Nutritious, Delicious, Auspicious: Cuisine, Power, and International Affairs

What is the only British contribution ever made to European agriculture? 

If you had asked former French President Jacques Chirac, he would have told you that it was mad cow disease. Following this attack on the defenseless (and indefensible) Britain, Chirac pulled Finland directly into the crossfire, punctuating the most daring French offensive since the Napoleonic Wars. In the 2005 conversation with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Russian President Vladimir Putin, he opined that “you cannot trust people who cook as badly as [the British]. After Finland, it’s the country with the worst food.”

Cuisine is a sensitive topic, a proud source of patriotism, and a key component of cultural identity. People develop personal connections to their regional cultures. Cuisine is ingrained as a visible source of pride and reflects wealth or social standing. Few elements of culture evoke stronger feelings than cuisine. Furthermore, food rivalries can be seen across the world, inter- and intra-nationally; American cities and states fight passionately about barbeque, European countries argue over the definition of chocolate, and Peruvians and Chileans feud over which country invented Pisco, a grape brandy.

Chirac’s leaked comments came during a G8 summit in Scotland, adding an extra layer of tension to the negotiations. Three days later, London edged out Paris 54–50 to win the right to host the 2012 Olympic Games, with two deciding votes coming from Finnish delegates. How much of their decision was based on spite is known only to them, but being worse than mad cow disease could certainly have been on their minds while they cast their votes.

Here, pride in cuisine may have swung the balance in a key geopolitical issue. When public diplomacy—diplomacy targeted at another country’s population rather than its diplomats—is undertaken through the use of cuisine, it is known as “gastrodiplomacy,”—“winning the hearts and minds through stomachs.” But gastrodiplomacy is just one way in which food intersects with international affairs. There are inadvertent spreads through migration and multinational corporations with franchised restaurants spanning six continents. 

In international affairs, power is the ability to influence an entity to act in a certain way. Soft power does so “through attraction [enticing other cultures] rather than coercion or payments.” Food is often attractive, but that does not automatically make it an instrument of soft power. 

What makes something a tool of soft power?

In his 1990 book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, Joseph Nye laid out a new kind of power for global, digital, post-Cold War international relations. Conflict was changing, which meant that vulnerability and power were changing too. Nye acknowledged the old ideas—military power, economic sanctions, diplomatic threats, coercion—but added soft power ideas around culture and influence.

Nye often compared power to romance, analogizing that power is like love, easy to recognize but hard to define. His first ideas about soft power revolved around the nature of ideas and popularity. American culture was and is utterly incomparable in its global popularity, even where (and when) the American government is unpopular. Soviet Russians wore blue jeans and sought black-market recordings of American musicians, Nicaraguan television hosted American programming while the government fought the Reagan-backed Contra rebels, and the Chinese government protested US interference while student protesters in Tiananmen Square used American imagery in their push for greater self-governance. 

Similar to popularity is ubiquity. When Nye wrote his book, Hollywood’s movies owned 50 percent of screen time globally and the United States exported seven times more television shows than the closest competitor. Furthermore, the United States was responsible for 80 percent of all worldwide data transmissions. Approaching ubiquity or market saturation is similar to popularity, yet they differ in their effects. Popularity pertains to the choice of the consumer, while ubiquity impacts market saturation. 

Nye’s 2004 book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, delves into the evolution of his thoughts on soft power, almost reactionarily to the policies of the George W. Bush administration. The piece focuses on America’s diminished soft power as a result of the (often unilateral) decisions around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nye recognized that soft power was not always as instantaneously convertible as hard power, which can be marshalled immediately. Soft power was about shaping the preferences of others, a co-optive long-term goal that cannot always be affected by “carrots” or “sticks,” the more traditional methods of coercion. Often, this type of power must occur naturally or through relationship building over time.

Other soft power scholars have rebutted Nye’s ideas or tried to refine them. Jacques E. C. Hymans agreed that soft power plays a role in global affairs, but rejected the notion that it is based solely on attractiveness. In his article “India’s Soft Power and Vulnerability,” he uses the history of India—from British territory to independence—to highlight examples of different types of soft power. First, he demonstrates that the attraction of similarity is too simple. Indeed “opposites attract,” as Victorian Britain proved fixated on the “crown jewel” of its empire, India, which was diametrically dissimilar across a number of cultural metrics. 

