The Foreign Policy of the Calorie
Speaker: Nick Cullather
Date: January 19, 2007
Time: 12:30 PM
Nick Cullather, Associate Professor of History, Indiana University
What makes soft power so ... soft?? Unlike atomic bombs or GNP, ideals, perception, and psychology can't be precisely counted, and their immeasurability makes it harder to credit them as real, material threats or capabilities. Before 1900, food was soft, too, an incalculable, idiosyncratic cultural good. But in the twentieth century it became an objective political instrument thanks to a standardized unit of measure, the calorie. The calorie's purpose was to render food, and the eating habits of populations, politically legible. Europeans first measured food in calories, but Americans gave the calorie practical value by embedding it in systems of distribution and administration. It was in the United States that the calorie left its most visible imprint on foreign policy. It popularized and factualized a set of assumptions that allowed Americans to see food as an instrument of power, and to envisage a "world food problem" amenable to political and scientific intervention. The history of the calorie tells us something about the presuppositions built into the numbers that make up the "reality" of the international system.
Cullather is associate professor of history at Indiana University, where he specializes in U.S. foreign relations and southeast Asia. Most recently, he was coauthor of Making A Nation: The United States and Its People (2001) and author of Secret History: The CIA's Classified Account of its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-1954 (1999). He has been staff historian at the Central Intelligence Agency, a member of the staff of Congressman Lee H. Hamilton, and associate editor of the Journal of American History.