Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
McDonald’s is not loving it. In response to the invasion of Ukraine, the fast food chain is closing in Russia.
Though supposedly temporary, these closures may prove permanent. The Kremlin has already threatened to confiscate the assets of western companies that leave the country. This ends a 32 year story of expansion. The first Russian McDonald’s opened in Moscow on the 31st January 1990. The business not only survived the USSR’s collapse, but thrived, opening hundreds of further branches.
It’s hard to think of more iconic examples of globalisation. For some commentators, swept up in the optimism of the 1990s, the Golden Arches didn’t just stand for capitalism’s triumph but for a new age of peace.
In 1996, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman observed that “no two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.” He expanded this into what he semi-seriously called the “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention” — which has been interpreted as a prediction that the McNations of the world would never engage one another in armed conflicts.
That’s not what Friedman actually predicted, but the Golden Arches Theory remains an attractive idea. What if globalisation really does make war too expensive? Yes, we might see a handful of corporations conquering the world. But brands are surely better than bombs.
Unfortunately, there have been several examples of wars between McNations. For instance, the 1999 Kargil war between India and Pakistan; or the 2006 conflict between Israel and Lebanon.
And now Russia’s and Ukraine. The Kremlin may insist on calling it a “special operation”, but this is a war of conquest. Though Russia has (or had) 847 branches of McDonald’s and Ukraine 108, one McNation is attempting to extinguish another’s sovereignty, slaughtering thousands to do so. In the worst possible way, Vladimir Putin has refuted the Golden Arches Theory.
In his 2005 book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, Friedman unveiled a more advanced version of his big idea. In place of McDonald’s he substituted the IT company, Dell. The “Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention” focuses on the globalisation of complex supply chains – like the links involved in the manufacture, marketing and distribution of a computer.
He was right to switch his focus. Supply chains are more essential to the globalised economy than the expansion of consumer brands. Thanks to a global division of labour, each nation can specialise in what it does best, while relying on other countries for what they do best. Even the downside — loss of self-reliance — can be spun positively: a reason to regard other nations as indispensable partners, not potential enemies.
Except one can’t help but notice that Europe is at war again. And that’s not for lack of supply chains linking Russia, Ukraine and the West. Over the last two decades, the EU — led by Germany — has deliberately increased its reliance on Russian energy supplies. Meanwhile, Russia has become dependent on western finance and technology in a way the USSR never was. The Soviet elites had dachas on the Black Sea coast. Their successors have mansions in Holland Park.
Pedants will point out that the actual war has been between Russia and Ukraine, with no direct conflict between Russia and the West. Arguably, the current situation even vindicates the Dell Theory.
But it is not economics that is keeping the nuclear-armed powers apart, but the fear of military escalation. Concerns over shared commercial interests have hardly been decisive. They didn’t stop Putin from ordering the invasion, nor the West from responding with a devastating barrage of sanctions. Though we continue to pay for Russian oil and gas, we’re using other trade weapons to deliberately cripple the Russian economy. A process of traumatic de-globalisation — in which western investments are treated as collateral damage — is now underway.
Indeed, commercial relationships are being severed not despite but because of their importance. To retain any validity, the Dell Theory must be restated in much darker terms: “in place of military conflict, two countries that share a global supply chain may use it to wage economic war, degrading and destroying the supply chain in the process.”
So if globalisation can’t guarantee good relations, is there anything — apart from potential nuclear annihilation — that can?
Well, there’s always democracy. In its most simplistic form, democratic peace theory states that democracies don’t go to war against one another. But democracy is hard to define. If it merely means the holding of elections or multi-party politics, then there are examples of war between democratic nations.
However, there’s more to democracy than voting. Other qualifications include the rule of law, respect for human rights and a flourishing civil society. Stability is an overarching requirement — democracy is not something that one can fit in between military coups.
So, do mature democracies go to war against one another? Since the Second World War, the answer is ‘very rarely’ — and, even then, all the examples are on the margins of any reasonable definition of maturity. Certainly, there hasn’t been a single case anywhere in Europe, North America or the Far East.
So while we can’t rely on globalisation to keep the peace, we can rely on freedom. Or (putting it another way) free trade between democracies is a good idea, but we need to treat authoritarian regimes with extreme caution. Too often we have purchased short-term economic efficiency at the expense of long-term security.
That must change, and not just with respect to Russia. As well as the World Trade Organisation, we need a Free World Trade Organisation: a democratic alliance to achieve energy independence and to re-establish control over strategically-important supply chains.
I’m not suggesting a programme of total democratic isolationism. In an imperfect world, it is sometimes necessary to shake the dictator’s hand. But that’s all the more reason get his boot off our throats.