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Why Countries Avoid Fighting for Oil

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Last month, the COVID-19 pandemic caused global oil consumption to fall by almost 30 million barrels per day, from its previous high of 100 million barrels. Oil demand is not expected to fully recover by the end of 2020. Some analysts predict that it will never return to pre-pandemic levels. In that case, the world will experience a permanent oil glut.

There are many advantages to cheap, abundant oil. Is one of them the end of international oil wars? If oil is plentiful and not very valuable, why would countries fight over it? Surely, the oil glut will reduce the frequency of international conflicts.

If oil is plentiful and not very valuable, why would countries fight over it?

My book, The Oil Wars Myth: Petroleum and the Causes of International Conflict, challenges this assumption by revealing that so-called oil wars were never about oil to begin with. Over the course of almost a century (1912–2010), countries launched no major conflicts in order to grab petroleum resources. Many of the historical conflicts that are commonly identified as oil wars, including World War II, the Iran–Iraq War, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay, were actually fought for other reasons.

So-called oil wars were never about oil to begin with.

The Oil Wars Myth argues that countries avoid fighting for oil because of the costs associated with these conflicts. Leaders that are contemplating international oil grabs face the prospect of costly foreign invasions, territorial occupation, international retaliation, and investor approbation. As a result, the benefits of seizing foreign oil are far lower than most people imagine. It is not worth prosecuting major international conflicts, merely to seize oil resources.

It is not worth prosecuting major international conflicts, merely to seize oil resources.

My book finds that, rather than prosecuting “classic oil wars,” states engage in four types of militarized conflicts in oil-endowed territories: red herrings, oil spats, oil campaigns, and oil gambits. In red herrings, states fight in areas with oil, but for other reasons, such as hegemonic aspirations, domestic politics, national pride, and contested territories’ other strategic and economic assets. In oil spats and oil campaigns, states are motivated by oil ambitions. However, oil spats are minor confrontations and oil campaigns occur in the midst of ongoing international wars that were started for other reasons. Finally, in the unique historical oil gambit — the only conflict that might be labeled a classic oil war — the aggressor targeted foreign oil in order to achieve a broader, political aim.

The Oil Wars Myth explores each of the four types of conflict using historical case studies. It presents two red herrings: the Chaco and Iran–Iraq wars. The featured oil spat occurred between Argentina and the United Kingdom, in the states’ Falkland/Malvinas Islands dispute. The oil campaigns are from World War II. The sole oil gambit is Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. I also examine the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq, showing that it was not a classic oil war.

If classic oil wars never actually occur, why is belief in these conflicts so widespread? My book observes that classic oil wars exist at the intersection of two dominant narratives about the causes of violent conflict: the “Mad Max Myth,” which claims that people fight because of resource scarcity and existential need, and the “El Dorado Myth,” which claims that people fight because of greed. I show that each of these narratives has persisted for centuries. Because we believe in them, we believe in classic oil wars.

Because we believe in them, we believe in classic oil wars.

What do my findings mean, in the midst of a global oil glut? Unfortunately, cheap, abundant oil will not reduce the frequency of international conflicts. States will continue to refrain from fighting for oil resources — as they always have. However, they will also continue to fight for other reasons.


Emily Meierding is an Assistant Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

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