Oil has fallen under the $100 threshold. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

The “thirst for oil” is often put forward as a near self-evident explanation behind military interventions in Libya, for instance, or Sudan. Oil, or the lack of it, is also said to be behind the absence of intervention in Syria now and in Rwanda in 1994.

This of course clashes with the rhetoric around intervention, or its stated goal. No world leader stands before the United Nations and says they are sending in the tanks because their country needs more oil. Such interventions are usually portrayed as serving directly non-economic goals such as preserving security, supporting democratic values, or more generally, promoting human rights.

However, this is often met with scepticism and media claims that economic incentives played a key role. Was Iraq really “all about oil?” It is worth asking whether this viewpoint has some mileage or if it is instead purely conspiracy theory.

It is a question we have addressed in our research on the importance of oil production in attracting third-party military interventions. In a new paper co-authored with Kristian Gleditsch in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, we model the decision-making process of third-party countries in interfering in civil wars and examine their economic motives.

Our research builds on 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 organization.

We found that the decision to interfere was dominated by the interveners’ need for oil — over and above historical, geographical or ethnic ties.

Military intervention is expensive and risky. No country joins another country’s civil war without balancing the cost against their own strategic interests and what possible benefits there are.

We found countries producing lots of oil or those with higher reserves (and considerable market power) were more likely to attract military support. Most often this was to preserve oil prices on international markets. Indeed, there were, on an average, more interventions in periods when there were only a few big oil-producing countries and thus reduced competition (and more stable prices).

Such interventions are more likely to be carried out by countries highly dependent on oil imports. The US is the obvious example, but the former USSR also fits this pattern — look at its intervention in oil-rich Indonesia in 1958, when Soviet oil production was still in its infancy.

Consider also Britain’s military intervention in the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War, between 1967 and 1970. At the time, the United Kingdom was one of the largest net oil importers in the world, as North Sea oil production only started in 1975. The country also had, via BP, a direct interest in the stability of the region. It may seem tempting to attribute UK intervention in Nigeria to ties to its former colony. However, the UK did not intervene in civil wars in other, less oil-rich former colonies such as Sierra Leone or Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

On the flip side, oil-independent nations do not seem to do much intervening at all. The military aid Saudi Arabia provided to royalists during the civil war in 1960s’ Yemen is almost unique among the top exporting nations across the period we surveyed. The other Gulf states and regional oil powers such as Mexico or Indonesia have refrained from intervening in civil wars.

21st century intervention

The enduring record of geopolitical instability in oil-producing regions and the likely increase in the global demand for oil means we will see more of these interventions in future. But there probably will be some differences.

Shale gas should mean the US is becoming less energy dependent, whereas continued growth in China means the country will need energy imports more than ever.

We will see some big changes in the specific nations with the greatest incentives to intervene. We may see in coming years the first Chinese military assistance influenced by oil security.

These interventions should, in turn, lead to stronger economic ties. Research we carried out with Leandro Elia, published in the Review of International Economics, found strong empirical evidence that US troop deployment and military aid provokes an expansion in bilateral trade flows.

Our work provides strong evidence that military interventions are indeed economically motivated.

— Washington Post

Vincenzo Bove is an assistant professor in politics at the University of Warwick. Petros Sekeris is a principal lecturer in economics at University of Portsmouth. This article was originally published on The Conversation.