The Hummus Diplomacy

Why the world loves Lebanon?

Throughout history, nations have competed for global influence against each other. A competition that in the past was entirely won or lost militarily. Who won the war was where it started, where it ended, and the only thing that mattered. Today, in a globalized world, that is no longer true. A new ingredient emerged to the recipe of winning the race of influence against other nations; who won the story. Countries realized that soldiers are eventually forgotten. What lives on are a nation’s unforgettable stories. This made who won the military war inconclusive, and suddenly a nation could win even by losing. With that, the power equilibrium shifted. The power of nations that used to be only their military capabilities — or hard power, suddenly became a combination of their military and their stories — or soft power.

Power = Hard Power + Soft Power

Soft power is basically the ability to get desired outcomes without resorting to force. It can be thought of as the attractiveness of a country, through its story. Countries have already realized the impossibility of winning influence only through hard power, in the age of CNN, BBC and Twitter. A painful lesson for the U.S after leaked images of its treatment of Iraqi prisoners in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison depleted its soft power tremendously. It had won the military war but catastrophically lost the story. Similarly, the governments of North Korea and the so-called Islamic state do win their military wars sometimes but lose their stories almost always. This is because both of them have almost zero soft power, with an overwhelming majority of the world finding their culture, values, and stories actually repulsive.

The power to attract is so effective in world affairs that it is the only ingredient by which the globally prestigious system of the U.N works and through which the Pope retains his global influence. Similarly, high reserves of soft power are the only explanation for the high attractiveness of almost everything Irish. Everything and anything that can be framed positively can be a possible tool for a country to raise its soft power. For example, Russia attempted to raise its soft power through cultural diplomacy by using ballet dancers to frame itself as a cultural powerhouse instead of a poverty-ridden, ex-communist state. While Britain attempted to raise its soft power through its international news broadcasting service; the BBC. Similarly, France attempted to raise its soft power mainly through art exhibitions. The U.S, however, invested in exchange diplomacy, making use of its well-ranked universities and schools to host guest students, researchers, and lecturers to raise the attractiveness of the American value system to people who would later become influential in their home countries. Similarly, Modi’s India took the never traveled route of yoga diplomacy, where he lobbied the UN General Assembly in 2015 for declaring the 21st of June as World Yoga Day, successfully tagging India as the original yogi.

One of the most peculiar tools that have been identified and used by countries as possible ways to increase their soft power is food. Countries had realized that one of the most obvious ways for winning hearts and minds is through peoples’ stomachs. Thailand was one of the first countries that institutionalized what came to be known as cuisine diplomacy as a formal country policy after realizing the international appeal of its food. Thailand then quickly took the step of providing government support for entrepreneurs who wanted to open Thai restaurants around the world. Since then a number of countries have followed Thailand’s pursuit of promoting their countries through food. For instance, South Korea launched a campaign called ‘Korean cuisine to the world’ that aims to increase the number of Korean restaurants in the world and launched the distinguished world kimchi institute. Interestingly, Taiwan — a contested territory within mainland China that struggles to assert its challenged sovereignty — also attempted to share its story, through food. Taiwan struggles to conduct any form of diplomacy with other countries or other people, strangling Taiwan’s already few options of telling the Taiwanese story. Hence, Taiwan’s decision to launch a cuisine diplomacy program that promotes Taiwanese culture through its food is rather a recommendation to the subtle conduct of cuisine diplomacy itself, which gave a non-country like Taiwan a fighting chance to tell its seldom told story.

Lebanon’s cuisine diplomacy story, on the other hand, goes a little differently. While Lebanon was busy self-combusting during the civil war (1975-1990), rounds of apolitical life-loving Lebanese people immigrated to different parts of the world. Bringing to their new corner of the world their Lebanon. Soon restaurants serving the unheard-of Lebanese cuisine sprouted across the world. Through their cuisine, the Lebanese diaspora translated their soul. These restaurants were mostly started by ordinary people turned entrepreneurs. Only in a few cases were they launched by affluent philanthropists. And in zero cases was there any government backing in the form of financial support, marketing, or logistics. This is because the cuisine diplomacy experiment of Lebanon was never a formal country policy; it was a people initiative. In fact, the last thing Lebanon could ever invest in is ‘who won the story’, because a unified story is the one thing it didn’t have. The anti-miracle of the Lebanese system is actually predicated on the inability of the Lebanese sects to reach a Lebanese national story. Every sect was busy trying to impose its own Lebanese national story, not willing to realize that a national story could have multiple chapters. The end result was that unlike the traditional model of increasing a country’s attractiveness by country through country-to-people campaigns, the Lebanese cuisine diplomacy experiment was more of a people-to-people campaign that made Lebanon attractive, accidentally.

The lack of any government support in the Lebanese people’s experiment also meant that there wasn’t any government meddling; no unified strategies that all Lebanese restaurants had to implement, no right version of the Lebanese story, and no financial bail-outs. This allowed the high variations found in Lebanese restaurants today; each telling a slightly different Lebanese story, some by including Armenian meals on their menus, others by highlighting variations of staple dishes cooked differently in Zgharta than Sidon than Beirut. This resulted in highly authentic Lebanese stories, told through variations of the same but different dishes. Furthermore, the lack of government funding and hence the impossibility of a bail-out meant that Lebanese restaurant owners were first and foremost lone entrepreneurs, not realizing the soft power equation at all. This means that they ran the Lebanese cuisine diplomacy experiment on a business model, highlighting that the recurrent success of the Lebanese cuisine around the world is largely organic and market-driven. This makes the Lebanese cuisine possibly the only market-driven, bottom-up cuisine in the world that receives no government sponsorship. The success of the Lebanese experiment can be visually captured in the diffusion of one of its staples – the Hummus – in not just international cuisine restaurants but also in grocery stores, underscoring the extent of its popularity. This truly unique Lebanese experiment didn’t just play a factor in making Lebanon so universally palatable, but also necessitates its treatment as a category on its own; Hummus Diplomacy.

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