Foreign Policy Pundits’ Favorite Theory Is Dead

Foreign Policy Pundits’ Favorite Theory Is Dead


Washington’s regime change wars soundly disproved “Golden Arches” peace theory decades ago.

McDonald’s is enjoyed by millions across the world, but could it be the key to everlasting peace? Probably not.

The “Golden Arches peace theory” is the idea that two nations with McDonald’s have never and will never go to war. Russia has 847 McDonald’s and Ukraine has 108. The Golden Arches peace theory is officially dead. But the theory was already soundly disproved in the twentieth century.

The Golden Arches peace theory was developed in 1996 by Thomas Friedman on the assumption that two nations economically liberal enough to have McDonald’s would be embedded in world trade and more focused on economic development than war. As Friedman put it, “People in McDonald’s countries don’t like to fight wars; they like to wait in line for burgers.”1 

It seems that people in the United States and Russia have figured out how to do both. Five out of the six major conflicts of the 21st century have involved one of the two nations, or both. The United States invaded Iraq and Afghanistan.2 It also funded and armed Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Yemen (Saudi Arabia also has a McDonald’s).34 Russia invaded Ukraine. Both nations got involved on opposing sides of the Syrian civil war.5 So did Turkey, which also has a McDonald’s. 

Evidently, McDonald’s nations are happy to wage war, they just usually avoid being used as the battleground.

Friedman assumes nations with McDonald’s want to keep their McDonald’s, or, more broadly, their access to foreign investment and goods. The economic cost of a war becomes much higher when a nation is embedded in the international economic system, because they could be sanctioned or expelled, as Russia was. For Friedman, the globalization represented by McDonald’s is the cure to all evil. He claims opening to foreign investment and free trade “permanently restricts [a nation’s] capacity for troublemaking and promotes gradual democratization and widening peace.”

If Marx’s “end of history” is a communist society free of violence, money, and exploitation, Golden Arches peace theory is neoliberals’ alternative. Golden Arches peace theory implies every nation can be a “McDonald’s nation,” and eventually humans will enjoy democracy and peace under a globalized free market. 

The reality of globalization is much less utopic.

Free trade overwhelmingly benefits wealthy nations that enjoy cheap commodities created by cheap workers with cheap raw materials in the global South (Latin America, Asia, and Africa), in factories that are often owned by creditors in the global North (Europe, North America, and Australia). People in wealthy nations get commodities for a fraction of what they are worth, and most of what we do pay goes to international corporations based in our own countries. 

Big Macs aside, the global economy is a terrible deal for any country outside of the global North. 

How terrible?

Between 1990 and 2015, the global South lost 242 trillion dollars to the global North in unequal exchange.6

That means if the global North paid global North prices for the total value of the raw materials, land, energy, and labor put into commodities bought from the global South, the latter would be 242 trillion dollars richer. 

That is a dizzying amount of money. In 2015 alone, the global South lost $10.8 trillion dollars to unequal exchange, enough money to end extreme poverty 70 times over. Or lose a war in Afghanistan five times.7

That 10.8 trillion dollar price tag represents crucial resources, including enough land to grow food for 6 billion people. It also includes twenty one exajoules of energy, enough energy to build and power housing, hospitals, transportation, schools, water and sanitation infrastructure, and cell phones for every person in the global South. The resources to end poverty and hunger are being used to export handbags to T.J.Maxx. 

The “globalized economy” Friedman is so fond of is so unequal it requires violence to function. Democratically elected governments don’t agree to economic systems that impoverish the people who voted for them. This is why the United States has spent the last seventy years overthrowing democracies in the global South in order to create a globalized economic system centered around ourselves. 

In 1954, the United States’ CIA covertly overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected president, Jacob Arbenz.89 Arbenz had redistributed land from The United Fruit company – a U.S. company now known as Chiquita – to poor indigenous farm workers. While the United States did not officially invade Guatemala, the CIA did fund, train, arm, and orchestrate the military coup against Arbenz. For the next forty years, the United States continued to wage a covert military and psychological war against the Guatemalan people. Over 200,000 Guatemalans were killed by the US-backed military dictatorship, including 166,000 Mayans.10 

Under Operation Condor, the United States trained and financially supported coups and military dictatorships across Latin America. The CIA gave military juntas in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Brazil advanced technology and intelligence assistance. This military aid included the communication system used by dictators to coordinate disappearances and political assassinations across state lines.11 

Operation Condor successfully repeated what the United States had already done in Guatemala on a continent-wide level, violently overthrowing elected governments that had nationalized industries, raised tariffs, expanded labor rights, or supported land redistribution and systematically replacing them with “free trade friendly” military dictatorships. 

