Fall of the Golden Arches Theory: Enriching tyrants doesn’t prevent wars after all

McDonald’s entered Russia knowing Putin was a tyrant. The idea that their presence there would be salutary has proven wrong. Shouldn’t this recognition have implications for our relations with China and Iran?

A McDonald's fast-food restaurant in Orlando, Fla. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A McDonald's fast-food restaurant in Orlando, Fla. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Clifford D. May
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), as well as a columnist for “The Washington Times.”

McDonald’s is closing its restaurants in Russia, which means no more Happy Meals in Gorky Park. But there’s also a McNugget of geostrategic significance in this development.

Towards the end of the 20th century, Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, observed: “No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.”

He considered that a revelation, the basis for his “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention.” Boiled down: Economic integration and globalization pave the path to peace.

He may have been correct in asserting that “when a country reaches a certain level of economic development” most of its people “don’t like to fight wars.” What he failed to appreciate is that if those countries are unfree, undemocratic and ruled by tyrants, most of its people don’t matter.

Russian President Vladimir Putin could have said to Ukrainians: “We’re one people! Let’s reunite! Think of all we can achieve together!” Instead, starting on Feb. 24, he has been raping Ukraine.

“Like it or not, it’s your duty, my beauty,” he recently, and crudely, instructed Ukrainians. Their duty being to submit to him. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acidly responded: “We are not his.”

Of course, Ukrainians have been rebuffing Putin’s advances for years. I was an election observer in Ukraine for the International Republican Institute in 2019. Despite Russian meddling, the pro-Russian party received just 13.5% of the ballots.

Many Russians are disgusted and outraged by Putin’s slaughter of their neighbors. They can and do protest. He can and does arrest or kill them. The same is true of the despotic rulers of China and Iran with whom Putin is aligned.

Returning to the Golden Arches Theory: It was not entirely original. In 1910, Norman Angell, a journalist, member of the British Parliament and 1933 winner of a Nobel Peace Prize, published The Great Illusion, a highly popular book making the case that in an economically interdependent world, wars will become counterproductive, rendering militarism obsolete.

Among the flaws in this theory: Strongmen may be Material Girls when it comes to their personal finances, but not when it comes to those of their subjects. Putin, who became a multibillionaire through means not much different from those employed by John Gotti, does not regard putting a chicken in every pot—or a Big Mac on every table—as a worthy goal.

The same can be said for Tehran’s obscenely rich theocrats. They follow the line of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who said that the Islamic Revolution “is not about the price of watermelons.”

Not understanding that, former President Barack Obama cut a dollars-for-promises deal with them. Not understanding that, U.S. Presiden Joe Biden continues to attempt to conclude a weaker version of that deal, ignoring Iranian death threats against Americans and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps missiles exploding near the American consulate in Kurdistan.

As for China’s Communist rulers, there was a time when it did appear that they were prioritizing national economic advancement and therefore might be willing to become good stakeholders in a global economic system benefitting all participants. It was on that basis that, in 2000, former President Bill Clinton pushed Congress to approve the U.S.-China trade agreement and China’s accession to the World Trade Organization.

But the experiment failed—spectacularly. Beijing has for years been stealing American intellectual property, building its nuclear and conventional forces for offensive purposes and subverting international institutions, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization and the U.N. Human Rights Council among them.

Millions of American workers have lost their jobs as too many American corporations have found it convenient to take advantage of Beijing’s forced laborers, including in Xinjiang where, according to the U.S. government, a Turkic Muslim people faces genocide.

We don’t know whether Putin, using siege and scorched-earth tactics, will succeed in subjugating Ukrainians, depriving them of the right to cast ballots to decide who leads them and preventing them from choosing their foreign affiliations.

What is certain is that the imperialist war he is waging will leave Ukrainians impoverished. Russians will suffer, too. That should not suggest there isn’t a constituency for Putin’s grander goals which, as Georgetown University’s Angela Stent noted, include “reversing the consequences of the Soviet collapse, splitting the transatlantic alliance and renegotiating the geographic settlement that ended the Cold War.”

The West’s first order of business—for reasons both moral and strategic—is to do all we can to help Ukrainians exercise their right to self-defense. But it’s not too soon to start thinking about the mistakes we have made, the lessons we should learn and the policies we need to change. Three examples:

Europeans need to break their addiction to Russian energy, and America can and should be an energy superpower. That will require a cease-fire in the war on oil and gas, especially if the alternative is begging thugs such as Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro to take our money in exchange for their fossil fuels.

The U.S. and its allies need to upgrade military capabilities. “Peace through strength” requires convincing adversaries they’d be fools to provoke us. But achieving deterrence—as opposed to talking about it—is neither easy nor cheap.

We need to secure strategic supply chains, pursue freer trade with friends and begin to disentangle economically from regimes that are hostile to us, our values and our interests.

McDonald’s and other corporations entered Russia knowing Putin was a tyrant. They thought their presence there would be salutary. They were wrong. Shouldn’t this recognition have implications for our relations with the tyrannical regimes that rule China and Iran?

Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and a columnist for “The Washington Times.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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