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  • Writer's pictureJames Ron

The Big Mac Theory of International Conflict

Back in the 1990s, New York Times journalist Tom Friedman argued that countries with a McDonald's on their territory were not likely to go to war.

His logic had nothing to do with hamburgers, of course. Having a McDonald's was a proxy for a country's engagement with the international capitalist system. If you had one, you were embedded in global flows of trade, finance, and consumerism, and this meant you were connected to other countries and institutions in that same flow.

That global system was dominated by the US, whose security umbrella and system of diplomatic/military alliances would help manage tensions between the likes of Turkey and Greece, or Saudi Arabia and Israel.

This theory fit with the liberal school of international relations theory, which argued that countries with strong trade relations were not likely to go to war because the economic benefits of cooperation were too strong.

Today, McDonald's announced that it was temporarily ceasing operations in Russia. Although many of its stores are franchises, it apparently owns the bulk of its Russian outlets outright.

Russian's invasion of Ukraine has already contradicted Tom Friedman's Big Mac theory, as Ukraine has plenty of McDonald's outlets on its territory. The end of hamburger sales in Russia may just be a case of reality catching up with theory.

Hopefully, the move is not a harbinger of a broader war to come. Russia is being expelled from the international financial, trading and consumer system, becoming an overnight globalization reject. McDonald's is just catching up to a host of retail outfits that have already pulled out of Russia.

If the Big Mac theory still has any validity to it, however, McDonald's decision to leave Russia may be a canary in the coal mine, suggesting a mounting risk of an even more awful armed conflict to come.

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