These US-backed military dictatorships opened Latin America to foreign investments, instituted free trade policies, and took part in neoliberal financial programs instituted by global financial institutions such as the IMF. In some countries, the dictatorships’ economic advisors were literally trained in the United States.12

Golden Arches Peace Theory is more accurate turned inside out. Instead of securing peace and democracy, opening the world to free trade and foreign investment requires war and despotism. Latin America has been one victim, the Middle East another.

In 1951, Iran’s parliament voted nearly unanimously to nationalize the nation’s oil and kick out foreign oil companies.13 In response, the United States and Britain orchestrated a coup to overthrow the Prime Minister of Iran and reinstall the Shah, Iran’s disempowered monarch. The coup succeeded and Iran’s democratically elected government was replaced by a repressive U.S.-backed dictator who ruled for twenty-six years.14

During the Cold War, the United States attempted to change other nations’ governments seventy two times.15 Most of these interventions were in response to Communist or Marxist groups being elected or gaining power. But they also forcibly opened nations to foreign investment and free trade. And following the end of the Cold War, the United States continued its violent interventions, often, ironically, under the pretense of protecting democracy.

In 1993, the Clinton administration launched “Operation Uphold Democracy” in Haiti, an armed intervention that involved 25,000 U.S. troops occupying the nation.16 Officially, the goal of the intervention was to reinstate Haiti’s democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been overthrown two years earlier by a CIA – backed military junta.17

However, as a condition of reinstating democracy, the Clinton administration forced Aristide to open Haiti to foreign investment and privatize nationalized industries.18 

Democracy, with a free trade twist. 

The impact of free trade on Haiti was disastrous. Subsidized rice from the United States flooded Haiti, outcompeting and impoverishing local farmers, while “structural adjustment” programs barred the Haitian government from investing in domestic social programs or instituting protective economic policies. Between 1980 and 2000, per capita income in Haiti dropped from around $600 to $369 per year.19 

In 2010, Bill Clinton apologized for instituting free trade reforms on the nation, saying “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked […] It was a mistake.”20 Today Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Three quarters of its population lives on less than two dollars a day. 

Friedman first proposed Golden Arches peace theory in 1996, two years after Operation Uphold Democracy. It is a “tongue in cheek” articulation of the post-Cold War idea that free trade, democracy, and peace are inextricably linked. Which is a convenient economic story that allows leaders to go directly against American ideals while claiming to uphold them.

Clinton misled the public about the administration’s goals in Haiti; under the banner of “Upholding Democracy” he instituted free trade on Haiti at the price of democracy. Bush, on the other hand, just lied. 

When Bush was elected, the United States’ Department of Energy estimated Iraq was sitting on one fourth of the world’s oil, and none of it was accessible to western companies.21 Saddam Hussein had nationalized Iraq’s oil industry, and the United States was enforcing restrictive sanctions against the nation.22

After 9/11, Bush’s administration repeatedly claimed Iraq was involved in the terrorist attack despite the CIA and American allies reporting that there was no reason to believe Iraq was involved.23 The administration then claimed that Iraq had stockpiles of biological weapons and Bush said “we do not know whether or not [Iraq] has a nuclear weapon.” He did know. U.S. intelligence had not confirmed any stockpiles of weapons in Iraq, and knew Iraq did not have a nuclear weapon.24

Proceeding the 2003 vote to invade Iraq, the Bush administration released a paper on the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program in Iraq that greatly overstated evidence of WMDs. Congressmen had access to a classified report on WMDs in Iraq that was so different from the paper released to the public it made one Senator, “question whether the White House was telling the truth — or even had an interest in knowing the truth.”25 Few Congressman read the classified report, and Congress overwhelmingly voted for war.26After the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration claimed the goal of continued war was liberating Iraqis and instituting democracy in the nation.2728 The U.S. government had no plan for instituting fair elections in Iraq.29 It did have seventeen different working groups on the future of Iraqi oil. The war killed 250,000 people and left the nation’s political system in chaos.30

Saddam Hussein had no connection to 9/11, the occupation of Iraq created more terrorists than it stopped, no weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq, the U.S. failed to institute free and fair elections, but trillions of barrels of oil were liberated from the nation, so none of the lies mattered.31323334

Iraq is the epitome of Golden Arches peace theory, which is itself a delusion. The Bush administration argued that democracy equals free trade equals freedom equals peace. Bringing democracy to the nation would go hand in hand with opening Iraq’s economy to the world, and both would make Iraq a more peacable player on the world stage. Ultimately democracy and peace were sacrificed for free trade. 

