Turning Swords into Beef-Burgers

By Thomas Friedman's, a New York Times columnist

Guardian, 19th Dec 1996; UK

I HAVE long had a thesis which finally brought me to Hamburger University at McDonald's headquarters, in Oak Brook, Illinois, to test out. The thesis is this: no two countries that both have a McDonald's have ever fought a war against each other.

The McDonald's folks confirmed it. I feared the exception would be the Falklands war, but Argentina didn't get a McDonald's until 1986, four years later. Civil wars don't count: McDonald's in Moscow delivered burgers to both sides in the fight between pro-and anti-Yeltsin forces in 1993.

Since Israel now has a kosher McDonald's, since Saudi Arabia's McDonald's closes five times a day for Muslim prayer, since Egypt has 18 McDonald's and Jordan is getting its first, the chances of a war between them are minimal. But watch out for that Syrian front. There are no Big Macs served in Damascus.

India-Pakistan? I'm still worried. India, where 40 percent of the population is vegetarian, just opened the first beefless McDonald's, but Pakistan is still a Mac-free zone.

Obviously, I say all this tongue in cheek. But there was enough of a correlation for me to ask James Cantalupo, president of McDonald's International and its de facto Secretary of State, what might be behind this Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention - which stipulates that when a country reaches a certain level of economic development, when it has a middle class big enough to support a McDonald's, it becomes a McDonald's country, and people in McDonald's countries don't like to fight wars; they like to queue for burgers. Or as Mr Cantalupo puts it: "We focus our development on the more well-developed economies - and the risks involved in being adventuresome [for those growing economies] are probably getting too great."

In the 1950s and 60s, developing countries thought that having an aluminium factory and a UN seat made them real countries, but today many countries think they will have arrived only if they have their own McDonald's and Windows 95 in their own language.

This year McDonald's went into its 100th country and for the first time it earned more revenue from McDonald's overseas than from McDonald's America.

"I feel these countries want McDonald's as a symbol of something - an economic maturity and that they are open to foreign investments," says Mr Cantalupo. "I have a parade of ambassadors and trade representatives in here to tell us why McDonald's would be good for their country."

THE question raised by the McDonald's example is whether there is a tip-over point at which a country, by integrating with the global economy, opening itself up to foreign investment and empowering its consumers, permanently restricts its capacity for troublemaking and promotes gradual democratisation and widening peace. Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History?, argues that a country's getting its own McDonald's is probably not a good indicator of that tip-over point, because the level of per-capita income needed in a country to host a McDonald's is too low: "I would not be surprised if in the next 10 years several of these McDonald's countries go to war with each other."

Yes, there will be conflicts, but more inside countries than between them. No question, the spread of McDonald's (a new one opens every three hours) is part of this worldwide phenomenon of countries integrating with the global economy and submitting to its rules. It produces a backlash inside countries from those who do not benefit from this globalisation, who feel that their traditional culture will be steamrolled by it.

How well governments and global companies manage these frustrations will determine whether economic development will lead to wider democratisation and wider peace. Again McDonald's is an intriguing pioneer. In the Los Angeles riots, one of the few commercial buildings not trashed was McDonald's.

The way McDonald's has packaged itself is to be a "multi-local" company, by insisting on a high degree of local ownership and tailoring its products just enough for local cultures. Localities and, more important, countries now feel a stake in McDonald's success. Already, every sesame seed on every McDonald's bun in the world comes from Mexico.

That's as good as a country discovering oil.

This balance between local and global that McDonald's has found is important. The only answer is multi-localism - democratising globalisation so that people everywhere feel some stake in it. Mr Cantalupo, for instance, talks of cultural sensitivity: "There is no 'Euroburger'. We have a different chicken sandwich in England than we do in Germany."

Back to Media Page

Press Index