Rosemary A. Kelanic’s, Black Gold and Blackmail: Oil and Great Power Politics and Emily Meierding’s, The Oil Wars Myth: Petroleum and the Causes of International Conflict are deeply engaging and important books that advance our knowledge on the politics of energy security. Both books challenge many existing assumptions on the role of oil in international conflict and power projection. In Black Gold and Blackmail, Kelanic focuses on the energy security strategies of great powers and explains how those powers secure oil supplies during war. Specifically, based on a meticulous “observation of great power oil policies since World War I,” Kelanic identifies three “anticipatory strategies,” mainly “self-sufficiency, indirect control, and direct control” to avert attempts at “oil coercion” (3). In The Oil Wars Myth, Meierding argues that the idea of “wars over oil” is a myth and demonstrates why and how it is important to revisit existing claims about the relationship between the value of oil and the initiation of wars. Specifically, Meierding outlines “four sets of impediments,” which she refers to as “invasion, occupation, international, and investment obstacles” to explain why states refrain from launching conflicts to grab petroleum resources (5).
Shiping Tang, Yihan Xiong, and Hui Li’s recent article, “Does Oil Cause Ethnic War? Comparing Evidence from Process-Tracing with Quantitative Results,” is a companion piece to another article, by Hui and Tang, published in the Chinese Political Science Review: “Location, Location, and Location: The Ethno-Geography of Oil and the Onset of Civil War.” That article evaluates the authors’ theoretical argument—that oil’s presence in a subordinate minority group’s core territory encourages ethnic war—using statistical analyses. This new article assesses the same argument, including the causal mechanisms underpinning it, using qualitative case studies. It concludes that “oil has rarely been a deep cause of ethnic war” (359). “Does Oil Cause Ethnic War” also aims to evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of qualitative and quantitative methods, thereby contributing to an ongoing debate in political science/international relations.
What do states do when faced with the threat of oil scarcity? The three articles under review address different aspects of a single problem: what they might do; what they have done; and whether they should believe that there is any scarcity. As befits students of international relations, the authors view this problem primarily as one of mercantilist politics for government policy makers. Taken together, these essays provide an excellent antidote to the feverish claims that have been made repeatedly over at least the last century that oil is an increasingly scarce resource over which wars are necessary. They also raise important issues about how foreign policy is made, whether high-level policy makers really understand the issues they address, and whether scholars suffer from a suffocating mix of naïveté and self-importance when they think about foreign policy.
In Petro-Aggression: When Oil Causes War, Jeff Colgan provides an indispensable starting point for researchers interested in the relationship between oil and international conflict. Although the term ‘energy security’ is now ubiquitous in political speeches and the media, international relations scholars have only just begun to rediscover the topic after a thirty-year hiatus. The 1970s oil shocks prompted a wave of research in the 1970s and 1980s but did not produce systematic theories about oil and war. Emerging scholarship assesses the potential threats to energy-importing countries and examines how energy security issues shape importers’ foreign policies, including their decisions to use military force. Colgan’s book makes a unique contribution by examining a topic that has otherwise received little attention: how oil might encourage conflict initiation by “petrostates,” which he defines as countries for which oil exports comprise 10% of gross domestic product (GDP) or more (2).