The Capitalist Peace: What Happened to the Golden Arches Theory?

Many are familiar with the Democratic Peace Theory, the idea that two democracies have never waged war against one another. The point is widely recognized as one of the major benefits of democracy, and the hand-in-hand development of more democracies and fewer/less-devastating wars than virtually any other period of human history, is a tempting and enticing explanation.

Now, it is not overly difficult to come up with counter-examples to the Democratic Peace Theory, and indeed there’s an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to it. Here are some notable and obvious counters:

  • Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s
  • First Kashmir War between India and Pakistan War (1947-49)
  • Various wars between Israel and its neighbors (1967, 1973, 2006 etc)
  • The Football war (1969)
  • Paquisha and Cenepa wars (1981, 1995)

Some people even include the First World War and various 18th and 19th century armed conflicts between major powers (American War of Independence comes to mind), but the question of when a country becomes a democracy naturally arises.

There’s another, equally enticing explanation, the main rationale underlying European Integration: The Capitalist Peace, or in a more entertaining and relatable version: The Golden Arches Theory – as advanced by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in the mid-1990s:

No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against one another.

Countries, frankly, “have too much to lose to ever go to war with one another.” As a proposition it seems reasonable, an extension of the phrase apocryphally attributed to Bastiat: “When goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will”. And not because your Big Mac meal comes with a side of peace-and-love or enhanced conflict-resolution skills, but because the introduction of McDonald’s stores represents close economic interdependence and global supply chains. After all, if your suppliers, your customers or your collegues consists of people on the other side of a potential military conflict, a war seems even less useful. Besides – paraphrasing Terry Anderson and Peter Hill in their superb The Not So Wild Wild Westtrading is cheaper than raiding. Even as adamant a critic as George Monbiot admits that a fair number of McDonald’s outlets “symbolised the transition” from poor and potentially trouble-making countries, to richer and peace-loving ones.

Not unlike poor Thomas Malthus, whose convicing theory had been correct up until that  point, reality rapidly decided to invalidate Friedman’s tongue-in-cheek explanation. Not long after it was published, the McDonald’s-ised nations of Pakistan and India decided to up their antics in the Kargil war, quickly undermining its near-flawless explanatory power of Friedman’s. Not one to leave all the fun to others, Russia engaged in no more than two wars in the 2000s to undermine the Golden Arches theory: the 2008 war with Georgia, and more recently the Crimean crisis. Adherring to their namesake creation, McDonald’s pull-out from Crimea was just a tad too late to vindicate Friedman.

The Capitalist Peace, the academic extension of the general truism that trading is cheaper than raiding, came undone pretty quickly thanks in part to our Russian friends. The updated version, the Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention, may unfortunately fall into the same trap as the Democratic Peace Theory: invoking ambiguous definitions that may ultimately collapse to mere than tautologies.

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