IPA Today

Ukraine War Spells The End Of The Golden Arches Peace Theory

Written by
3 March 2022
Originally appeared in The Australian Financial Review

For the past quarter of a century, we’ve wanted to believe Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Friedman were right. And we’ve acted as if they were right.

Fukuyama’s book The End of History  and the Last Man, published in 1992 at the end of the Cold War claimed ‘history had ended’ because every country would become a liberal democracy.

No more perpetual globalisation: A McDonald’s restaurant in Moscow. Bloomberg
No more perpetual globalisation: A McDonald’s restaurant in Moscow. Bloomberg

Friedman’s book The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization, published in 1999, at a time when the intertwining of national economies seemed inexorable, made popular “the Golden Arches theory of conflict prevention” – “no two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a way against each other since each got its McDonald’s”.

There are at least 700 McDonald’s outlets in Russia and more than 100 in Ukraine.

The idea of a new world order of peace isn’t new.

In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant envisaged a “perpetual peace” because, ashumanity embraced “reason”, communities would no longer tolerate “all the miseries of war”.

The day after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, George Will wrote that “the nation’s decade-long holiday from history [has come] to a shattering end”.

Although he was referring to America and its political debates, which appeared to him to have reached “a nadir of frivolousness”, what Will said could easily have applied to the West as a whole.

Perpetual globalisation and peace

The point is not that Fukuyama and Friedman were wrong – although they were. And to be fair to them, each issued a number of caveats around their predictions.

Fukuyama didn’t say wars would necessarily cease, and Friedman acknowledged his theory had a “limited shelf life”.

Nevertheless, the direction of their thinking was clear: the triumph of the politics of liberal democracy and the economics of globalisation would encourage the conditions of peace. Which for a time is what happened.

Both politicians and the public in the West, believed they could spend less time worrying about war and how to avoid it and more time thinking about other things. John Howard’s comment in 1996 that he wished Australians to be “comfortable and relaxed” was an entirely accurate reflection of community sentiment at the time.

The growth of the regulatory state, concern about climate change, and attention to questions of race and gender are all products of the 1990s.

An unexpected ‘great reset’

Certainly, they have their roots in earlier times – but it was in the decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall that so many of the issues dominating public debate today first came to the fore.

The “great reset” might indeed be coming – but perhaps not in the way intended by the World Economic Forum.

COVID-19 has fractured global supply chains and just-in-time strategies. War in Europe might be the final break in what until two years ago had seemed to be a process of perpetual globalisation.

Articles of faith such as “America will always be there for Australia” are difficult to change.

Almost ‘a nadir of frivolousness’

Whether climate change is an article of faith, or science, or something else is irrelevant to the fact that no sooner is it assumed (explicitly or otherwise) by Australia’s two major political parties that coal mining in the country will end sometime in the foreseeable future than coal prices soar and foreign governments come asking local coal miners to increase production.

It would be a fraction glib to describe much of the last few years of Australian politics as having reached a “nadir of frivolousness”, but such a description is not entirely misplaced.

Whether Australia should have a federal integrity commission isn’t necessarily a frivolous question, but it’s not in the same league as whether the country should ever have an independent nuclear defence capacity.

Many people are happy to talk about the first topic, and indeed there’s a network of candidates at the federal election for whom a federal ICAC is a core part of their platform.

Far fewer people are prepared to debate, or at this stage even contemplate, the second topic, and understandably so.

Two years ago, it would have been unthinkable that Australian governments (or any government in a liberal democracy, for that matter) would lock people in their homes for months and Australian citizens would be forbidden from entering or leaving the country.

A lesson of history is that often things are unthinkable – until they’re not.

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John Roskam

John Roskam is the Senior Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs

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