Walking down the cobblestoned streets of Antigua, Guatemala, I looked at the sandy red roofs of the Spanish colonial-style houses. I watched stray dogs grovel on the streets as motorcycles drove by and the vendors sold freshly cut mango and passion fruit. I was a passing American foreigner trying to make sense of what I saw before me. The looming Volcán de Agua in the distance was a reminder that I was in a different world than the small-town suburbs of New Jersey where I grew up. But as I neared the community supermarket on Poniente Street, something familiar caught my eye: a clear set of golden arches on a dark brown sign hanging on a speckled red wall. It was a McDonald’s.
“Look at how many plants and trees and flowers they’re growing inside,” my Spanish teacher-turned-guide said as we watched customers order and pick up their food. “There’s even a large fountain for children to throw coins in and for families to sit around.” She was right. Gleaming in the sunlight, the McDonald’s fountain was the centerpiece of what looked like a miniature park. A life-size statute of Ronald McDonald sat on a bench next to the fountain looking over an outdoor plaza. “This may be the most lavish place in Antigua,” she concluded. There was a hint of disbelief in her voice, as though something wasn’t quite right. And yet her tone didn’t betray any cynicism or exasperation.
American reviewers on Trip Advisor seemed to agree with my teacher’s assessment, but not her tone. “The Most Beautiful McDonald’s in the World,” read one commentator’s proud title. Others called it a “hidden gem” and “a little bit of paradise for Antigua” with a “beautiful atmosphere and regular hamburgers.” A New York City visitor wrote that “if this place was named anything else, it would be in every guide book.”
McDonald’s wasn’t the only American fast food establishment on Poniente Street. Opposite the Golden Arches was a Little Caesar’s Pizza, and further up the road, a Burger King with all the same features. All three teemed with costumers – American and Guatemalan alike – sometimes trailing out of the front door. Indeed, Guatemala appeared as though it really had become “America’s backyard,” to borrow the lexicon of the U.S. policymakers who plotted the 1954 coup in the country.
Capitalism and Empire
For all intents and purposes, McDonald’s had found the meeting point of American and Guatemalan culture. The restaurant was not merely a symbol of Americana turned global, but rather the highest stage of American capitalism: the cultural transformation of another country. This was part of a long legacy of the U.S. corporate colonization of Latin America except that the self-anointed leaders weren’t the recognizable banana men of corporations like the United Fruit Company. This time they were the McDonald’s managers. To modify Franz Fanon’s formulation, they had brown skin and white (corporate) masks, but they weren’t made to feel inferior in the empire. They were invited to be part of it by transforming themselves and in the process their own culture.
“Inside every Russian, every Chinese, every African, indeed, every foreigner, there was an American waiting to emerge,” historian Robert Dallek wrote, explaining Henry Luce’s American Century. Dallek might as well have been describing this McDonald’s in Guatemala, or anywhere else for that matter. The logic of the U.S. empire was indebted to the spread of and belief in the impetus of U.S. consumer capitalism. To that extent, McDonald’s shares the creed of American exceptionalism: every foreigner could be transformed into a loyal consumer of the products of the greatest nation on Earth.
Over a century ago, Lenin wrote that “imperialism is the monopoly phase of capitalism.” For Lenin, the capitalist search for new markets to invest in and new places to extract from was part of the great imperialist rivalry between the United States, Great Britain, and Germany. His analysis was expanded upon by U.S. historians Martin J. Sklar and William Appleman Williams. Where Williams saw exports as the fulcrum of the American empire, Sklar argued that investment was its real driving force. None of them would probably have been surprised to see a McDonald’s – the epitome of American investment and expansion – in Guatemala.
By the 1990s, the critique of capitalism and imperialism had turned into a celebration of it. “No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other,” declared New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in his 1996 explanation of what he called the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention. After all, the 1990s was a time to commend capitalism for its victory over the Soviet Union and the successive universalization of Western liberal governments. Francis Fukuyama could finally say the end of history had arrived.
The voices of celebration lost sway after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the 2003 Iraq War, and the 2007-2008 financial collapse. It was easy to publicly dismiss the likes of Fukuyama as relics of post-Cold War fantasy. The insistence that the easy transnational flow and exchange of capital and labor would bring the world together in a peaceful democratic order looked more like religious dogma than reality. The haunting specter of deindustrialized cities betrayed the idea that Americans were the primary beneficiaries of globalization. Instead the country started to look like it was on the receiving end of neoliberalism.
