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In 1996, columnist, international relations scholar and Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas L. Friedman penned an op-ed for the New York Times titled “Foreign Affairs Big Mac.” The column, about 700 words, analyzed a baffling trend he had noticed in international relations: no two countries with a McDonald’s restaurant had ever gone to war.
Friedman called it the “Golden Arches” theory of conflict prevention.
The observation was genuinely shocking. Even the most foundational conflict theories of the International Relations (IR) field have long lists of exceptions: Democratic Peace Theory (which posits that democracies tend not to go to war with each other, even though they’re as likely to go to war overall as autocracies,) is case in point, unable to explain the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, or (depending on your definition of democracy) the Sicilian Expedition circa 415 BCE.
While the article was tongue-in-cheek, it set off a cascade of debates in the IR community about why the trend was not only true, but better supported than something like democratic peace. The question had a chapter dedicated to it in Friedman’s 1999 book, "The Lexus and the Olive Tree.“
The idea is not, in fact, that the McDonald’s franchise has any causal effect on reduced risks of war. Rather, as Friedman put it for the Times: “When a country reaches a certain level of economic development, when it has a middle class big enough to support a McDonald's, it becomes a McDonald's country, and people in McDonald's countries don't like to fight wars; they like to wait in line for burgers.”
Then-McDonald’s International President James Cantalupo confirmed Friedman’s observation as part of the company’s policy.
“We focus our development on the more well-developed economies — those that are growing and those that are large — and the risks involved in being adventuresome (for those growing economies) are probably getting too great,” he said in Friedman’s NYT column.
The theory admittedly relies on a particular definition of “war” that is admittedly arbitrary, but is nonetheless the IR field’s standard. That definition holds that “war” requires at least 1,000 combat deaths, no more than 90% of which are on a single side of the conflict. Any fewer deaths constitutes only a “militarized dispute,” any less balanced ratio constitutes something less reciprocal than warfare.
That definition excludes some noteworthy conflicts, — the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, the Kargil War, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 are all examples that would otherwise disprove McPeace — but it’s a standard of the literature, cited by democratic peace theorists, for example, to brush off exceptions of their own.
There are two notable exceptions to the rule. The first is the Kosovo war: Kosovo did not (and still does not) boast the golden arches, but Yugoslavia (now Serbia) did, and so did most if not all NATO member states when the group started airstrikes in 1999. While NATO is not a country, and the war was technically a civil war, it still meets the IR fields definition: NATO and Kosovo were on one side, Serbia was on the other, and both sides had McDonald’s.
Friedman argued in his 1999 book that this exception proved the rule: airstrikes eventually knocked out power in Belgrade, a development that quickly changed the implications of the war for the nation’s populace, and in turn changed the political climate.
“Once NATO turned out the lights in Belgrade, and shut down the power grids and the economy, Belgrade's citizens almost immediately demanded that President Slobodan Milosevic bring an end to the war, as did the residents of Yugoslavia's other major cities,” Friedman said in his book. “Because the air war forced a choice on them … It's McDonald's or Kosovo — you can't have both. And the Serbian people chose McDonald's … they wanted to be part of the world, more than they wanted to be part of Kosovo. They wanted McDonald's reopened, much more than they wanted Kosovo reoccupied. They wanted to stand in line for burgers, much more than they wanted to stand in line for Kosovo."
The other exception is (or will soon be) Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine. At time of writing, casualty numbers are unconfirmed and hard to pin down, but the 1,000-death threshold looks increasingly likely with each passing day.
Unlike Kosovo, it’s hard to imagine how this conflict could resolve in a way that would fit Friedman’s explanation. Ukraine is fighting defensively and not a credible threat to Russia’s civilian population, much less the larger nation’s overall middle class comforts (i.e., Big Macs with fries.) If Russia pulls back, it won’t be because the homeland quality of life changed, it will be because their supply lines got too vulnerable and invasion stopped being an option.
On the other side of the coin, Russia indisputably threatens Ukraine’s “middle class comforts,” but the locals have shown a dedication to the cause and a willingness to fight back which suggests that it would take a lot more than a power outage (or curfews or heavy urban artillery or mandatory conscription for men ages 18-60,) for them to back down. Even if Ukraine eventually does concede, the pressure to do so will come from major factors like the flight of 120,000 refugees and growing civilian casualties, not anything that could be reduced to a mere disruption for the middle class.
Looking beyond the golden arches, the Ukraine conflict contradicts much of IR theory’s expectations. Both nations could, depending on how you measure, qualify as democracies, a problem for democratic peace theorists. Both have cultural ties to one another, have similar racial demographics and speak the same language, which makes diversionary theory (war by scapegoat) a poor explanation. Nuclear deterrence obviously hasn’t applied in a normal way, with Putin openly putting Russian nuclear forces on “high alert” early in the conflict.
This all goes to emphasize just how unthinkable the invasion of Ukraine truly was until it happened. There were many who thought war, at least as it’s traditionally understood, was a thing of the past for developed countries, solved by the “new world order” after World War II. Democratic Peace Theory, nuclear deterrence, and interdependent economies were seen as proof that conventional warfare had become unthinkable.
Whatever the outcome of the Ukraine invasion, one thing is certain: the world’s understanding of security studies has changed overnight, quite possibly forever. War is not only possible between well-developed, well-connected actors, it’s happening now and it’s scary. International security must now grapple with a new era, one where the rules — from McPeace to nuclear deterrence — have been rewritten.