The Beautiful, Dumb Dream of McDonald’s Peace Theory

In the rich, lazy, and happy 1990s, Americans imagined a world that could be just like them.

Nicolás Ortega illustration for Foreign Policy

As tanks exploded and refugees fled in the latest round of Armenia and Azerbaijian’s war over Nagorno-Karabakh, social media became another battlefield—with some surprising participants. That included the local branch of McDonald’s, which posted some ardently (and brief-lived) pro-Azeri sentiments on Twitter.

For Americans who remember the lazily optimistic foreign-policy analysis their country produced in the 1990s, it was a poignant moment. A company once held up as a disincentive to war had become a participant in one. It’s another blow to the idea that economic globalization by itself can make war less likely—and instead, how the legacies left behind by imperial decline will give birth to a new wave of conflict.

I happen to be one of those Americans. Back when Bill Clinton was still president, President Donald Trump a punchline, and the Twin Towers standing, I was a college freshman taking a course on American foreign policy. Our textbook was The Lexus and the Olive Tree, a 1999 bestseller by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

Friedman’s claim was simple: The benefits of economic integration reduce the policy choices open to governments, making war—which disrupts that integration—so unattractive as to be practically unthinkable. If that sounds like the theory of the capitalist peace as understood by Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and Richard Cobden, well, it pretty much was.

The book formed part of the glut of glib globalization cheerleading that defined the true unipolar moment—that period between the mid-1990s and the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. That optimism reflected a hard turn from the anxieties those same classes had embraced in the unsettled, immediate post-Cold War world. In 1990, John Mearsheimer mused in The Atlantic that Americans would soon miss the Cold War as the world collapsed into anarchy. Samuel Huntington’s 1993 essay in Foreign Affairs, “The Clash of Civilizations?”, suggested that the future would feature civilizational 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 beckoned.

By the mid-1990s, though, Americans had chilled out. The U.S.-led coalition’s war against President Saddam Hussein was a shockingly successful exercise. It turned out that the Japanese didn’t want to embark on a war of aggression just because their grandparents had (and their economy had tanked anyhow). European integration was proceeding peacefully. Ex-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev did a Pizza Hut commercial. The most pressing problem for American foreign policy thought leaders seemed to be explaining why this happy period had come about—and why it could never end. There wasn’t much need to learn a lot 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 anyhow.

In Friedman’s hands, the sophisticated flavors of Cobden and Smith were homogenized into a quick-serve dish, which he called the “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention.” His thesis, originally expounded in a 1996 column, proposed to explain the decline in war as a result of the expansion of global capitalism: “No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.”

Friedman admitted that the pacific correlation between McDonald’s and peaceful relations wasn’t causal. He even interviewed a McDonald’s executive (breathlessly identified as “its de facto secretary of state”), who told him that McDonald’s didn’t open in markets until they were already rich and developed enough to sustain a middle class that could afford luxuries like Western fast foods.

In other words, the presence of a McDonald’s restaurant didn’t exert magical conflict-reducing properties. Instead, McDonald’s strategically placed its restaurants in countries that were unlikely to go to war in the first place.

And this makes sense. McDonald’s has a high bar for opening a franchise because the reliability of its supply chain is both a bragging point and the core to its business model. A Big Mac is a Big Mac the world over, even if a quarter-pounder might not have the same name in the metric system. (Experienced travelers can also speak to the cleanliness and reliability of the toilets.) In the whole of Africa, for instance, even today McDonald’s operates in only four countries: Morocco, Egypt, South Africa, and the tourist island of Mauritius. Back in the 1990s, when Africa was the center of global conflict, with the Second Congo War claiming 5.4 million lives, the illusion of peace went with burgers and fries.

The actual cause of Friedman’s observation was how the expansion of global capital was making newly emerging markets increasingly attractive to multinational corporations. Friedman’s conjecture was less a Golden Arches Theory and more a Golden Arches Correlation. Correlation may not be causation, as any political scientist could have told Friedman, but snappy sloganeering is profitable.

Of course, if academics don’t sell as well as Friedman, they also are rarely proven wrong as quickly or as decisively as Friedman. Soon after the book hit retailers’ shelves, the U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign against Serbia started.

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

A pedestrian walks by a burned car in front of McDonald's restaurant after unrest in downtown Belgrade on Feb. 22, 2008.

A pedestrian walks by a burned car in front of McDonald’s restaurant after unrest in downtown Belgrade on Feb. 22, 2008. NEMANJA KOSTIC/AFP via Getty Images

Like many cultural artifacts of that period, Friedman’s book was almost entirely forgotten after the terrorist attacks of September 11 swept away America’s heady Clintonian optimism. (To be honest, I forgot about it pretty soon after I finished reading it, not least because I was distracted by the other big story of that semester: Bush v. Gore.)

Yet Friedman himself never let go. In a revised, and somewhat annoyed, edition of The Lexus and the Olive Tree, he complained that critics had gotten him all wrong.

Friedman’s updated presentation tried to refine his theory to preserve it. “My first reaction … was to defensively point out that NATO isn’t 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 by NATO into a civil war between Kosovo Serbs and Albanians,” he wrote.

There’s actually something to this defense. The scholarly Correlates of War dataset records the NATO-Serbia conflict as dispute #4137, which is coded as a 4 (“use of force”) rather than a 5 (“war”). And, as Friedman suggests, the larger dispute could also be coded as a civil war—although internationalized civil wars represent a distinct and increasingly common form of military conflict.

