Foreign Policy

The great, silly dream of McDonald's peace idea

As tanks exploded and refugees fled Armenia and Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh war in the final round, social media became yet another battlefield – with some surprising participants. That included the local McDonald's office posting some passionate (and short-lived) pro-Azerbaijani sentiments on Twitter.

It was a poignant moment for Americans who recall the sluggishly optimistic foreign policy analysis their country produced in the 1990s. A company that was once considered a deterrent to war had become part of a company. It's another blow to the idea that economic globalization alone can reduce the likelihood of war – and, instead, how the legacies left behind by imperial decline will create a new wave of conflict.

I happen to be one of those Americans. When Bill Clinton was President, President Donald Trump had a punch line, and the Twin Towers stood, I was a freshman taking a course on American foreign policy. Our textbook was The Lexus and the Olive Tree, a 1999 New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman bestseller.

Friedman's claim was simple: the benefits of economic integration diminish the political choices open to governments and make war – which disrupts that integration – so unattractive that it is practically unthinkable. If that sounds like the theory of capitalist peace as understood by Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and Richard Cobden, then pretty much it was.

The book was part of the smooth globalization cheerleading that defined the true unipolar moment – that period between the mid-1990s and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. That optimism reflected a hard turn from the fears that the same classes had embraced restless world immediately after the cold war. In 1990 in the Atlantic Ocean, John Mearsheimer considered that Americans would soon miss the Cold War when the world collapsed into anarchy. Samuel Huntington's 1993 essay in Foreign Affairs, "The Clash of Civilizations?" Suggested that the future would include civilizing bloodbaths. Both Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy wrote thrillers in which the United States was threatened with humiliation by the rising Asian economic power, Japan. For a while, a new era of great power competition ushered in.

By the mid-1990s, however, Americans had relaxed. The US-led coalition's war against President Saddam Hussein was a shockingly successful exercise. It turned out that the Japanese didn't want to start a war of aggression just because their grandparents did (and their economy had recovered anyway). European integration was peaceful. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev made a commercial for Pizza Hut. The most pressing problem facing American foreign policy thought leaders seemed to be explaining why this happy time had come – and why it could never end. There wasn't much need to learn much about the rest of the world: the combination of America's irresistible power, both hard and soft, meant the world would become more like us anyway.

In Friedman's hands, the refined flavors of Cobden and Smith were homogenized to create a fast food that he called the "Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention". His thesis, originally set out in a 1996 column, suggested explaining the decline of war as a result of the expansion of global capitalism: "No two countries that both have McDonald's have ever waged war against each other . "

Friedman admitted that the Pacific correlation between McDonalds and peaceful relationships was not causal. He even interviewed a McDonald & # 39; s manager (breathlessly identified as a "de facto state secretary") who told him that McDonald & # 39; s only opened markets when they were already rich and developed enough to to support a middle class who can afford luxury like westerns fast food.

In other words, the presence of a McDonald's restaurant did not exert any magical conflict-reducing properties. Instead, McDonald & # 39; s strategically placed its restaurants in countries that were unlikely to go to war at all.

And that makes sense. McDonald’s has a high bar for opening a franchise because the reliability of its supply chain is both a braggart and the core of its business model. A Big Mac is a Big Mac worldwide, although a quarter pounder in the metric system may not have the same name. (Seasoned travelers can also talk about the cleanliness and reliability of the toilets.) In all of Africa, for example, McDonald & # 39; s is only active in four countries: Morocco, Egypt, South Africa and the tourist island of Mauritius. In the 1990s, when Africa was the center of global conflict and the Second Congo War claimed 5.4 million lives, the illusion of peace went with burgers and fries.

The root cause of Friedman's observation was how the expansion of global capital made new emerging economies increasingly attractive to multinational corporations. Friedman's conjecture was less of a Golden Arches theory than a Golden Arches correlation. Correlation may not be causation, as any political scientist Friedman could have said, but snappy slogan ringing is profitable.

Of course, if academics don't sell as well as Friedman, they're rarely proven wrong as quickly or as decisively as Friedman. Shortly after the book hit retailer shelves, the US-led NATO bombing campaign against Serbia began.

Belgrade had had a McDonald's since 1988. So much for the Golden Arches theory.

A pedestrian walks past a burned car in front of a McDonald's restaurant after rioting in downtown Belgrade on February 22, 2008. NEMANJA KOSTIC / AFP via Getty Images

Like many cultural artifacts of the time, Friedman's book was almost completely forgotten after the 9/11 terrorist attacks destroyed America's heady Clinton optimism. (To be honest, I forgot pretty soon after reading it, not least because this semester's other big story distracted me: Bush v. Gore.)

But Friedman himself never let go. In a revised and somewhat annoyed edition of The Lexus and the Olive Tree, he complained that critics misunderstood him completely.

Friedman's updated presentation tried to refine his theory in order to preserve it. “My first reaction… was to point out defensively that NATO is not a country, that the Kosovo war wasn't even a real war, and to the extent that it was a real war, it was an intervention NATO acted in a civil war between Kosovar Serbs and Albanians, “he wrote.

This defense actually has something to offer. The scientific dataset Correlates of War records the NATO-Serbia conflict as Dispute No. 4137, which is coded as 4 ("use of force") and not as 5 ("war"). And as Friedman suggests, the larger dispute could also be coded as civil war – although internationalized civil wars are a distinct and increasingly common form of military conflict.

