Study Suggests Oil Factors Hugely Into Foreign Wars

The larger the demand for oil in a given country, the more likely it is to intervene in another’s civil war--if it has oil, that is. Athit Perawongmetha / REUTERS

Oil plays an even bigger role in influencing foreign military intervention than is generally acknowledged, according to a new economic analysis, lending support to so-called “conspiracy theorists” who claim that oil helps drive these sorts of decisions.

The study, published in The Journal of Conflict Resolution, found that a country was more likely to intercede in another nation's civil war if the latter had large oil reserves, and if the intervener was a net importer with a high demand for the resource.

It sounds pretty intuitive, but the theory had never before been systematically tested using a large data set, says Andrea Ruggeri, who studies quantitative methods in international relations at Brasenose College in the United Kingdom.

“The debate on the role of oil and foreign military interventions has been always characterized by anecdotal evidence, in the best cases, and weak conspiracy theories, in the worst ones,” says Ruggeri, who wasn’t involved in the study. “This is clearly... the most sophisticated and thorough statistical analysis on whether and how oil can matter.” The study concludes that it does, in fact, matter—a conclusion that, Ruggeri says, is “an important scientific leap for our understanding of international relations.”

The larger the demand for oil in a given country, the more likely it is to intervene in another’s civil war. “The magnitude of this effect is bigger than other factors usually [cited as] reasons for intervention, such as the presence of ethnic ties between countries, or the balance of military power between the government and rebels,” says study co-author Vincenzo Bove, an economist and assistant professor of politics at the University of Warwick.

France’s foreign policy in its three former African colonies of Chad, Niger and Mali since the 1970s provides a good example. In Chad, large oil reserves were discovered in 1969. Civil war broke out in the 1970s, and France became heavily involved, supporting the standing government in its fight against rebels. Unrest also broke out in Niger around the same time, but France didn’t intercede—and as it happens, Niger has no oil.

Likewise, there was civil war in Mali in the 1990s, during which time the country wasn’t thought to have much oil, and France didn’t intervene. But oil was discovered in the mid-2000s, and after it was found, the French took an active role in supporting the government after a secessionist attempt in 2012. “Although the key reason cited by France for intervening was to contain Islamic extremism, the incentives for intervention have arguably also increased with the presence of oil in the country and high oil prices,” the authors wrote in the study.

The study covered the period from 1945 to 1999, and didn’t analyze wars between countries, such as United States military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the demand for oil may have played a role there, Bove’s research isn’t directly relevant in this case, he says.  

The team analyzed involvement in civil wars because these internecine struggles represent 90 percent of current armed conflicts in the world, vastly outnumbering the amount of wars between sovereign nations, he says.

Bove says that as America becomes less dependent on oil imports, “we might expect U.S. to intervene less” around the world. Meanwhile, it stands to reason that China might become more involved in civil wars elsewhere because the country imports much of their oil—something already hinted at by their military involvement in United Nations peacekeeping activities in Africa and elsewhere, he says.

For example, China will send 700 troops to South Sudan as part of a U.N. peacekeeping mission. China has major oil claims in that country—they have spent billions of dollars and own at least 40 percent of South Sudan’s biggest oil field, for example, according to Foreign Policy