At the same time, this attraction can have negative consequences. Part of India’s appeal was the negative connotations around its contrast with England. The British considered themselves masculine—rational, strong, and intelligent—while the “feminine” Indians were cast as irrational, weak, and uneducated. Despite the negative nature of these stereotypes, the “feminine and tempting” India was attractive to the British because it was ripe for conquest by an empire that considered itself a great civilizer. Hymans defines this phenomenon as “soft vulnerability,” attractiveness for subversion.

Other authors have looked at the potential for soft power to disenfranchise an entire country from the global system. An article from Paul Michael Brannagan and Richard Giullianotti, “The Soft Power–Soft Disempowerment Nexus: The Case of Qatar,” examines how a country that should have been a leader in soft power fell out of global good graces. Without explicitly mentioning Hymans, the article expands on soft vulnerability to create the titular new term, “soft disempowerment,” which “occurs when diverse state and non-state actors . . . disseminate information which challenges or discredits the state’s soft power strategies and messages.” Brannagan and Giullianotti argue that soft power needs public diplomacy—the creation and maintenance of relationships—in order to be deployed effectively, because soft power is more than the creation of a country’s brand; it necessitates understanding which parts of that brand will entice other cultures.

Qatar was viewed as a globally philanthropic and entrepreneurial state that hosted one of the most important global news organizations (Al Jazeera) and played a key regional diplomatic role. Despite all this, after Qatar won the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, it received the scrutiny that comes with being the center of attention. The diplomatic role was revealed to be biased and heavy-handed, and internal growth was overshadowed by human rights violations. Most consequentially, Qatar was using its money to buy influence and bribe FIFA voters, eschewing public diplomacy for what could be termed “financial diplomacy.” Increased scrutiny removed Qatari goodwill and attractiveness, and it was quickly abandoned by allies who felt they had completed the terms of the bribes. Without steadfast allies or relationships, Qatar was isolated and disempowered. 

Even those who deny the importance (or even the existence) of soft power can still glean important ideas from its nature. Janice Bially Mattern, a realist political science professor, argues that soft power is too ambiguous to be its own type of power. Rather, “it makes far more sense to model attraction as a relationship that is constructed through representational force—a nonphysical but nevertheless coercive form of power that is exercised through language.” 

Most importantly, attraction is subjective. Mattern prefers that scholars not classify soft power as a broad discipline and that they examine relationships using individual frameworks. She favors case-by-case examinations over  broad rules. Mattern’s work raises an important point: there is clear cultural variation in what people find attractive. Specific subjective cases cannot be factored into a framework because frameworks consider broad ideas and general rules. 

Understanding cuisine’s international power is important, but it is not enough—one must also understand where its power derives from and how it is deployed. Different facets of the same element (in this case, food) can have different types of power. Agricultural policy and the craft of a diplomatic dinner (e.g., seating charts and whose cuisine is served) would both be examples of hard power – direct actions meant to coerce. The factors discussed in the articles above are the beginning of a framework on determining if food should be examined through a lens of soft power.

The holistic literature review yields a seven-factor framework to determine if a cultural element can be a soft power tool: 

Factor Question
Popularity Can it be globally popular?
Ubiquity Could it achieve a degree of universal attractiveness?
Co-optive Can it shape the preferences of others?
“Opposites Attract” Is it attractive because it is new and different?
Soft Vulnerability Is it attractive because it can be conquered?
Soft Disempowerment Will scrutiny reveal an unattractive side?
Paired with Public Diplomacy Is it connected to a diplomatic relationship or understanding?

A prospective element of soft power would not necessarily need to meet all seven factors, but there should be a reasonable explanation for not achieving a perfect score.

The Cases

The first test case for the above framework is gastrodiplomacy—the explicit cases where a country attempted to use its cuisine to shape how it was perceived. This section will focus on Thai and Peruvian cuisines. 

The second group contains the incidental cases, which are more nebulous. In these cases, a cuisine was not purposefully spread but, through population shifts or random trends, became a foreign cuisine popular in a host country. Examples include sushi or cuisines that were spread by large migrant groups, specifically tikka masala in the United Kingdom. 

The third case investigates multinational corporations. No foods are more ubiquitous than those of the massive multinational corporations; thus, how they fit this framework is also worth investigating. 

