Moscow’s Golden Arches: For Here or To Go?

By Hugo Spaulding

“People in McDonald’s countries don’t like to fight wars anymore, they prefer to wait in line for burgers— and those leaders or countries which ignore that fact will pay a much, much higher price than they think.” —Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization, 2000

In his 1999 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman argued that no two countries had ever gone to war after they opened their first McDonald’s. The golden arches theory of conflict prevention, as he termed it, rests on the premise that countries serving up Big Macs are sufficiently integrated into the global economy to make an offensive war, and the international ostracism that accompanies it, prohibitively expensive. In addition, the theory stems from the notion that countries with a large enough middle class to support a McDonald’s franchise will face popular opposition to any disruption of peace and prosperity. While Friedman’s critics highlighted the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in that same year as counterevidence (there was a McDonald’s in Belgrade), the famous golden arches continue to offer a useful model for understanding how economic integration and, more importantly, disintegration affect international security.

Nearly a decade before Friedman’s book, the golden arches arrived in Gorbachev’s Russia, a landmark occasion in the thaw of U.S.-Soviet relations. Since the day it opened in January 1990, the queues of burger-hungry Muscovites at the busiest McDonald’s in the world never dried up. That is until Wednesday, August 21, 2014, when state consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor temporarily shut down the Pushkin Square store along with three others over health concerns. According to Izvestia, a news source close to the government, the agency will inspect the remaining 111 branches in Moscow in addition to conducting nationwide checks.

While the Kremlin may not directly close any of the 423 Russian McDonald’s locations (click and zoom out to see map), it will continue to make life difficult for the chain through irregular and highly publicized health inspections. The pattern already resembles Putin’s crackdown on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), when a 2013 law required thousands of NGOs to register as “foreign agents.” Not only did the law expose nonprofits to unannounced government raids but its wide coverage in the state media successfully stigmatized human rights activity as espionage. Despite rampant anti-Western paranoia, it is unlikely anyone will be picking through Big Macs in search of hidden cameras. Burgers and fries are already unhealthy and propaganda chief Dmitry Kiselev could come up with an anti-McDonald’s campaign in his sleep. Indeed, Rospotrebnadzor has already accused the chain of misleading customers about the nutrition of its milkshakes and filet-o-fish.

So what does this all mean in Friedman’s terms? Will each store closure bring the U.S. and Russia one step closer to military confrontation? Certainly the fate of McDonald’s will not provide an accurate barometer for war sentiment in Russia. Even the staunchest Liberal international relations theorists would agree that the principle of mutually assured destruction trumps Friedman’s golden arches when it comes to deterrence. The question then becomes, does the model even apply to a Russia with its unique historical trajectory and volatile geopolitical agenda? Friedman himself admitted that the theory had a “limited shelf life” because eventually McDonald’s would spread to all states, even potentially rogue ones. Indeed, Russia has already violated the golden arches rule on two occasions, first in its 2008 invasion of South Ossetia and more recently in annexing the Crimea (Georgia, Ukraine and even the Crimea had McDonald’s).

(Also, check out the McDonald’s of the future here in Batumi, Georgia)

In the second edition of The Lexus and the Olive Tree published in 2000, Friedman responded to the oft-cited Serbia counterexample by arguing that it proved rather than confounded his theory. According to Friedman, Serbians faced this question in the wake of the NATO bombings: “Do you want to be part of Europe and the broad economic trends and opportunities in the world today or do you want to keep Kosovo and become an isolated, backward tribal enclave: It’s McDonald’s or Kosovo— you can’t have both” (Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, 2000). In those simple terms, Serbians chose the golden arches of globalization by demanding that President Slobodan Milosevic call off the war immediately.

Sanctions and self-imposed import bans do not pose the same existential threat as NATO bombs in Belgrade. They do, however, undermine a lifestyle to which many in Russia have grown accustomed. Whether it’s losing the cheaper goods that international competition brings or the foreign luxuries that Russia cannot produce, consumers will continue to pay the price of Putin’s empire building. Maybe they can put up with Crimea instead of Polish apples or a stake in the new Ukraine instead of McNuggets, but how will Muscovites feel when it’s Lugansk or Louis Vuitton?

Image Source: Reuters

Hugo Spaulding ’14 was a Russian Studies major. 

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