James Ritchie

Originally published in 1996/1997, Issue 2

Some clever graffiti on a wall surrounding a construction site in Amsterdam. It stood out enough from the surrounding art to grab just about every passer-by's attention.

War has been an ever present phenomenon in the international system. A solution to this problem has eluded policy-makers and international relations theorists, until now. Thomas Friedman, of the New York Times, has come up with a new prescription for interstate peace: McDonald’s. No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.

The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention has been confirmed by the “McDonald’s University” at Illinois. The Middle East stands as a shining testament to the ability of McDonald’s to bring peace. Israel’s first restaurant opened in 1993, Egypt has 18 and Saudi Arabia will soon be joined by Jordan, in having regular access to Happy Meals. Historical enemies like China and Japan, Germany and France, Turkey and Greece all enjoy peaceful relations and Big Macs. Argentina did not get a McDonald’s until 1986; a second Falklands War looks unlikely.

Does a regular diet of McRib sandwiches, cokes and fries destroy the war-making capacity of man? Should the United Nations include Big Macs with the blankets it sends to Bosnia, Rwanda and other war-torn states? Thomas Friedman accepts there are limits to the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention. Civil wars cannot be prevented by McDonald’s: the 1993 attempted coup against Boris Yeltsin witnessed combatants from both sides taking time out for trips to the Moscow McDonald’s. McStates are not inherently peaceful and frequently wage war against states which have not yet welcomed Ronald McDonald. America’s first McDonald’s opened in 1955: Vietnam and Iraq are still waiting for the security from the United States, that their own Golden Arches will bring.

It is at this point that students of Democratic Peace Theory will recognise that the origins of Friedman’s theory can be found 160 years before the invention of the Big Mac, in the writings of Immanuel Kant. As Kant predicted, democratic states do not fight each other, but regularly wage war against non-democratic states. McDonald’s is a symptom of the peace between liberal democracies; it is not the cause. It is only once a state has developed sufficiently that it can afford a McDonald’s; McDonald’s regularly turns down requests for restaurants from hopeful ambassadors of underdeveloped states.

With McDonald’s welcoming Belarus as the hundredth McState in December 1996 there are warnings that Friedman’s theory may not stand the test of time. In its push to expand, McDonald’s is lowering the standards of development that states must meet. Francis Fukuyama “would not be surprised if, in the next 10 years, several of these McDonald’s nations go to war with each other.” Golden Arches over Tripoli, Baghdad and Pyongyang are unlikely to create detente between these states and America. No doubt journalists are already looking at other multinational franchises to replace McDonald’s as guarantor of peace. Any takers for the Kentucky Fried Chicken Theory of Conflict Prevention?


Thomas Friedman, “Turning swords into beef-burgers“. The Guardian (19 December 1996)