The Explicit Cases

If an American wants to go out for Southeast Asian food, they often have a number of possibilities, including Vietnamese, Laotian, Malaysian, or Thai. If the American chooses Thai food, it was not necessarily random. Government programs in the twenty-first century—first the Global Thai program, then “Thailand: Kitchen of the World”—sought to introduce Thai food to more consumers, open more Thai restaurants worldwide, and foster a greater appreciation of Thai contributions to the global palate. Before then, Thailand was best known worldwide for its sex tourism industry, and the government wanted to change that.

“Kitchen of the World” became the slogan for these programs. The government hoped to increase gastronomic interest in Thailand and raise tourism levels. Global Thai made it easier to import Thai ingredients, assisted with the hiring of Thai chefs, and created a loan-financing program. In one year, it increased the number of Thai restaurants worldwide from 5,500 to 8,000, a 45 percent increase. The campaign, aiming to ensure certain standards in its restaurants, created a “Thailand Brand,” a certificate of quality bestowed by the Thai Ministry of Commerce. This included quality of ingredients, meeting certain business standards, and visual “neatness, delicacy, and exquisiteness” that the government considered to be an essential part of Thai cuisine and, more broadly, Thai culture. 

By 2006, the number of Thai restaurants worldwide had grown to nine thousand. By 2009, there were over thirteen thousand, more than doubling the pre-campaign total. Furthermore, a survey conducted by Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management in conjunction with the University of Bangkok’s Sasin Institute found that Thai food “ranked fourth in recognition of ethnic cuisines . . . and sixth in the category of favorite food type.” Pad thai had become globally recognized and synonymous with Thailand in the same way that the hamburger is with the United States. The success of Global Thai has made it a model for any other country trying to leverage its gastronomic heritage for global influence.

The most distinguished gastrodiplomacy campaign outside of Asia is Peru’s. In 2006, Alejandro Riveros, the Chief of Public Diplomacy at the Peruvian Embassy to the United States, declared that he wanted Peruvian Cuisine to be as well-known and well-liked as Thai food in the US and worked with Peruvian chefs and diplomats to make it happen. The ensuing promotional campaign by the Peruvian government, Cocina Peruana para el Mundo (Peruvian Cuisine for the World), took a holistic approach by having UNESCO designate the cuisine as part of the cultural heritage of humanity,  building a website dedicated to the cuisine, and marketing the cuisine with targeted social media posts, documentaries, and celebrity endorsements, including Nobel Prize Winning Peruvian Author Mario Vargas Llosa and former US Vice President Al Gore. 

Cocina Peruana was built around constructing and establishing Peruvian food’s brand, asserting that it needed increased exposure because the flavor was already sublime. Although it does not have the same quantitative goals as Global Thai, Cocina Peruana embodied a set of policy ideals, with the goals set by statements like that of Riveros. Measuring the campaign’s economic success is impossible without a stated metric; however, Peru claims two restaurants—the only two in the Americas—in the global top ten as ranked by one of the world’s foremost restaurant rankings.

Ultimately, the goal of these campaigns was about perception; to create goodwill where none existed. Sometimes that goodwill is directly convertible, like with Thailand’s tourism. Sometimes it is nebulous and difficult to quantify, like with Peru’s global success yielding greater recognition and, eventually, other potential benefits such as the economic ones reaped by Thailand. 

Scoring the Explicit Cases

Popularity: Can gastrodiplomacy programs make their chosen cuisine popular?
The evidence offered by Paul Rockower on worldwide gastrodiplomacy and the Kellogg School/Sasin Institute study on the popularity of Thai food proved that overt, government-sponsored gastrodiplomacy can popularize a type of cuisine.

Ubiquity: Can the cuisine achieve a degree of universal attractiveness?
This is a more difficult question. Universal popularity is harder to achieve for cuisine than for media, like the television shows or movies Nye discussed. However, a global presence is as close to ubiquity as possible for a cuisine. As Nye described it, having a presence with a convertible element of culture offered the potential for power anywhere. When Thailand doubled the number of Thai restaurants (which continues to grow), they approached ubiquity. Peruvian gastrodiplomacy is working through media and the elite levels of gastronomy to gain international acclaim, and thus ubiquity, among cuisine professionals around the world.

Co-optive: Can cuisine shape the preferences of others?
Gastrodiplomacy does; by definition, it uses food as a tool to change peoples’ preferences and perceptions towards a country. It is similar to popularity, but more targeted. Part of the reason the Thai government wanted to rebrand the country with Global Thai was because it was most known in the West for its sex tourism industry. Replacing sex with food gave Thailand a much more wholesome image; gastrodiplomacy shifted consciousness away from more negative national perceptions. Peru wanted to be known on the world stage generally and gastronomically, and, through its program, gained an association with culinary excellence.

