Linking Oil and War: Review of ‘Petro-Aggression’

20/11/2013 23:51

Source: New Security Beat

The original version of this article appeared in the H-Diplo/ISSF Series.

In Petro-Aggression: When Oil Causes WarJeff Colgan provides an indispensable starting point for researchers interested in the relationship between oil and international conflict.

Although the term “energy security” is now ubiquitous in political speeches and the media, international relations scholars have only just begun to rediscover the topic after a 30-year hiatus. The 1970s oil shocks prompted a wave of research in the 1970s and 1980s but did not produce systematic theories about oil and war.Emerging scholarship assesses the potential threats to energy-importing countries and examines how energy security issues shape importers’ foreign policies, including their decisions to use military force.

Colgan’s book makes a unique contribution by examining a topic that has otherwise received little attention: how oil might encourage conflict initiation by “petrostates,” which he defines as countries for which oil exports comprise 10 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) or more (page 2).

Colgan argues that oil income generates cross-cutting incentives for petrostates when it comes to using force. Following liberal interdependence logic, such countries should avoid wars out of concern that military conflict could disrupt oil exports, and therefore jeopardize government revenue. Yet on the other hand, Colgan contends, oil income decreases the domestic political risks of starting wars by furnishing leaders with copious economic resources that can be used to evade political accountability in the event of military failure (27-32). Thus, Colgan’s theory extends “resource curse” arguments into the international realm.

A Focus on Revolution

Whether oil income ultimately will increase or decrease conflict propensity hinges on the nature of the regime. Colgan argues that petrostates ruled by revolutionary leaders are far more inclined to settle disputes with military force than ordinary petrostates, for two main reasons. First, revolutions tend to produce risk-tolerant leaders with revisionist preferences. Revolutionary leaders, therefore, have expansionist goals and are willing to gamble on wars to achieve them. Second, the political upheaval that installs revolutionary leaders simultaneously sweeps aside the domestic political institutions that might otherwise constrain the executive. Combining revolutionary politics with the insulating effects of oil income for political leaders creates incentives for aggression that outweigh concerns about lost oil revenue (20-27).

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