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Is it even possible to kill an international relations theory?

Earlier this week Walter Russell Mead blogged about the mortal danger facing a prominent international relations theory:

American fast food continues to worm its way ever deeper into Pakistani affections. Hardee’s recently joined McDonald’s in Islamabad and both are doing well, says the Washington Post.

Since McDonald’s is also thriving in India, an IR theory is about to be put to a test. The “McDonald’s theory” holds that no two countries with McDonald’s in them will ever go to war. Once you have a middle class big enough to support hamburger franchises, the theory runs, war is a thing of the past.

I wish. The 2008 war between Russia and Georgia dealt the theory a blow; an India-Pakistan war would be the end.

Whether or not that happens, the theory is a bust. Countries often become more militaristic as their middle classes rise.

A touch a touch, I do confess it!! It appears that the collective reputation of international relations theory has been tarnished, yet -- wait a second, who came up with that theory in the first place?

As it turns out, it was not some academic IR theorist like me, but rather a Prominent Foreign Affairs Columnist of Some Renown … kinda like Mead (but not really). Yes, it was indeed Tom Friedman who first suggested "The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention."

Mead concludes that the theory is a bust, and Wikipedia appears to back him up:

[T]he NATO bombing of Serbia proved the theory wrong, though in a later edition Friedman argued that this exception proved the rule: the war ended quickly, he argued, partly because the Serbian population did not want to lose their place in a global system "symbolised by McDonald's" (Friedman 2000: 252–253).... In 1998, McDonald's host countries India and Pakistan fought a border war over Kashmir. While not a full scale war, both countries flaunted their nuclear capabilities. At least two wars between McDonald's hosting nations have occurred since the NATO bombing of Serbia: the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon; and the 2008 conflict between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia.

(Actually, Wikipedia is underestimating how many times the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention has been falsified … according to Wikipedia. The Kargil War was in 1999, not 1998, and according to casualty estimates, there were more than 1,000 battle deaths, which meets the standard definition of a war.)

Empirical quibbles aside, this certainly falsifies Friedman's original "strong" hypothesis of "no two countries that both have a McDonald's have ever fought a war against each other." The thing is, international relations theories are kinda like … er … zombies. Even if you think you've killed them off, they can be revived.

Let's water down Friedman's strong hypothesis a bit. Is it true that, "two countries that both have a McDonald's are significantly less likely to fight a war against each other?" Mead thinks the answer is no, but my hunch is that it would be yes. A cursory glance at the scholarly literature suggests that no one has actually tested it, so … get to it, aspiring MA thesis writers!!

That said, even if the weaker version was true, would it be useful from either a theoretical or policy perspective? I think the answer here is no, and this is one important way in which academic IR theorists do better than, say, Tom Friedman. The comparative advantage of the Golden Arches Theory is pedagogical -- it's easy to explain to anyone. The problem is that McDonald's is really an intervening variable and not the actual cause of any peace. And while IR scholars sometimes roll their eyes at democratic peace theory, the literature has produced significant progress about the ways in which that hypothesis is constrained (in a world of democratizing states, for example).

Mead is correct to observe that this particular IR theory is in trouble. I'm marginally more sanguine about the state of academic IR theory overall, however.

MIRA OBERMAN/AFP/Getty Images

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