Burgers are just the most visible symbol of how the creation of a global elite in cities like Washington and Moscow is changing how we think about geopolitics and foreign policy.

Then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, left, and U.S. President Barack Obama eat burgers at Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, Va. Photo: AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service

During the Cold War, the opening of the first McDonald’s in the center of Moscow in 1990 just months before the collapse of the Soviet Union became a metaphor for America’s cultural triumph over tired Soviet dogmatism. Over the next 20 years, McDonald’s would open more than 200 locations across Russia, becoming the new face of American capitalism to millions of Russians who were coming into contact with the West for the first time. If then-Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev and his U.S. counterpart Nixon had their version of “kitchen diplomacy,” then Reagan and Gorbachev had what can only be referred to as “burger diplomacy.”

That was then, this is now.

The “burger diplomacy” of the new generation will most likely involve something like Shake Shack – the phenomenally popular upscale burger joint founded by Danny Meyer in New York City that has become something of a cultural phenomenon. What started with one location in Madison Square Park in New York has now expanded both nationally and internationally. There are Shake Shack locations in Washington - including one close to the Russian Embassy - and another opening soon in Moscow on the city’s flashy Novy Arbat. Theoretically, an international jetsetter could now travel from New York to London to Abu Dhabi to Moscow and then back to Washington, consuming Shack Burgers each step of the way.

While talking about “burger diplomacy” might seem a bit out of place amongst all the high-level diplomatic meetings that take place in Moscow, Washington and Geneva, “burger diplomacy” actually holds a greater lesson – and that is that the new young elites that are emerging in New York and Moscow and Washington actually have more in common than we might imagine. They increasingly have the same educational backgrounds, the same travel experiences and the same leisure preferences.

In January 2011, Chrystia Freeland of The Atlantic wrote an article about “the rise of the new global elite” – a group of high-powered jetsetters that travel effortlessly between the major capitals of the world, vacationing in Abu Dhabi, buying espresso in Rome and eating out in New York.

As wealth differentials continue to grow in societies around the world, the important takeaway is that the average member of the Russian elite and the average member of the Western elite perhaps now have more in common with each other than they do with their fellow citizens.

A member of the global elite in New York likely understands the concerns of a fellow member of the global elite in Moscow better than the concerns of a farmer in Iowa. They are educated at the same schools, work for the same global companies, go on holiday in the same locations, and, yes, they eat the same burgers.

The only question remaining is, “What do we call this new global elite”? As early as 2008, David Rothkopf referred to the global “super class,” which he defines as the Top 6000 wealthiest and most powerful people in the world. If you buy into the “Big Mac to Shake Shack” concept, it’s likely that the number is much higher than this. After all, it’s not like the Shake Shack is meant to be an elite institution – on the website for the Moscow location, they even refer to themselves as “the people’s patty.” Take that Politburo!

Which is not to say that McDonald’s has lost a step in Russia. Even more than 20 years later, the McDonald’s on Moscow’s Pushkin Square – in the very heart of Moscow, within a five-minute walk of Red Square and the Kremlin – remains the chain’s busiest location in the world – serving over 40,000 people every day. 

Yet, McDonald’s no longer has the same hold on the mindset of the average Russian. McDonald’s is no longer a cultural signifier the way it used to be. McDonald’s is now more of an economic signifier – a realization that, for the West, Russia is now one of the world’s most attractive economic markets and the source of a brand new consumer base.

The opening of the Shake Shack in Moscow is just the latest step in the flattening of the world for the people at the top of the economic pyramid. We could just as easily be talking about Starbucks and Apple instead of Shake Shack – just as we could have been talking about Pepsi and Levi’s instead of McDonald’s a generation ago.

The transition from Big Mac to Shake Shack has important implications for the way we think not only about relations between the U.S. and Russia, but also geopolitics in general. A whole new generation of “hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition” are changing the way we think about the world. If the former paradigm for understanding the world was developed vs. underdeveloped country, or West vs.East, or Democracy vs. Authoritarianism or Capitalism vs. Communism, something very new is emerging in capitals around the world, linking New York and Washington with London and Paris, but also Moscow, Mumbai, Rio, and Shanghai. How that plays out in foreign affairs – and specifically, in US-Russian relations is yet to be seen.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.