Diplomatic entertaining is as old as diplomacy itself. While the diplomatic cocktail hour is something of a trope at this point, diplomacy is a field of practice that relies on the social and the informal. These moments are laden with significance and hosts take extra care in the literal work of representation that goes into a shared meal or a gift exchange. Like any performance, therefore, these encounters run all the risks of falling flat or inadvertently causing offense.
So, it was with interest that I read that the Bidens have chosen to entertain French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, at a State Dinner where they will serve US-made sparkling wine and cheese. It’s a bold choice for the US to go toe-to-toe with France on gastronomic achievements (the baguette has just made the World Heritage List). As a diplomatic maneuver, it’s also clumsy.
The State Dinner is supposed to help mend rifts in the French-US relationship. While there is something to be cherished in the US’ habit of democratizing high culture, these culinary choices suggest, “Anything you can do, we can do better!” Putting one’s guests in an awkward position is also plain bad manners. The Macrons will not be able to show anything but delight for fear of suggestions of wounded French pride.
I wish the White House had been more creative in representing US cuisine. For instance, First Nations chefs in the US are creating exquisite food from precolonial ingredients. The Bidens could have showcased a menu of Indigenous dishes that would have been a rare treat for the Macrons. In addition to sending mixed messages, the Dinner is a missed opportunity to do some genuinely interesting public diplomacy.