Oil and Military Intervention: Are the Conspiracy Theorists Right?

Since wars in oil-producing countries may affect the price of, and access to, oil, the so-called conspiracy theorists may be correct that the presence of oil may be a weighty factor in favour of intervention.

French troops in Bamako, Mali (2012). Photo: Idrissa Fall. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

When a third-party country intervenes in a civil war, the intervention is usually justified as being in pursuit of honourable political or humanitarian goals. NATO cited protection of the civilian population as its primary goal when intervening in Libya in 2011, while France cited prevention of Islamic terrorism when intervening in Mali in 2014.

But many sceptics have expressed doubt about these stated goals, instead drawing attention to less honourable motives, such as control over oil resources.

An anonymous article in Tidsskriftet Rødt 3/2011 (a Norwegian Marxist periodical) claims, for example, that there “would never have been any Western intervention in Libya if it had not been for the presence of oil, even if this was not the triggering factor”.

In the case of the civil war in Syria, a country with declining oil production, there has been little willingness to intervene, despite widespread international dismay about the suffering of the civilian population. In addition, the United States did not participate directly in attacks against Islamic State (IS) until IS threatened oil fields in the north of Iraq.

Conspiracy theories

Many claims by conspiracy theorists about oil and interventions in other countries are obviously unfounded.

In 2003, for example, if the United States had simply wanted lower oil prices, it would have been easier to lift the economic sanctions on Iraq than to invade the country. There have also been many interventions in countries that lack any oil resources.

And when the US intervened in Afghanistan against the Taliban regime, the 9/11 terror attacks were the most decisive factor.

Foreign intervention in civil wars may perhaps prevent humanitarian catastrophes or the escalation of conflict. But such interventions are very costly, and the possible positive humanitarian and political outcomes are usually not sufficient by themselves to persuade third-party countries to intervene.

Since wars in oil-producing countries may affect the price of, and access to, oil, the so-called conspiracy theorists may be correct that the presence of oil may be a weighty factor in favour of intervention.

Oil may be the motivation for an intervention

An article authored by myself, together with Vincenzo Bove and Petros Sekeris, which has recently been published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, suggests a simple model for assessing more systematically the circumstances in which a country may or may not have an economic interest in intervening in a civil war.

We demonstrate that it generally seems to be correct that oil may motivate a country to intervene, in light of the civil war’s anticipated effects on access to oil and oil prices.

But we also come to other and more surprising conclusions in relation to which countries intervene and changes in patterns of intervention over time.

For 69 countries that experienced civil war between 1945 and 1999, we look at data to establish which countries actually intervened and which countries did not intervene, but could have done so, together with new and more comprehensive data about oil.

We use a number of different measures to assess oil resources, both existing prices and trade as well as known reserves, regardless of actual production, which may be affected by an ongoing conflict or other political factors.

As expected, we find that interventions occur more often in civil wars in countries that are oil producers or that have large oil reserves. The intervening countries are often oil importers. Countries that produce oil themselves seldom intervene.

In addition, we find more interventions in periods of little competition on the international market because of domination by a few large oil producers.

Other factors

Clearly many political factors other than oil may affect the likelihood of intervention.

Ethnic links to groups involved in a conflict are often decisive, as for example where Russia is supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. Many countries intervene in former colonies, such as France in Mali.

But we find that the intervention-inducing effect of oil is at least as great as the effect of ethnic links between groups in countries in conflict and in intervening states.

The probability that an “oil-thirsty” country will intervene in a civil war in an oil-producing country is over 100 per cent greater than the probability that an oil-exporting country will intervene in a civil war in a country that lacks oil resources.

Findings that explain intervention

Our findings may help explain why we see intervention in some conflicts but not in others, as well as why these patterns change over time.

Syria’s relative lack of oil means that its civil war has fewer consequences for other countries than did the civil war in Libya.

France intervened in Mali after it became known that Mali had oil resources, but France has not intervened in similar conflicts in former French colonies in North Africa.

The United States is a classic example of an oil-dependent country that has intervened in many other countries’ conflicts.

The Soviet Union also intervened in many countries, such as in Indonesia in 1958, but has become far more sceptical about interventions as its own oil production has increased.

The United Kingdom was one of the world’s largest importers of oil when it intervened in the Biafra conflict in Nigeria between 1967 and 1970. Nigeria was a former British colony, but the UK did not intervene in other former colonies such as Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). In addition, during the period between 1980 and 2004, when the UK was a net exporter of oil, its interventions became less frequent.

It is true that Hugo Chavez used Venezuela’s oil wealth to fund rebel movements in other Latin American countries, but most major oil-producing countries such as Mexico, Indonesia and the countries around the Persian Gulf have never intervened in civil wars.

Oil will continue to count

In fact there has been a reduction in the number of civil wars worldwide, and whether there is too much or too little intervention in conflicts in other countries depends both on political goals and what one believes one can achieve through intervention.

But demand for oil will continue to be great, and continued instability in oil-producing regions such as the Middle East makes it very likely that oil will continue to play a role in interventions in civil wars. But who intervenes, and where, may change rapidly.

Shale gas has made the US far less dependent on foreign energy. Accordingly, it is reasonable to assume that the US may become less interested in using resources to support conservative regimes in the Middle East. On the other hand, continued economic growth in China is leading to a greater need for energy imports, and China may become more inclined to use military force in the interests of energy security.


This text was published in Norwegian in Aftenposten 13 February 2015: Olje og militær intervensjon.

Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext

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