from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Why Are Oil Producing States Prone To War?

February 07, 2011

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Fossil Fuels

International Organizations

A casual glance at the last few decades of history suggests that oil exporting states (Iraq, Venezuela, Iran, etc) have an unfortunate habit of getting involved in international conflict. A fascinating new paper in the journal International Organization (subscription required) takes a careful look at this phenomenon and asks a simple question: what exactly do we know about when and why oil producing states go to war?

The statistics presented by Jeff Colgan, a sharp new assistant professor at American University, are stark. Petrostates (defined as states in which oil contributes at least ten percent of national income) are 56% more likely than others to get involved in wars. More striking, they are 94% more likely than others to initiate wars. This, Colgan observes, goes against the not-uncommon belief that petrostates get involved in wars because others are trying to steal their oil.

The paper gets particularly interesting when Colgan starts to differentiate among different types of governments. He posits that petrostates with revolutionary governments are particularly likely to initiate wars. There are two reasons for this: First, revolutionary leaders get to where they are domestically because they have high tolerances for risk; this translates to risky international behavior too. Second, oil income provides leaders with autonomy, including in initiating interstate confict; the consequences of this are particularly severe when an already risk-hungry leader is in charge.

A careful statistical analysis verifies both hypotheses. Nonrevolutionary governments, whether petrostates or not, are expected to initiate an international confict on average once every ten years. Revolutionary governments, though, are far more aggressive. Even those without significant oil income are 46% more likely to initiate military conflicts. But revolutionary petrostates are in a class unto themselves: they’re a whopping 249% more likely to stir up international trouble.

There’s a lot more in the paper, and also a lot of opportunity to take the analysis further. In particular, I’d be interested in seeing how oil prices affect the propensity of petrostates to go to war, which would have interesting policy implications.

For all the talk about energy security over the last decade or so, careful scholarly analysis of the relationship between oil and conflict is shockingly rare. This paper is an encouraging sign that this state of affairs isn’t inevitable.