Golden Arches peace theory erases the violent exploitation globalization is built on to portray it as the opposite of what it is, a cure for the world’s evil instead of a major cause of its strife. And there is no evidence free trade and foreign investment will suddenly become a force for democracy and peace in the world.

Just three years ago, in 2019, the US-dominated Organization of American States (OAS) used its position as the neutral overseer of Bolivia’s national election to claim, with no evidence, that the Socialist president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, had rigged the vote.35 A Bolivian military coup toppled the nation’s democratic government within weeks, with rhetorical support from U.S. media. The New York Times claimed Morales had “shed his legitimacy,” by rigging the election without fact-checking the OAS’s report.36 The misinformation campaign weaponized against Bolivia was less violent than the United States’ actions in Guatemala or South America, but it still succeeded in toppling Bolivia’s government. 

Golden Arches peace theory only makes sense if people in “Mcdonalds’ countries” want Mcdonald’s. But there are more important things in the world than Big Macs. Bolivia hasn’t had McDonalds since 2002, when popular opinion turned against foreign investment.37 In 2006, after decades of presidents who opened the nation to foreign investments, trade, and McDonald’s, Bolivians elected Evo Morales.38 He withdrew Bolivia from international financial organizations, nationalized the nation’s oil and gas resources, controlled the price of food and other necessities, decreased exports, and banned Coca Cola.39 His anti-globalism cut Bolivia’s poverty rate in half.40

Bolivia, and other Latin American nations such as Chile and Peru, are succeeding to repeal the free trade policies forced on them.4142 They are not interested in shutting the world out completely, becoming the next North Korea or Iran. But they are figuring out a system of globalization that works for their own people, not the United States.43 It looks like nationalized industries and gender parity, land redistribution and free tractors.444546

In 2019, people in Bolivia pulled off a miracle. Facing violent political repression, Indigenous Bolivians shut down the country.4748 They set up roadblocks and let nothing into the capital except medicine, they held huge protests despite state oppression, and they won. They forced the coup to hold elections, and Evo Morale’s party was reelected by a landslide.49

McDonald’s won’t be returning to Bolivia anytime soon.