Friedman's real defense, however, depends on the idea that McDonalds was irrelevant to the Golden Arches theory. "Kosovo proves the pressure … nationalist regimes can go under when the cost of their adventures and electoral wars in the age of globalization are brought home to their citizens," Friedman wrote. Current globalization "creates a much stronger web of restrictions on the foreign policy behavior of the nations involved in the system."

To be clear, the following years were no longer kind to his theory, even in its post-McDonalds form. Since Friedman wrote these passages, three more militarized disputes between countries with McDonalds have broken out, according to Wikipedia drolly: the 2006 Lebanon War; the Georgian-Russian War 2008; and the 2014 Crimean crisis.

A McDonalds in Moscow on May 9, 1990. Bernard Bisson / Sygma via Getty Images

Friedman may not have moved on, but the rest of us did. I've earned a PhD in the years since he wrote the first version. in international relations. Now I am teaching my own course on American Foreign Policy.

I don't teach the Lexus and the olive tree. If I were to teach a version of the capitalist peace hypothesis, I would probably use the one described by the scholar Erik Gartzke, in which market developments diminish, but do not rule out the prospects of war between two countries. Or there is Dale Copeland's argument that the expectation of profits from trade – not the profits themselves – reduces the likelihood of wars between states.

These subtle distinctions are important. And even these two versions of capitalist peace lead to different conclusions. If trade and economic integration between countries really curb combat readiness, the United States and China are unlikely to go to war. However, if the leaders of these countries decide to decouple their economies, the chances of war would increase accordingly.

Of course, I would explain to my students that war can also take place for other reasons. Economic integration may not be a panacea for interstate war after all. John Vasquez writes: "The war among equals is due to the failure of power politics to resolve certain important issues" – none, he writes, more than "issues relating to territory, particularly territorial proximity".

In the former Soviet Union, the wars for Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, and now Nagorno-Karabakh have viewed the territory as a crucial element, a story much closer to Vasquez's theory than Friedman's.

Globalization may have increased the cost of these wars, but it obviously did not prevent them. Of course, Armenia does not have a McDonald's, an issue serious enough to be raised in the Yerevan Parliament earlier this year. The cheerleading of the Azerbaijani franchise was also put down by the Interior Ministry.

Regardless, Friedman's logic suggests that the conflict should not have started or been so bloody once it had occurred. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan score high (and almost identically) in the KOF Globalization Index of ETH Zurich. The pace of deaths suggests that the conflict could be classified as a so-called real war under the traditional criterion of 1,000 combat-related deaths. (In fact, some reports say the death toll has quickly exceeded this level.)

And if the conflict ruined the ultimate support of the Golden Arches Theory, it eventually overturned the trust that existed in the eternal sunshine of the American order in the 1990s.

The resurgent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is another cause for concern that the world is entering a new phase of more violent conflicts – including major wars – and that globalization will no longer prevent it than burgeoning trade before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand the First World War prevented.

After all, wars keep popping up that challenge the optimistic view that war is a relic of the past. The specific ways in which these conflicts arise also point to the possibility that new wars could break out, making even bloody conflicts such as those in Syria and Yemen appear relatively minor.

Driven by processes of imperial dysfunction and internal collapse, today's wars have causes that are enormously difficult to cure.

The conflicts in the former Soviet Union, from Chechnya in the 1990s to Nagorno-Karabakh today, represent a series of wars in the post-Soviet succession. Russia has sought to play its central role against real and perceived rivals in this vast region, including the transnational one Islam, the European Union, the United States, China and now probably Turkey.

A separation committee separates men and women at a McDonald & # 39; s in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on July 11, 2004. PATRICK BAZ / AFP via Getty Images

In the Middle East, revisionist regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran struggle for power, while the United States continues to loudly proclaim that it is unwilling to continue its imperial stabilizing role (even though Washington, in fact, never seems to find its way out) .

And China, which once preferred to keep its border disputes quiet, seems increasingly poised to drool off the cross-strait into the Himalayas.

Every conflict can have specific causes. But one thing Friedman got right was to focus on changes in the broad international system instead of just focusing on those specifics. In this case, the common factors are uncertainty about United States intentions and the role of new global challengers.

Much of this uncertainty stems from the fact that the Trump administration and deeper domestic malfunctions have hampered U.S. foreign policy. Ironically, the worst blow came from within, even though the doomsday hunters of the immediate post-Cold War era had predicted that US leadership would collapse due to an outside challenge. If the catalyst hadn't been Trump, another political entrepreneur would likely have used the capabilities of the polarized US political system to achieve similar results.

If the Golden Arches theory were correct, the rise of other countries should not have challenged the US order. Friedman believed that globalization would force every country to choose from the same limited number of options. He wasn't alone in that. Many observers, from policy makers to international relations scholars, made the same bet. And like him, they assumed that the United States itself would do anything to maintain its position as the benevolent hegemon who maintains the international system. However, it turns out that countries are willing to pay an economic price in order to pursue other values.

We can no longer assume that the United States – or any other country – will be a responsible stakeholder. It is time to think about what the next era of world politics will look like.

As I teach my students, the idea persists that my assessment of what they need to know will prove out of date and as limited as my professor's ultimate textbook choice of Friedman was. At least I can try to avoid mistakes as catastrophic and hubristic as the lazy trust in American power that defined my youth.

That means doing without simple stories and teaching real debates between complex theories. It means taking other countries' cultures and interests seriously instead of assuming that everyone just wants to be American. Most of all, it means being open about how the only way to create a better world is to work hard for it.

Related Articles