Contemporary students of international relations are taught the “Golden Arches Theory”, first asserted by New York Times Journalist Thomas Friedman in 1996, claims that no two countries with a McDonald’s will fight a war against each other. The merits of this bold claim stood on tenuous ground until being thoroughly disproven during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020 between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s recent aggression against Armenians, culminating in the ethnic cleansing of the Artsakh region in September, confirms Friedman’s assertion is inaccurate and illustrates the risks of relying upon the underlying logic.

The broader claim that economic integration should cause states to pursue non-military means of conflict resolution remains prevalent in Western policy making circles. The Golden Arches Theory basically functions as an updated theory of capitalist peace for a world undergoing globalization with a clear benchmark included. Of course, the cheers for Azerbaijan’s aggression from the official social media accounts for McDonald’s in Azerbaijan demonstrated that the very instruments of economic integration are not immune to the historical, cultural, and religious factors that cause conflicts.

In the aftermath of Azerbaijan’s ethnic cleansing of Artsakh, the initial U.S. policy towards Azerbaijan began addressing the violence in the Caucasus before seemingly returning to willful ignorance. The Senate unanimously voted to prohibit U.S. foreign assistance to Azerbaijan for the next two years; the State Department declared there will be “no business as usual” with Azerbaijan until a peace agreement is implemented; USAID announced an additional $4 million in humanitarian assistance to respond to the needs of the Armenian Christians that fled their homes in the wake of Azerbaijan’s attack on September 19th. Yet these positive developments were quickly undermined when it became clear that holding Azerbaijan accountable would come at a geopolitical cost to the Biden administration vis-a-vis Russia and Iran – even despite ethnic cleansing and other human rights violations.

The Biden administration’s real position became evident after the State Department’s walking back of its “no business as usual” position, quickly restoring the high level exchanges that were previously to be prohibited as part of this short-lived policy. During the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on “The Future of Nagorno-Karabakh,” the State Department announced the initial position and explained how U.S. policy would secure a lasting peace agreement and hold Azerbaijan accountable for its continued aggression. The primary instrument for creating this peace identified by the State Department was the Zangezur Corridor, which would connect Azerbaijan and its exclave Nakhchivan. The State Department is under the impression that, if Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey become more economically integrated, then the Caucasus can be turned into a Western bastion against Russia and Iran.

Yet this strategy demonstrates the same short-sighted logic of the disproven “Golden Arches” theory which, though debunked, persists in U.S. policy making. It is ridiculous to suggest that Turkey and Azerbaijan, amid their simultaneous denial and celebration of the Armenian Genocide, would seriously pursue improved relations with Armenia after thirty years of war, hot and cold. The consistent disinterest of Azerbaijan and Turkey in the peace process thus far cannot be explained simply by economic interests, nor can they be assuaged Armenia’s newfound willingness to submit to their demands. Rather, this conflict is rooted in historical, cultural, and religious causes that will not disappear with the construction of roads and oil pipelines.

Armenians justifiably feel threatened by the Zangezur Corridor out of concern that it would be used to annex southern Armenia. Nevertheless, in the interest of securing a lasting peace, Armenia has continued to participate in negotiations around the corridor and even take further steps to dismantle its relationship with Russia, the traditional guarantor of Armenian security.

Given the U.S. failure to deter or hold accountable Azerbaijan’s latest aggression, even despite explicit promises to do so only days before, it is simply not credible that the West would be able to provide sufficient security guarantees to Armenia.

Turkey imports the lion’s share of its energy from Azerbaijan, Russia, and Iran and thus has interest in strong ties to those nations. A more direct connection in Turkish–Azerbaijani relations, unobstructed by the existence of Armenia, would make these arrangements even more lucrative and undermine America’s ability to persuade Turkey and Azerbaijan to decouple from Russia and Iran as Armenia has. Rather than pulling the Caucasus and Turkey further into the Western orbit, the current trajectory of the peace process prepares for a bisection of Armenia, giving Turkey and Azerbaijan a freer hand to buck Western priorities and pursue their own agendas to the detriment of Armenian interests and America’s moral credibility.

Tolerance for human rights abuses committed by Turkey and Azerbaijan in Armenia, Artsakh, and elsewhere is not only morally abominable, but also strategically unsound. The U.S. priority in the conflict surrounding Artsakh should be a viable peace agreement that ensures security for Armenia and holds Azerbaijan accountable for its aggression. This should be pursued without the delusions of “Golden Arches” diplomacy, which leads to ignorance of the historical, cultural, and religious factors of the conflict.

The lasting influence of the “Golden Arches” theory continues to loom over U.S. policy making, especially with respect to issues of international religious freedom where economics are used to explain religious violence, ignoring other explanations for this violence from both the perpetrators and victims. Azerbaijan and Turkey would economically benefit from the destruction of Armenia, but that is not the only reason for the violence in Artsakh. We are far past the time for the U.S. to look at the world with a greater appreciation for the non-economic factors that shape history. Ensuring justice for the victims of Azerbaijan’s ethnic cleansing is a great opportunity for the U.S. to rebuild its moral credibility and demonstrate U.S. policy is based on our values and not dollars.