  1. Thomas Friedman, “Foreign Affairs Big Mac I,” The New York Times, December 8, 1996.
  2. Riedel, Bruce, and Ryan Hass. “Reflections on the long-term repercussions of September 11 for US policy in the Middle East.” Brookings Institution, 7 September 2021
  3. Kenner, David. “’Nobody Wants to See This War End.’” Politico, 16 June 2022
  4. Bostock, Bill. “Review: What It’s Like to Eat in McDonald’s in Saudi Arabia.Business Insider, 22 February 2020
  5. Beasley, David M., and Zachary Laub. “Syria’s War and the Descent Into Horror.Council on Foreign Relations
  6. Hickel, Jason, et al. “Imperialist appropriation in the world economy: drain from the global south through unequal exchange, 1990–2015.” Global Environmental Change 73 (2022): 102467.
  7. Human and Budgetary Costs to Date of the U.S. War in Afghanistan, 2001-2022 | Figures | Costs of War.The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, August 2021
  8. “CIA and Assassinations: The Guatemala 1954 Documents,” Edited by Kate Doyle and Peter Kornbluh, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 4, The National Security Archive at George Washington University.
  9. Peeling Back the Truth on Guatemalan Bananas. COHA, 28 July 2010
  10. Billy Briggs, “Secrets of the Dead,” The Guardian, February 1, 2007.
  11. Giles Tremlett, “Operation Condor: The Cold War Conspiracy that Terrorised South America,” The Guardian, September 3, 2020.
  12. Davies, Richard. “Why is inequality booming in Chile? Blame the Chicago Boys | Richard Davies.The Guardian, 13 November 2019
  13. Wilber, Donald. “The C.I.A. in Iran: Britain Fights Oil Nationalism.” The New York Times, 2000
  14. CIA Confirms Role in 1953 Iran Coup Documents Provide New Details on Mosaddeq Overthrow and Its Aftermath,” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 435, Edited by Malcolm Byrne, The National Security Archive at George Washington University.
  15. O’Rourke, Lindsey A. “Analysis | The U.S. tried to change other countries’ governments 72 times during the Cold War.” The Washington Post, 23 December 2016
  16. Bunyan, Rachael. “How Operation Uphold Democracy Still Affects Life in Haiti.Time, 20 September 2019
  17. Weiner, Tim. “C.I.A. Formed Haitian Unit Later Tied to Narcotics Trade (Published 1993). The New York Times, 14 November 1993
  18. Bunyan, Rachael. “How Operation Uphold Democracy Still Affects Life in Haiti.Time, 20 September 2019
  19. Dobbs, Michael. “In Haiti.The Washington Post, 13 April 2000
  20. O’Connor, Maura R. “Subsidizing Starvation – Foreign Policy.Foreign Policy, 11 January 2013
  21. How Much Oil Does Iraq Have?Brookings Institution
  22. Juhasz, Antonia. “Why the war in Iraq was fought for Big Oil.” CNN, 15 April 2013
  23. Malone, Noreen. “Iraq-9/11 no connection: Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz badgered CIA to find a link anyway.Slate Magazine, 7 May 2021
  24. Matthews, Dylan. “Ari Fleischer is wrong: Bush did lie, and people did die.Vox, 20 March 2019
  25. Kessler, Glenn. “Analysis | The Iraq War and WMDs: An intelligence failure or White House spin?The Washington Post, 22 March 2019
  26. Frontline. “Analysis – The October ’02 National Intelligence Estimate | The Dark Side | FRONTLINE.PBS, 20 June 2006
  27. Full text: George Bush’s Iraq speech | World news.” The Guardian, 28 June 2005
  28. Office of the Press Secretary. “President Bush Discusses Freedom in Iraq and Middle East.” George W. Bush White House Archives, 6 November 2003
  29. Ahmed, Nafeez. “Iraq invasion was about oil | Environment.” The Guardian, 20 March 2014
  30. Cordesman, Anthony. “America’s Failed Strategy in the Middle East: Losing Iraq and the Gulf.” Center for Strategic and International Studies |, 2 January 2020
  31. Riedel, Bruce. “9/11 and Iraq: The making of a tragedy.” Brookings Institution, 17 September 2021
  32. Byman, Daniel. “Iraq and the Global War on Terrorism.” Brookings Institution, 1 July 2007
  33. America’s Failed Strategy in the Middle East: Losing Iraq and the Gulf.” Center for Strategic and International Studies |, 2 January 2020
  34. Jamail, Dahr. “Western oil firms remain as US exits Iraq | Features.” Al Jazeera, 7 January 2012
  35. Weisbrot, Mark. “Silence reigns on the US-backed coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia | Mark Weisbrot.” The Guardian, 18 September 2020
  36. Grandin, Greg. “What ‘The New York Times’ Got Wrong on Bolivia.” The Nation, 18 December 2019
  37. Geeter, Darren. “McDonald’s failed in Bolivia.” CNBC, 3 January 2019
  38. Arauz, Andrés, et al. “Bolivia’s Economic Transformation: Macroeconomic Policies, Institutional Changes, and Results.” Center for Economic and Policy Research -, 26 October 2019
  39. Blackstone, Samuel. “Bolivia to Ban Coca-Cola Starting December 21st.” Business Insider, 1 August 2012,
  40. Balch, Oliver. “How a populist president helped Bolivia’s poor – but built himself a palace.” The Guardian, 7 March 2019
  41. Constant, Paul. “Chile’s New Constitution: How the Fight for Wealth Equality Is Going.Business Insider, 2 July 2022
  42. Main, Alexander. “The Dawn of a New Era in Peru? – Center for Economic and Policy Research.” Center for Economic and Policy Research -, 15 July 2021
  43. Main, Alexander. “Supporting Latin American Unity by Saying “No” to US Interventionism – Center for Economic and Policy Research.” Center for Economic and Policy Research -, 2 December 2016
  44. Constant, Paul. “Chile’s New Constitution: How the Fight for Wealth Equality Is Going.” Business Insider, 2 July 2022
  45. Murphy, Annie. “Effects Of Land Reform In Bolivia.” NPR, 3 January 2010
  46. Casado, Fernando. “Evo Gives Free Modern Farming Equipment to Bolivian Campesinos.” teleSUR English, 15 July 2019
  47. Alvelais, Fabiola. “‘They Shot Us Like Animals’: Black November & Bolivia’s Interim Government.” International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) at Harvard Law School and University Network for Human Rights (UNHR), July 27 (2020).
  48. Blair, Laurence. “Bolivia protesters bring country to standstill over election delays.The Guardian, 9 August 2020
  49. Weisbrot, Mark. “Bolivians Reclaim Their Democracy – Center for Economic and Policy Research.” Center for Economic and Policy Research -, 21 October 2020
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