Opposites Attract: Is it attractive because it is new and different?
Yes. In fact, if the cuisines were not markedly different, gastrodiplomacy would be neither necessary nor helpful. The Thai government crafted manuals and funded cookbooks that contrasted Thai cuisine with Western food (in a positive way) and instructed chefs on how to adapt to different palates. At the same time, new cuisines were intriguing and exciting to consumers because of the new produce, spices, and flavors. 

Soft Vulnerability: Is it attractive because it can be conquered?
Cuisines cannot be vulnerable when they are being spread. Gastrodiplomacy can fail for various reasons, but vulnerability is not one of them. If a cuisine is particularly boring and flavorless (like Chirac’s view of British food), it may be vulnerable for conquest. However, gastrodiplomacy, by definition, is about bringing one’s own food elsewhere. In that sense, it can fail, but it cannot be conquered—in the same way that the Aztecs could have defeated, but not conquered, the Spanish—so it does not meet Hymans’ definition. Soft vulnerability does not apply to the incoming culture, only the established one. 

Soft Disempowerment: Will scrutiny reveal an unattractive side of the cuisines?
Yes and no, but ultimately yes. Increased scrutiny certainly reveals the unattractive parts of a cuisine, particularly around choices of meat and flavors. In Thailand, insects are a popular snack, and in Peru, llama and alpaca are traditional meats. Both examples are unheard of or uncommon in the United States, where much of their gastrodiplomacy was targeted. Increased scrutiny would reveal this “unattractive” side to the receiving culture. However, successful programs are tailored for foreign countries. Cross-cultural understanding enables gastrodiplomatic success, as can be seen with the highly tailored Peruvian and Thai approaches, which created specific resources to adapt their cuisines and their brands for American and European consumers. So, yes it could be disempowering, but effective programs mitigate that risk.

Paired with Public Diplomacy: Is it connected to a diplomatic relationship or understanding?
Yes, because gastrodiplomacy is, by definition, public. Gastrodiplomacy connects to a foreign population—those who are tasting the cuisine—whether it uses traditional diplomatic channels or not. Furthermore, state-run or state-funded initiatives like ad campaigns, tastings, cookbooks, and movies are examples of outreach directed toward the public.


Factor Question Answer
Popularity Can it be globally popular? Yes
Ubiquity Could it achieve a degree of universal attractiveness? Yes
Co-optive Can it shape the preferences of others? Yes
“Opposites Attract” Is it attractive because it is new and different? Yes
Soft Vulnerability Is it attractive because it can be conquered? No
Soft Disempowerment Will scrutiny reveal an unattractive side? Yes
Paired with Public Diplomacy Is it connected to a diplomatic relationship or understanding? Yes

Gastrodiplomacy is a tool of soft power, fulfilling six of the seven qualifications. Gastrodiplomacy lacks soft vulnerability because it is being deployed abroad as a function of usage, not something inherent to cuisine. Cuisine, as an extension of culture, is undoubtedly a source of soft power in the context of gastrodiplomacy because of the specific way it is deployed as a part of public diplomacy.

The Incidental Cases 

An incidental case of food becoming a tool of soft power is no less useful than a purposeful one. On the surface, it may seem like power is more likely to come from planned programs; however, many existing sources of soft power grew by accident. The American government could not have known that Hollywood’s films would become one of its largest soft power exports. If it had, it might not have mounted such an aggressive campaign against them during the “Red Scare.” With regard to incidental cuisine, I will present two cases: Japanese sushi and British (via India) chicken tikka masala.

Today, sushi is globally ubiquitous; however, it started with humble beginnings. Sushi first emerged outside of Japan in the 1950s and 60s, following the post-World War II diaspora of Japanese immigrants—first to the United States, then to Europe and parts of South America. Through highly specific methods of preparation and the unique way in which it is served, sushi represented Japanese culture and ideology to a higher degree than other foreign foods. 

