of public diplomacy. Just how much sway food aid can have in global public opinion is a worthy subject of study. Clearly while the US is the number one food aid provider, it still struggles in the eyes of many around the world, perhaps because in terms of its ability to pay (measured as percentage of national wealth) “the United States comes last among donor nations." Recent efforts by the Bush Administration to reinvigorate public diplomacy since September 11, 2001 have included welcome plans to develop new funds for famine relief, among other things. (Richard) A pithy observation of Samuel Pepys’ from the 17th Century actually says it very well: “Strange to see how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody."

For all of these cases and no doubt many more, it is clear that food can and indeed does play and important role in both traditional and public diplomacy. In particular, the role of national cuisine as an element of cultural diplomacy efforts should be of great interest to governments and other institutions for its ease potentially great value in promoting cross-cultural understanding. One could imagine the possibility of food exchanges, chef exchanges, or culinary student exchanges! Whatever the approach, the thing to remember is that, as Katherine Tallmadge reports, “having a good lunch or dinner and a fine wine is the beginning of mutual understanding."


  • Hegwood, David. Remarks of the Special Counsel to the Secretary of Agriculture. USDA-AID Food Aid Conference, Kansas City. 17 April, 2003.
  • Rice, Condoleezza. Remarks Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. United States Senate, Washington. 16 Feb. 2005.
  • Singapore Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) Singapore Season Arrives in London. Press Release. Singapore Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts. 15 Feb. 2005.

Article written by Gordon Douglas

Further Reading Malayasia's Culinary Diplomacy in New York [1]