Casus belli

Thanks to BlueForceTracker for republishing.

BlueForceTracker is a useful bridge between military and civilian understandings of current events, providing insightful analysis by military personnel and veterans.  But in one recent article, the prolific Nolan Peterson skips a couple of important items.

In “Yes, countries with McDonald’s do go to war with each other,” Peterson effectively identifies human nature as a source of interstate conflict.  He joins classical realists like Clausewitz and Hans Morgenthau, and Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes before them.  As a military pilot, diplomat, and journalist, Peterson has seen more of human nature’s dark sides than most people.  But he omits some of the important parts of the framework – the “McDonalds peace” – in which he structures his argument.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman offered The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention in 1996.  At that time, no two countries with McDonalds had gone to war with each other. Countries with a rising level of income and declining political risk were judged as suitable for investments by companies like McDonalds in part because the character of those countries – populations and governments – preferred globalization to war.  (Incidentally, in that same first column, Francis Fukuyama of “the end of history” fame judged that the income level for a McDonalds, and Friedman’s thesis, was probably too low to consider a country unlike to go to war against similar countries.)

In 1999, NATO allies bombed the Yugoslavia capital, Belgrade, which had five McDonalds.  Friedman acknowledged the end of McPeace, sort of: he explained that the war was so short precisely because the citizens of modern Yugoslavia preferred peace and Western investment over retaining Kosovo at the cost of war.

The relationship between globalization and peace was not entirely new in 1996, though.  Harvard’s Robert Keohane and future Department of Defense assistant secretary Joseph Nye had discussed “complex interdependence” in the 1970s and 1980s. Norman Angell, the 1933 Nobel Peace laureate, had been talking about the peace-making impact of globalization (“interdependence”) since before World War I.  Angell argued that the spread of trade and technology among developed nations in Europe made war among them an irrational economic choice – but not impossible, because, as Peterson argues, wars are choices of men.  The great U.S. naval strategist, Captain Alfred T. Mahan, on the other hand, saw the late 19th century rise of trade and technology (including the Panama Canal) as a possible source of increased wealth, but also a new source of conflict. [More on Angell and Mahan, here.]

Peterson is also right to identify that McPeace developed after a bipartisan embrace of “democratic peace theory” – the idea that democracies do not go to war with each other.  This idea helped build support for assistance to “transitioning” countries of the post-Communist world of the early 1990s and, less directly, democratization efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.  But democratic peace theory itself had earlier roots.  Michael W. Doyle discussed it in 1983, based on the 18th century writings of Immanuel Kant.

The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention is one of my favorite topics with students, not because it is high theory, but precisely the opposite.  It offers a vivid, easily accessible illustration of several complex ideas.  But like most good ideas, it has roots and histories to be appreciated.

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