Sushi restaurants steadily grew in popularity over the coming decades, eventually expanding from exclusively upscale establishments to fast-casual. Simultaneously, consumers grew more health-conscious, and the lighter fish protein of sushi made it a perfect alternative to red meat. With its burgeoning popularity, sushi changed to suit consumer tastes, incorporating more ingredients—like imitation crab meat or cooked fish—and local flavors like Philly rolls with cream cheese in the United States, Peking duck rolls in China, or curry sushi in Singapore. 

About fifty years after the first sushi restaurants opened abroad, the Japanese government realized that sushi restaurants were becoming an unofficial ambassador for Japanese culture. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries formed a panel to inspect and set guidelines for sushi restaurants abroad. Until then, Japanese sushi abroad had been unchecked, an inadvertent potential source of soft power, unrefined and untapped by government programs or guidelines.

Regarding chicken tikka masala, in 2001, former British Foreign secretary Robin Cook stated that it is “a true British national dish” (Maybe if Chirac had known, he would not have been so harsh about the cuisine as a whole). The British Empire spent decades occupying India, and extracted taste as well as wealth. 

The story of chicken tikka masala is similar to that of many other immigrant foods becoming a staple in their new homes, like a Texan taco or German kebab. As Indian immigrants moved to the United Kingdom, they brought the taste of home with them. Chicken tikka masala was quickly adopted by the British population as a popular street food, and migrants—typically on the outskirts of the economy—were well suited to provide it, working in street carts and kitchens of cheap eateries. Indian cuisine changed the eating habits of the British, a form of reverse colonization through immigration that may have bought India significant soft power with the British populace.

Scoring the Incidental Cases

Popularity: Can incidental cases become popular cuisine?
Unequivocally, yes. A simple question to answer, given that chicken tikka masala became one of the United Kingdom’s national dishes. With regard to sushi, there are estimated to be over fifteen thousand dedicated restaurants worldwide, spanning all levels of formality and authenticity. 

Ubiquity: Can the cuisine achieve a degree of universal attractiveness?
Sushi has become ubiquitous with its adaptability and impressive geographic spread. Chicken tikka masala has experienced a similar degree of pervasiveness across British cities, and its achievement as a “national dish” should certainly be considered a level of ubiquity.

Co-optive: Can it shape the preferences of others?
Another positive result. In the United Kingdom, chicken tikka masala is changing the national palate. Previous national dishes included meat pies and fish and chips, both relatively spiceless creations deeply different from Indian flavors. Japanese researchers have found a positive correlation between the popularity of sushi and greater understanding and interest in Japanese culture. 

Opposites Attract: Is it attractive because it is new and different?
Yes. Sushi was an interesting and completely new food for the West, particularly for cultures that did not eat raw fish. Indian food and spices were alien to the United Kingdom.

Soft Vulnerability: Is it attractive because it can be conquered?
No, for the same reasons as the explicit examples. Cuisines cannot be vulnerable when they are being spread to new places. 

Soft Disempowerment: Will scrutiny reveal an unattractive side of the cuisine?
Given the variable nature of these foods, the answer is no. Both were heavily adapted to the new cultures, minimizing the potential for soft disempowerment. When foods are introduced to new populations, some stronger flavors are removed to fit the new palate. British tikka masala and Indian tikka masala are quite different, and sushi rolls are often adapted to regional fare—like with cream cheese—in a way that disgusts some Japanese citizens. Furthermore, higher levels of scrutiny will reveal more about the adapted cuisine than its original source. Without national guidelines shaping a cuisine, scrutiny will not trace back to a home country, lessening the chance for soft disempowerment.

Paired with Public Diplomacy: Is it connected to a diplomatic relationship or understanding?
As public diplomacy is targeted from one government to another population, and these cases were incidental and unplanned, they are not—in Japan’s case, not yet—paired with any sort of diplomatic relationship.


Factor Question Answer
Popularity Can it be globally popular? Yes
Ubiquity Could it achieve a degree of universal attractiveness? Yes
Co-optive Can it shape the preferences of others? Yes
“Opposites Attract” Is it attractive because it is new and different? Yes
Soft Vulnerability Is it attractive because it can be conquered? No
Soft Disempowerment Will scrutiny reveal an unattractive side? No
Paired with Public Diplomacy Is it connected to a diplomatic relationship or understanding? No

For the incidental cases, the results initially seem positive, but issues emerge in the soft disempowerment and public diplomacy sections. The lesser chance of soft disempowerment due to cuisine modifications lessens its association with the home country and thus its convertibility (Philly rolls or “British” chicken tikka masala). For soft power to work, before the dish can be converted there needs to be an established connection to the home country that wishes to utilize this potential. Qatar demonstrates how the connection to a public diplomacy campaign is essential to showcasing how soft power conversion works.