By the summer of 2016, the idea that America wasn’t great anymore was made even more legible to the national community, from left to right. If Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump could agree on one thing, it was that the United States had to reverse the damage of NAFTA and prevent the Trans Pacific Partnership. Trump signified not the apotheosis of imperial power, but its aggressive and frantic reassertion, its ethno-nationalist retreat to Charles Lindbergh’s first articulation of “America First” and Richard Nixon’s dog-whistle politics of “law and order.” This reflex is not the sign of strength but of decay. It is the dying canary inside the American empire’s coal mine.
The end of the empire is in sight. The McDonaldization of the world is predicated on free trade and its constant expansion. These globalizing forces, now called neoliberalism, cannot comfortably rely on the demonstration of U.S. military supremacy. The misplaced faith in U.S. hard power to transform the landscape of the world in the image of the United States has consistently gone awry. From Vietnam to Iraq, the United States has lost every major intervention it has entered since the mid-1950s. Instead, the American empire relies largely on posture without force. Where the U.S. has succeeded is the meeting point of culture and capital – what Joseph Nye calls soft power – under the veil of international bodies such as the United Nations and McDonald’s. These institutions make a free market economy, tinged with the colors of the American flag, appear as natural and appealing as the shiny coins the children threw into the McDonald’s fountain in Antigua.
But what happens if the empire falls and its culture remains? What would McDonald’s mean if the United States retreats from the world? What will happen when the world is left with only the residue of empire?
The End of Empire
McDonald’s origins in Guatemala offer a glimpse of how the end of the empire will look.
In 1974, José Cofiño acquired the McDonald’s franchise license and opened the first restaurant in Guatemala City that same year. His wife Yolanda Fernández de Cofiño noticed that children needed a menu that offered food portions appropriate to their size. She came up with the idea of “Menú de Ronald” (Ronald’s Menu) to offer children reduced-size hamburgers, French fries, and soda, with the option of a toy or a sweet. When U.S. company officials visited the location, they immediately recognized the power of the idea. They asked her to present it at the McDonald’s World Convention and hired Dick Brams to repurpose Cofiño’s idea for American consumers. Cofiño won the Silver Ronald Award, the highest recognition bestowed by the parent company, and Brams repackaged the product in a colorful small box. He kept the small toy but changed the name to the Happy Meal in 1977. Back in Guatemala, it was called the “Cajita Feliz” (Happy Little Box).
Cofiño’s marketing ploy suggests what will happen as Americans turn their backs on free trade, an idea inherent in both right and left populist discourse. The people most affected by corporate and capital expansions will reconfigure the very American ideas they received for new populations. Cofiño changed the structure of the menu and re-envisioned it for children as a way to connect Guatemalans to the company. This intermeshing of Guatemalan business interests with American market cultures reshaped the operations of McDonald’s first in Guatemala and then in the United States. This process was not a one-way street, but two-way. Ideas that could be refurbished and used to strengthen American-style free market capitalism made their way back into U.S. advertising campaigns. The McDonaldization of the world was not completely dominating nor wholly inescapable. It had to address cultural assimilation or risk failure.
Yet the future was already present in the past, because McDonald’s was, and will be further, repurposed by the people it serves. Instead of disappearing, the Golden Arches will resemble the European colonial offices: a contested symbol of U.S. corporate values struggling for, against, and with the country they have invaded and reassembled. McDonald’s will show how empire as a way of life has become a mentality for the world. Just like the Spanish colonial-style buildings, American fast food will be a melancholic relic of the second colonization of Latin America.
Before any of this happens, the outward violence of American empire will reemerge – vengeful, lustful, nostalgic for a rosy-eyed past – in its last and final hurrah. It will be helmed by the most erratic and unstable leader the United States has possibly ever known. And the ending act – Act III of American empire – will parody the blood and toil of the anticolonial wars against the British and the French. Whether an American neoimperialism emerges that mirrors its European counterpart depends on how effective No. 45 is at destroying the American economy, and with it, the last vestiges of American exceptionalism.
But the American empire – as an unceasing desire for expansion – will be over. The United States will still exist as a nation-state, but the focus of its capital and vision will be less hegemonic on the world stage. The Golden Arches will become the residue of empire, a feeble remnant of the Luce’s fabled American Century. That is certainly a future to welcome.