Exploring the connection between energy and international conflict. by Robert Orttung The importance of oil for international politics and markets is obvious to everyone, but political scientists have devoted little attention to explaining the connection between oil and international conflict. Some have charged that US foreign policy is driven by the desire to control oil. Others have warned that the diminishing supply of oil will increasingly lead consuming countries to fight over it. But so far there is no overall theory demonstrating the connection between energy and war. A fall 2010 article by Jeff D. Colgan in International Organzation entitled “Oil and Revolutionary Governments: Fuel for International Conflict” raises the level of the debate. Colgan argues that revolutionary petrostates have a much higher likelihood to engage in militarized international conflict than comparable nonpetrostates. According to his data, revolutionary petro states engage in conflict at more than three times the rate of comparable nonpetro states. How are oil and international conflict linked?
Colgan’s argument is that domestic politics is the essential cause for petro states to engage in international conflict. Oil income increases a revolutionary leader’s political autonomy at home, reducing his risk of being punished by domestic actors. Revolutionary leaders are also likely to be willing to accept risks and favor aggressive policies. Additionally, oil income increases a state’s ability to purchase military weapons. The theory works well for Middle Eastern states like Libya, Iran, and Iraq. These three petrostates have been particularly aggressive toward their neighbors. The theory does not, however, do a good job of explaining Russian behavior, as Colgan admits. According to Colgan’s calculations, Russia had revolutionary leadership from 1991 to 1999. But during this period, Russia did not pursue an aggressive foreign policy (the conflict with Chechnya notwithstanding). The explanation provided here is that Russia’s revolution did the opposite of revolutions in other petrostates because it facilitated democratization and decentralization in the 1990s rather than the rise of an aggressive leader. This analysis also sheds little light on Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008. While Colgan’s article is an advance on previous work looking at the link between energy and international conflict, there is still much left to be explained. A more thorough analysis would show that realist assumptions overpredict conflict based on energy. Domestic politics is certainly the key to explaining international conflict. More fruitful analyses examining the domestic scene would pay greater attention to the resource curse and civil war literature. Additionally, they would show how energy policy making processes at the domestic level are dysfunctional and international institutions designed to mediate energy conflicts do not work. Hopefully, political scientists will devote more attention to these issues in the future. Visit the Russian Analytical Digest, a bi-weekly internet publication edited by Stephen Aris, Matthias Neumann, Robert Orttung, Jeronim Perović, Heiko Pleines, Hans-Henning Schröder, and Aglaya Snetkov.