Without successful public diplomacy, countries cannot gain from their opportunities—the equivalent of having high winds but no wind turbines to leverage it. Since sources of soft power exist as convertible potential, there needs to be a way to connect it to the country of origin. The incidental cases are ready to be converted to soft power and offer the countries of origin ready-made inroads, but they are not there yet. Indeed, Japan’s recent establishment of governmental bodies to monitor its cuisine and culture abroad demonstrates a will to convert a potential source of soft power. Conversely, India may have lost a chance at greater influence in the United Kingdom, because tikka masala has been co-opted to the point where many Brits see it as their own. Incidental cases are nearly there, but lack the connection to public diplomacy.

The Case of Multinational Corporations: Fast Food

In 1999, riffing off a popular quote about advanced democracies, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman opined, “it’s true that no two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war since they each got their McDonald’s. (I call this the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention.)” A powerful statement that has repeatedly been proven false. 

But with that attributed level of influence and, to foreshadow, ubiquity, fast food has emerged as a powerful potential source of soft power. Although often associated with the United States, the fast food hamburger has almost superseded nationality to emerge as its own cuisine. McDonald’s, the most recognizable, is certainly American-style, but has become a truly multinational brand, adapting to regional tastes and restrictions. Cultural preferences have been incorporated into the McDonald’s machine, with kosher restaurants in Jerusalem and McMasala menu options in India. The regionalization has even worked its way into popular culture with the exchange between Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction over the “quarter-pounder with cheese” rebranded as the “royale with cheese” in France because the French do not recognize imperial units.

In 2012, McDonald’s served around sixty-eight million people per day, equivalent to one percent of the global population; its $22 billion revenue in 2019 would have made it the 110th largest global economy. While not the only fast-food corporation to achieve such a level of global dominance—Subway has more restaurants worldwide—McDonald’s’ combination of internationalization and record profits make it an exemplar of the fast food industry and the ideal case for this investigation.

Scoring the Corporate Case

Popularity: Can multinational cases become popular cuisine?
Based on sheer volume of international sales, McDonald’s is clearly globally popular. It employs targeted marketing campaigns appealing to local demographics where it is unpopular (e.g. healthy choices campaigns for the health conscious), and tailors its restaurant options to maximize appeal in different cultures.

Ubiquity: Can the cuisine achieve a degree of universal attractiveness?
Although it has not reached a few specific countries such as North Korea, McDonald’s is one of the most recognized brands in the world. With increased sales and marketing, other fast food brands or soft drinks, like Coca-Cola, approach that level of ubiquity as well.

Co-optive: Can it shape the preferences of others?
Yes, to a scientific degree. Numerous health studies demonstrate the addictive nature of fast food. Its ability to shape preferences so effectively is a fiscal boon and, simultaneously, a public health issue, given the lack of nutrients and high levels of sodium and saturated fat. 

Opposites Attract: Is it attractive because it is new and different?
At the outset, McDonald’s was attractive because the concept of fast food was new and exciting. However, much of the appeal is through the addictiveness and the consistency among its franchises and the idea of familiarity, that a person can walk into a McDonald’s anywhere and receive the same product. Its sustained popularity is through similarity, not novelty.

Soft Vulnerability: Is it attractive because it can be conquered?
No. As with the “opposites attract” question, part of the allure of the product is that it is unchanging. It cannot be co-opted because corporate guidelines standardize fast food experiences globally.

Soft Disempowerment: Will scrutiny reveal an unattractive side of the cuisine?
Yes. Multiple times, scrutiny has revealed unattractive sides of fast food. First are the detrimental effects fast food consumption can have on personal health, particularly its links to obesity and heart disease. Second are the investigations into the practices around the meat industry—particularly the factory-style slaughterhouses—which reveal the inhumane processes used to mass-produce the meat and the poor treatment of facility workers.

Paired with Public Diplomacy: Is it connected to a diplomatic relationship or understanding?
Similar to the incidental cases, there is no public diplomacy. Marketing campaigns are not equivalent to public diplomacy, and no government is promoting fast food corporations as representative of its culture. Some might argue that the regionalization is a form of public diplomacy, and that even though the goal is profit, it functions in the same way, but there is no relationship building paired with the regional menu items, so it does not satisfy that definition.


