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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

Daniel W. Drezner

Will geopolitics bail out the United States?

After last night's stunningly useless set of speeches, I'd put the odds of the U.S. not raising the debt ceiling by August 2nd at 1 in 2. Like many other observers, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to envision a deal that would get through the Senate while attracting a majority of House Republicans [You meant a majority of the House of Representatives, right?--ed. No, I meant a majority of House Republicans. I'm pretty sure that Boehner and the rest of the House GOP leadership will refuse to pass any debt ceiling plan that relies too much on House Democrats.]

So, it's gonna be a fun few weeks for those of us who study the global political economy. Let's start by thinking the unthinkable -- what will happen if there is a default?

I've expressed my feelings on the matter already, and I'm hardly the only one. That said, I've also hedged my bets been flummoxed by the lack of market reaction to the DC stalemate. The lack of market reaction to date has emboldened House GOP members to stand fast. Could they be right?

Tom Oatley, who pooh-poohed my fears of the debtpocalypse last week, makes an interesting point about the composition of U.S. debt-holders:

By these figures, about 63% of US government debt is owned by central banks (foreign and domestic) and/sovereign wealth funds. Most of these entities are American friends and allies. Another 4% is owned by US state and local governments. That leaves 33%--about $4.8 trillion--in private hands. Of this, the financial institutions with the most restrictive regulations regarding asset ownership (depository institutions) own only 2% of the total ($290 billion). Mutual Funds, who may or may not have to dump downgraded debt, hold another 9% ($1.35 trillion).

What's the point? The discussion about the impact of US default revolves around the market response to default. Useful to recognize that most of the US government debt is held by public-sector agents who are much less sensitive to balance sheet pressures and regulatory constraints. These public sector agents are also substantially more sensitive to "moral suasion" and direct appeal than private financial institutions. The structure of ownership of US debt might dampen the negative impact of any default that does occur.

This is pretty interesting. Oatley focuses on "moral suasion," but there's also a national-interest motive for many U.S. debtholders. Most of the official holders of U.S. debt have a strong incentive for a) the value of their holdings not to plummet; and b) the United States economy to continue to snap up other their exports. If China, for example, is buying up U.S. debt to sustain its own growth, then neither a technical default nor a ratings downgrade should deter China or other export engines from continuing to buy U.S. debt even if there's a spot of trouble.

So it appears that complex interdependence will force America's rivals to continue to hold U.S. debt even after the debtpocalypse!! The United States in the clear, right?

Not so fast. Here are five "known unknowns" I can think of that might complicate Oatley's analysis:

1) What if the creditors form a cartel? In my 2009 paper, this was the one scenario that gave me the heebie-jeebies, because it's the one scenario under which creditors can wring geopolitical gains from debtor states. Any kind of default can act as a focal point moment in which U.S. creditors decide it's time to apply a haircut to American power and influence.

I don't think this is going to happen, because the national interests of American debtholders remain divergent. That said, if U.S. allies interpret default as a signal of U.S. unreliability in times of crisis, then all bets are off.

2) What about the economic nationalism of China? China is the largest foreign debtholder, which gives it a certain agenda-setting power in moments of crisis. There are a lot of compelling reasons why China would decide to try to minimize the economic disruptions . On the other hand, there's a lot of resentment on Chinese Internet boards already about the Chinese purchases of U.S. debt. During a period in which the CCP is already concerned about domestic instability, one could envision a scenario whereby they try to mollify nationalists at home by acting out against the United States.

3) What would be the effect of a mild market reaction on the House of Representatives? The less the markets react, the less that the House GOP will feel a need to do anything. There will come a point, therefore, when official debtholders might need to signal to the House that, in IPE lingo, "s**t needs to get done." That signal would in and of itself roil markets, not to mention the effects the current uncertainty is already having on the real economy.

4) What is the fiscal shock from a default? There are two causal mechanisms through which a default could affect the global economy. The first is through panic and uncertainty roiling financial markets. The second, however, is from a dramatic fiscal contraction due to limited government spending. Given the lackluster state of the current recovery, it wouldn't take much to tip the United States back into recession.

5) What if there's another AAA bubble? FT Alphaville's Tracy Alloway provided another interesting chart earlier this month on the distribution of AAA securities:

A very scary chart

As Alloway warns:

[W]atch what starts happening from 2008 and 2009.

The AAA bubble re-inflates and suddenly sovereign debt becomes the major force driving the world’s triple-A supply. The turmoil of 2008 shunted some investors from ABS into safer sovereign debt, it’s true. But you also had a plethora of incoming bank regulation to purposefully herd investors towards holding more government bonds, plus a glut of central bank liquidity facilities accepting government IOUs as collateral. Where ABS dissipated, sovereign debt stood in to fill the gap. And more.

It’s one reason why the sovereign crisis is well and truly painful.

It’s a global repricing of risk, again, but one that has the potential for a much largerpop, so to speak.

We know that a downgrade of U.S. Treasuries would likely lead to a downgrade of state and municipal bond ratings as well. We also know that the ripple effects from the collapse of asset-backed securities were much larger than anticipated before the 2008 crisis. This is why the possible knock-on effects of downgrade so many AAA asserts makes me itchy. Even if banks and other financial institutions have minimal exposure to U.S. Treasuries, I don't think it's possible for them to have minimal exposure to all U.S.-based AAA sovereign debt.

These are just the five known unknowns that I could think of in the past hour -- there are probably many, many more. Readers are strongly encouraged to add them in the comments.