Saturday, February 08, 2014

Soft power, gastrodiplomacy and long-term effects

In his op-ed "Bringing a Hard Edge on Soft Power," Prof. Phil Seib took a lil shot at gastrodiplomacy:
"Soft power advocates ... have been distracted by cutesy projects such as 'gastrodiplomacy,' which may produce a few newspaper articles about the virtues of kimchi or mushy peas, but are unlikely to have any lasting effect on their audience."
While I respect Prof. Seib, I have to disagree with Uncle Phil this time.  I responded:
I have to disagree with you about the long-term effects of gastrodiplomacy, and by extension cultural diplomacy, on long-term effects on audiences. Gastrodiplomacy is simply a newer medium in the sphere of cultural diplomacy, one that understands that emotional, trans-rational long-term connections that are the basis of soft power can be just as easily made with food as music or art. There are ample examples in public diplomacy history to back up the notion that cultural diplomacy drives the long-term effects of soft power. So if you accept that one of the key drivers of soft power is cultural diplomacy, then I would not be so quick to blithely dismiss a new manner in which it is practiced.
I understand that soft power is ultimately a form of power, but I think it is short-sighted to think that long-term interests can truly be advanced by a harder edge of soft power.  I agree that public diplomacy is ultimately about the long game, but to connect to long-term interests, you have to build connections and broader relationships with foreign publics.  That comes through cultural diplomacy, be it through music, art or food.   As such, these days I am convinced there is no public diplomacy but cultural diplomacy.

Dr. John H. Brown also disagreed with such sentiments and responded with a lovely story of his diplomat father Dr. John L. Brown making connections at the dinner table :
Prof. Seib, In response to you article, which gave me a slight indigestion, may I cite a passage from an article from my father, diplomat/scholar Dr. John L. Brown (who actually practiced "public diplomacy" rather than just writing /pontificating about it), in the Foreign Service Journal (1964): 
"In the course of the inauguration, I was introduced to the ranking Belgian present, a high official from the Ministry of Education, a gifted, somewhat erratic 'intellectual of the Left.' He was known for his hostility to the United States. 
We were seated side by side at the banquet which followed the inauguration. The savory ham of the Ardennes, smoked over a juniper fire, the fresh mountain trout, lightly browned in butter with golden almonds sprinkled on their crisp skin, the tender chicken (the famous 'Coucous de Malines'), their white flesh punctuated generously with black truffles, the excellent wine, the cordial atmosphere of the old Hotel de ville all made conversation very easy. We talked about the concert, the music of Joaquim des Prez, the contributions of Belgium to medieval art, the researches of Pirenne on the Flemish cities. I found him a most pleasant companion, learned without being pedantic, animated with real enthusiasm for the past of his country. 
When the cheese came, he asked: 'But how can an American be interested in these things? Americans like only jazz.' I said that of course many Americans did like only jazz and in this they were like many Europeans. But, I went on, the organizer and director of the ensemble which played for us is an American and there are many such groups in the United States, which are specialized in ancient music. We began to speak about musical education, about Julliard and Curtis and Eastman, about the place that music occupies in the public educational system in America. We parted friends. We continued to see each other. I am still in correspondence with him."
--John L. Brown, "But what do you do,"  American Diplomacy (reprint of 1964 Foreign Service article)

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