Factor Question Answer
Popularity Can it be globally popular? Yes
Ubiquity Could it achieve a degree of universal attractiveness? Yes
Co-optive Can it shape the preferences of others? Yes
“Opposites Attract” Is it attractive because it is new and different? No
Soft Vulnerability Is it attractive because it can be conquered? No
Soft Disempowerment Will scrutiny reveal an unattractive side? Yes
Paired with Public Diplomacy Is it connected to a diplomatic relationship or understanding? No

Fast food, while certainly a part of the global culture and often ascribed to the United States, cannot be considered an instrument of American soft power. Multinational corporations are their own entity, particularly given McDonald’s’ demonstrated adaptable nature. Without a country of origin, there is no public diplomacy possible, an essential part of a tool of soft power. Investigating the soft power potential of multinational corporations leaves an unanswered question: Who is wielding this influential power, and who are they influencing? 

Although there is a good chance that McDonald’s has affected the American “brand,” the United States cannot wield the fast food cuisine that McDonald’s offers because McDonald’s is corporate first and cultural second. Thailand can offer guidelines for Thai food abroad, and incentivize adoption of certain standards, with cultural certificates, whereas the United States cannot do the same with McDonald’s or Subway. 

For this reason, even if it is connected to American culture in the minds of many across the world, corporate fast food cannot be considered a tool of soft power. If multinational food corporations fill a more prominent role in the vacuum of global governance, soft power could ultimately be a tool for them to wield, but for now fast food does not lend itself to soft power frameworks. 

Wrap up

To expand on Nye’s romantic analogy, soft power, like love, is hard to describe; however, drawing from the experiences of many can help gain insight into what it is about and where it comes from. By applying the framework developed from soft power literature, this article reaches three conclusions.

With the explicit cases, gastrodiplomacy is clearly an example of soft power. It matches Nye’s original definition of (potential) cultural attraction and meets all but one of the further criteria offered by the other scholars. It changes perceptions and pairs with public diplomacy campaigns; additionally, it can achieve popularity and ubiquity in a clear and successful manner, thereby offering the countries of origin greater influence. 

The incidental cases—where cuisine migrated without a government program—were certainly attractive, but lacked some of the key ingredients to become tools of soft power. Without the larger connection to the home culture, the incidental cases are not quite tools of soft power; however, as evidenced by the retrospective action of the Japanese government, they can become such tools. Once Japan realized sushi’s potential as a cultural ambassador, an official, focused approach emerged, as did a source of soft power. Rescoring the case of sushi after Japan successfully implemented its ministerial programs would likely result in a different outcome. 

The corporate cases were less successful in achieving soft power. Without a culture or country clearly associated with them, their transcendent existence and profit-oriented goals did not fit the soft power frameworks. Maybe as multinational, multifaceted corporations continue to grow in prominence, they will begin to wield instruments of soft power, but they do not meet the relevant criteria now. 

Cuisine can be considered a tool of soft power, but only when the specific steps outlined in the explicit cases section are followed. The cuisine must be paired with public diplomacy to achieve its goals and stay true to the nature of soft power. 

Cuisine is not only a potential tool of soft power, but also one of the most straightforward and widely available resources in any country. Not every country has the investment power to create internationally acclaimed cinema like Hollywood or Bollywood, or the good fortune of having a local artist or sports star catapulted to global fame, but every country has a national dish they can showcase to the world. 

The process is not particularly expensive, either. Neither Thailand nor Peru are particularly wealthy; in 2018, both ranked in the mid-eighties globally in per capita GDP. Additionally, gastrodiplomacy programs such as Global Thai are also easily scaled up or down based on desired geographic range and volume of public diplomacy, enabling access for poorer countries.

There is an increasingly greater appetite for new cuisines. With travel–culinary series like Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and No Reservations or Dave Chang’s Ugly Delicious, it is increasingly easy for new dishes and techniques to gain fame and popularity. 

As Nye put it, a new world is emerging where soft power is becoming just as important as hard power. Understanding how certain elements of culture can be converted to soft power is now a way to advance global standing, and cuisine is an effective means to that end. Once countries understand the potential utility of cuisine, they can create programs to exploit the gaps and cravings that their food satisfies and, ultimately, build their own cache of soft power.

This article is adapted from the author’s senior capstone.

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