Are petro-states more aggressive?
In an article in International Organization (here, for registered users), Jeff Colgan claims that states with large oil and gas resources as well as what he calls revolutionary agendas are more likely than “stable” oil producers or non-producing states to start disputes with other states. The article is an attempt to counter the common assumption that having a valuable resource makes a state more vulnerable to aggression from states lacking those resources, one variant of the classic resource curse.

The article, which has a more empirically minded companion piece in Energy Policy that you can find (gated) here, is quite interesting. The main point is really one to do with political organisation rather than the resource part, as having oil in itself is not enough to trigger aggression. Rather, it is the combination of sudden riches, which allows governments to “buy” support from the population, and a sudden, “revolutionary” changes in the political situation, such as sweeping constitutional changes or violent shifts in power. This may not come as a huge surprise, but the point is fairly well made.

When I say fairly, though, it comes with certain caveats. There are as I see it some problematic assumptions in this piece that together point to troubling political conclusions. Mostly, they deal with how Colgan defines the different variables, but even if we’re willing to overlook the methodological issues I think he overstresses his point. This is summarized in the following table:

Here, MID stands for “militarized interstate disputes”, which can range from full-out war via border disputes to diplomatic tussles. “Agg-MID” means that the petro-state is aggressively causing disputes, while “Def-MID” means that the petro-state is being aggressed against. Colgan’s point is that petro-states are much more aggressive than “regular” states, which seems to be true from this table, but he fails to mention that they are almost equally being aggressed against. This would suggest that there is something in the resource itself. However, when he later summarizes the different variables, it turns out that the “petro” part is not as important as the “revolutionary” part in explaining aggression. Which is in itself a nice finding.

However, there are as mentioned some problematic assumptions here. What are they? Let’s have a look, first, at the variables. To construct his measure of aggression, Colgan has no measure of the seriousness of different types of aggression. The U.S. invasion of Iraq is counted as one dispute, as is Iran’s attempt to gain nuclear capability (which has so far only prompted aggression from nations already in possession of nuclear arms). Clearly, the first of these examples has proven to be far more devastating than the second, although one cannot rule out that Iran might one day nuke for example Israel. Still, Colgan’s data set is large, and even a cursory glance at recent world history sees oil exporting countries involved in quite a lot of armed conflict or other diplomatic disputes.

More problematic is his use of control variables. Most are fine, like looking at disputed borders and such. But for some reason, using Samuel Huntington’s controversial theories of a “clash of civilizations” as basis, he has decided to include the proportion of Muslims in a country as a possibly positive correlator with aggression, claiming bluntly that “they have cultural and demographic features that make them violenceprone”. I have a really hard time understanding why this would be included, and this sort of baseless stereotyping should have been weeded out before this was published. To me, this weakens the whole article, which is a shame considering that there is an interesting discussion about the value of political stability and democratic accountability to be had here.

There is also a clear political point to be read from this. Colgan fails to make the case for what is considered aggression and not. For example, Iran’s support of Hamas is considered an example of aggression, but U.S. support for the other side of that conflict is not. Similarly, he considers Venezuela’s withdrawal of diplomats from Colombia in 2008 an act of aggression, but fails to mention that it was caused by Colombian soldiers entering neighbouring countries to attack guerilla groups. (On a side note, I never seize to be amazed that anyone can consider the Colombian government more legit than its neighbours. One would think half a century of continued armed conflict with presently no less than 15 different groups engaged in operations signifies a regime that is consistently failing to attend to the grievances of a large portion of the population. But no, guns in the hands of the army (and, of course, their partners in drug dealing and paramilitary activities) are by definition Good, while guns in the hands of peasant revolutionaries (and, of course, their partners in drug dealing and kidnapping) are by definition Bad.)

All problems aside, the main worry of Colgan is still sound: In the future, ever more of the world’s much-needed energy will come from regimes that no sane person would want to have more power. That is worrying. Therefore, the only conclusion is to promote alternative sources of energy, which is the conclusion Colgan arrives at too.

Colgan, J. (2010). Oil and Revolutionary Governments: Fuel for International Conflict International Organization, 64 (04), 661-694 DOI: 10.1017/S002081831000024X

Colgan, J. (2011). Oil and resource-backed aggression Energy Policy DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2010.12.042


One Response

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by and Frank Aldorf. Frank Aldorf said: Are petro-states more aggressive? #research […]

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