A common feature of some kinds of conspiracy theory is a claim that the ostensible motives of states when they intervene in the affairs of others are in fact not the ‘real’ motives. Thus the assertion that the US and the UK went to war in Iraq not because of genuine fears that the Saddam regime possessed weapons of mass destruction and the capability to deploy them, but because Iraq was an oil rich country which, once democratised, could provide an assured supply of the crude stuff to western states which were nervous about indefinite reliance on the authoritarian regimes of the Gulf states. Similarly, Western intervention in Libya in recent times has been ‘explained’ in terms of that country’s potential role as a major oil-producing state. By the same token, the reluctance of the US and other Western countries to get involved in the Syrian civil war is ‘explained’ by the fact that there are no oil resources at stake in that conflict.
Hindsight has confirmed that, in some cases, such conspiracy theories have not been far-fetched. Official records show, for example, that the August 1953 coup that ousted the Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, and reinstated the Shah of Persia was in fact orchestrated by the CIA, as many “conspiracy theorists” had long argued.
But for the most part, conjectures about the hidden role of oil in foreign interventions remain just that — conjectural. So it’s interesting to come on a piece of research which seeks empirical evidence for the suspicions about the importance of oil production in attracting third party military interventions. In a paper published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, Petros Sekeris, Vincenzo Bove and Kristian Gleditsch attempt to model the decision-making process of third-party countries in interfering in civil wars and examine their economic motives.
The research is based on what the researchers describe as “a near-exhaustive sample” of 69 countries which had a civil war between 1945 and 1999. About two-thirds of civil wars during the period saw third party intervention either by another country or outside organisation. They found that the decision to interfere was dominated by the interveners’ need for oil – over and above historical, geographical or ethnic ties. Countries producing lots of oil or those with higher reserves (and considerable market power) were more likely to attract military support.
The research suggests that countries which are self-sufficient in oil tend not to intervene militarily in other countries. Given that shale oil and gas are rapidly reducing US dependence on important supplies, does this herald a less interventionist United States in coming decades? And, by the same token, does it suggest a more interventionist China?