The failed McDonald’s peace theory

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The failed McDonald’s peace theory

The author is a Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

In 1996, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman introduced the “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention.” It was a controversial theory that no two countries with McDonald’s restaurants have ever gone to war.

The Golden Arches refer to the gigantic M-shaped structure at McDonald’s stores, but the theory is also called the “McDonald’s peace theory.” It was also praise of the globalization that was spreading at the time. Once economies become entangled and integrated into one system, a strong foreign policy mechanism kicks in, and the countries wouldn’t go to war rashly, Friedman argued.

In 2018, when the North Korea-U.S. summit was held, then-U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly wished that McDonald’s would open in Pyongyang. I am not sure if he had this theory in mind, but he certainly had expectations that the McDonald’s franchise would contribute to the establishment of peace on the Korean Peninsula.

But not long after the theory was made, it faced uncertainty. McDonald’s was in business in Serbia, but the Kosovo War started in 1998. NATO, which has thousands of McDonald’s stores in its member countries, also got involved in the war. Critics pointed out that McDonald’s itself did not have any deterrence as it only entered countries that were unlikely to get involved in a war. It is not a theory, but just a consequential correlation, critics said.

Friedman argued that the Kosovo War was a civil conflict, and NATO is not a country, strictly speaking. But then, last month, Russian forces crossed the Ukraine border. This time, it was definitely a war between two countries with McDonald’s operating in each of them.

On March 8, McDonald’s announced that it was suspending its operation of 850 stores in Russia. Its first store, at the Pushkin Square — an icon of the end of the Cold War — closed after 32 years. The peace theory itself was reversed completely.

Professor Paul Musgrave from the University of Massachusetts Amherst called the McDonald’s peace theory a “beautiful, dumb dream.” He said the theory overly exaggerated the role of economy in conflict prevention. When politics cannot resolve issues in the future or when a discord arises from territorial disputes or other reasons, a war will break out regardless of a McDonald’s presence.

On the verge of national bankruptcy due to intense economic sanctions, Russian President Vladimir Putin is now targeting civilians too. The upcoming shutdown of an iconic McDonald’s restaurant in Moscow seems to be a sign we are living in an age when even sweet things like the Golden Arches cannot prevent a dictator from provoking other countries. 

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