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As McDonald’s announces it’s leaving Russia for good, here’s a brief history of McDiplomacy

There’s a theory that no two countries with a McDonald’s restaurant have been at war with one another. That theory is being put to the test.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in March 2022, many western companies pulled down the shutters of their businesses in Russia, including 850 McDonald’s branches across the country. And now, the company has announced it is withdrawing from the country completely.

The first outlet opened in Moscow in 1990 but due to the “humanitarian crisis” and “unpredictable operating environment” they are pulling out of the country all together.

This is an incredibly significant move, with far-reaching economic and political implications.

For decades, the meals McDonald’s have served have been happy not only because of the cheap plastic toys they entice young customers with, but because the fast food chain symbolised a modern, peaceful world.

There has been a theory that no two countries with McDonald’s outlets have been at war with each other. This theory has been put under intense testing recently, but does it hold?

Let’s take a look at the history of McDiplomacy to find out.

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Birth of a global brand

The first McDonald’s opened in San Bernardino, California in 1940. The company expanded into Canada in 1967 and by 1971 le Big Macs were available in Europe.

Today McDonald’s is the world’s largest restaurant chain with over 39,000 outlets serving 70 million customers in over 119 markets every day. The brand is worth around an estimated $129billion.

In 1995, three-time winner of the Pulizer Prize Thomas L. Friedman invented The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention after noticing that no country with a McDonald’s had ever declared war with another country that had a McDonald’s.

The then president of the corporation, James Catalupo told him: “We focus our development on the more well-developed economies – those that are growing and those that are large – and the risks involved in being adventuresome are probably getting too great.”

For a multinational corporation to invest in a country, it must be politically and economically stable, so the Golden Arches of McDonald’s are one of the most visible signs of its place in the global community.

The presence of McDonald’s in a country does not in itself prevent it from entering conflicts, but signifies that its economy is tightly integrated with others and would have a lot to lose by alienating trade partners.

It’s a brave new fast food world was predicted by Immanuel Kant in his 1795 essay Perpetual Peace, in which he argued: “The spirit of commerce sooner or later takes hold of every nation, and is incompatible with war”.

What would Kant make of McPolitics? “I’m lovin’ it!” he might have said.

Testing the theory

The Golden Arches Theory was shaken, however, by the end of the 1990s, after Nato began airstrikes on Belgrade (with its seven McDonald’s outlets) during the Balkans War.

Friedman however claimed this as “a temporary exception that proved my rule”. Writing in the New York Times: “Once Nato turned out the lights in Belgrade, and shut down the power grids and the economy, Belgrade’s citizens demanded an end to the war. It’s that simple. They wanted to be part of the world, more than they wanted Kosovo to be part of them. They wanted McDonald’s re-opened, much more than they wanted Kosovo re-occupied.”

Other tests to the rule came in 1999 when India and Pakistan threatened to come to nuclear blows over Kashmir, hostilities between Israel and Lebanon in 2006 and when tensions between Russia and Georgia boiled over in 2008, but these conflicts were relatively small scale and quickly resolved, Friedman would argue, thanks to economics.

In 2022, the Golden Arches Theory has been tested more seriously than ever.

Thirty-two years ago there were lengthy queues around the Soviet block when the first McDonald’s in Russia opened in 1990. After 14 years of negotiations, customers were promised: “If you can’t go to America, come to McDonald’s in Moscow,” and the company quickly spread throughout the country.

McDonald's in Moscow
This is the first ever McDonald’s that opened in Moscow. Image: Steven MacKenzie

In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, McDonald’s was on the frontline. The three branches in the region were closed in Sevastopol, Simferopol and Yalta. The following month, a further five were shut in Eastern Ukraine, including three in the rebel-held city of Donetsk.

A statement from McDonald’s at the time said that this was “mainly due to safety precautions for our employees and guests”.

As anti-American sentiment was nurtured, McDonald’s became a target. A poll conducted in April 2014 found that 62 per cent of Russians would like to see the company leave the country. That summer, McDonald’s was served a lawsuit by a regulators in Novgorod, alleging that the cheese on their cheeseburgers contained “impermissible antibiotics”.

Even Vladimir Putin muscled in on the debate, supporting the expansion of a more Soviet-styled franchise “based on different types of traditional Russian cuisine [that would] compete in quality standards with restaurant chains such as McDonald’s”.

Following Putin’s lead, in July 2014, the chain RusBurger opened in the site vacated by McDonald’s in Sevastopol, serving its signature Czar cheeseburgers instead of Big Macs.

At that time, in Europe, 73 per cent of branches are owned and operated as franchises by local businessmen and women. In some countries, like Belarus, Bulgaria, Greece and Malta, 100 per cent of McDonald’s restaurants are run as franchises. There were only two countries where every branch was owned by the company: Russia and Ukraine.

McDonald’s today

In Kyiv, there is a McDonald’s positioned pointedly on Independence Square. According to Google Maps it’s temporarily closed.

Across Russia, outlets will stay shut. The hope that one day Big Macs would be served again would have been a sign of tensions easing.

For all the negatives of a fast food lifestyle, the homogenised but harmonious – if slightly unhealthier – world it represents, at least it symbolised a peaceful society.

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