Friedman’s real defense, however, hangs on the idea that McDonald’s was irrelevant to the Golden Arches theory. “Kosovo proves just how much pressure … nationalist regimes can come under when the costs of their adventures, and wars of choice, are brought home to their people in the age of globalization,” Friedman wrote. Contemporary globalization “makes for a much stronger web of constraints on the foreign policy behavior of those nations which are plugged into the system.”

To be clear, the subsequent years have been no more kind to his theory, even in its post-McDonald’s form. Since Friedman wrote those passages, Wikipedia drolly notes, three additional militarized disputes have broken out between countries with McDonald’s: the 2006 Lebanon War; the 2008 Georgian-Russian War; and the 2014 Crimean crisis.

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

Friedman may not have moved on, but the rest of us have. In the years since he wrote the first version, I’ve earned a Ph.D. in international relations. Now, I teach 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 scholar Erik Gartzke, in which market development diminishes the prospects of war between two countries but doesn’t rule it out. Or there’s Dale Copeland’s argument that expectations of gains from trade—not the gains themselves—reduce the likelihood of wars between states.

These fine distinctions matter. And even those two versions of the capitalist peace lead to different conclusions. If trade and economic integration between countries really does tamp down bellicosity, then the United States and China are unlikely to go to war. But if those countries’ leaders decide to decouple their economy, the chances of war would correspondingly increase.

Of course, I would explain to my students, war could also proceed from other causes. Economic integration may be no panacea to interstate war after all. John Vasquez writes: “War among equals has followed the failure of power politics to settle certain highly salient issues”—none, he writes, more than “issues involving territory, especially territorial contiguity.”

In the former Soviet Union, the wars over Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, and now Nagorno-Karabakh have all involved territory as a crucial element, a story much closer to what Vasquez’s theory would predict than to Friedman’s.

Globalization may have increased the costs of these wars, but they have obviously not prevented them. To be sure, Armenia has no McDonald’s, an issue grave enough to have been raised in the parliament at Yerevan earlier this year. The Azerbaijan franchise’s cheerleading was also slapped down by the Home Office.

Regardless, Friedman’s logic suggests the conflict shouldn’t have begun, or shouldn’t have been so bloody once it did. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan score highly (and almost identically) on the ETH Zurich KOF Globalisation Index. The pace of deaths suggests that the conflict could qualify as a so-called real war by the traditional 1,000 battle-related-deaths criterion. (Indeed, some reports say the death toll blew past that level quickly.)

And if the conflict has knocked the final support from the Golden Arches theory, it has also finally toppled whatever confidence remained in the 1990s belief in the eternal sunshine of the American order.

The resurgent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict provides yet another reason to worry that the world is entering a new phase of more violent conflict—including major wars—and globalization will no more prevent them than burgeoning trade before Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination prevented World War I.

After all, wars keep emerging that challenge the optimistic assessment that war is a relic of the past. The specific ways these conflicts emerge, moreover, point to the possibility that new wars could break out that make even bloody conflicts like those in Syria and Yemen seem relatively minor.

Driven by processes of imperial dysfunction and internal breakdown, today’s wars have causes that are enormously difficult to heal.

The conflicts in the former Soviet Union, from Chechnya in the 1990s to Nagorno-Karabakh today, represent a set of wars in the post-Soviet succession. Russia has attempted to maintain its central role against real and perceived rivals throughout that vast region including transnational Islam, the European Union, the United States, China, and now arguably Turkey.

A segregation board separates men and women at a McDonald’s in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on July 11, 2004.

A segregation board separates men and women at a McDonald’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 contend for power as the United States continues to loudly proclaim that it is unwilling to continue playing its imperial stabilizing role (even if Washington never actually seems to find the exit).

And China, which once preferred to keep its border disputes quiet, seems increasingly willing to saber-rattle from the Taiwan Straits to the Himalayas.

Any given conflict may have a particular set of causes. But one thing Friedman got right was in looking to changes in the broad international system rather than just focusing on those particularities. And in this case, the common factors are uncertainty about the intentions of the United States and the role of new global challengers.

Much of that uncertainty stems from how the Trump administration and deeper domestic dysfunctions have hobbled U.S. foreign policy. Ironically, even though the doomsayers of the immediate post-Cold War era had predicted that U.S. leadership would collapse because of a challenge from without, the gravest blow came from within. If the catalyst hadn’t been Trump, then it’s likely that some other political entrepreneur would have seized on the opportunities afforded by the polarized U.S. political system to bring about similar results.

Were the Golden Arches theory right, the rise of other countries should not have posed a challenge to U.S. order. Friedman assumed that every country would be bound by globalization to choose from the same limited number of options. In this, he wasn’t alone. Many observers, from policymakers to international relations scholars, made the same bet. And, like him, they also assumed that the United States itself would do whatever it took to maintain a position as a benevolent hegemon upholding the international system. But it turns out that countries are willing to pay an economic price to pursue other values.

We can no longer take for granted the idea that the United States—or any other country—will be bound to be a responsible stakeholder. It’s time to begin thinking about what the next era of world politics will look like.

As I teach my students, I’m haunted by the idea that my assessment of what they need to know will prove as dated and as limited as my professor’s choice of Friedman as a textbook ended up being. At the very least, I can try to avoid errors as catastrophic and hubristic as the lazy confidence in American power that defined my youth.

That means forgoing simple stories and teaching real debates between complex theories. It means taking other countries’ cultures and interests seriously, rather than assuming everyone just wants to be American. Most of all, it means being open about how the only way to make a better world is to work for it, hard.


Paul Musgrave is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.