Vol. 2, No. 15 (August 01, 2009)

Energy resources and major power aggression

Elnur Soltanov, Dr.
Assistant Professor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

The general tendency in the natural resource-international war literature has been to study natural resources as something to be acquired or defended.  An edited book by Westing (1986) is mainly concerned with how militarized interstate conflicts emerge while states try to secure access to natural resources vital for survival and for an improved standard of living (Westing 1986, pp. 4-5).  Likewise, Le Billon (2001, p. 564) states that being easily and heavily taxable, natural resources represent a prize to be captured.  Homer-Dixon (1999, pp. 138-139) especially emphasizes non-renewables as factors increasing the incentives for capture and control.  According to him, unlike croplands, forests and fish, resources like iron and oil are much more easily convertible into increased state power. 

Compared to their weaker counterparts, major powers, given their large industrialized economies (which generate higher demand for natural resources) and vast military capabilities (which give them leverage across wide distances), could be more involved in resource-rich nations’ affairs.  According to Westing (1986, p. 6), the “numerous wars during the past two centuries of colonial conquest, of colonial retention, and … of national liberation … must for the most part be categorized as wars over natural resources”. Similarly, Hveem (1986, p. 58) states that historically “conflicts over natural resources have often been associated with competition over concessions or colonies”.  Le Billon (2004, p. 2) ascribes to resources “some of the means and motive for global European power expansion”.  According to him, the Prussian strategy of achieving self-sufficiency by having a secure access to resources called Lebensraum, and the Heartland theory of Mackinder were the offshoots of the same drive to control natural resources of the globe, which was reinforced during the two world wars of the 20th century (Le Billon 2004, p. 3). 

The Lorraine region, one of the few places in Europe rich in iron ore, had been a crucial element in military engagements from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 to World War I and World War II.  Besides the Lorraine, among the causes of World War I were Germany’s desire to gain access to oil, and in general, conflicts over resource-rich Africa, eastern Asia and Pacific Ocean islands (Westing 1986, p. 204).  Germany’s and Japan’s involvement in World War II was “in significant measure in order to attain control over natural resources,” driven “in large part” by the “paucity of indigenous natural resources” (Westing 1986, p. 205).  The USSR’s annexation of Finland’s nickel-rich Petsamo (Pechenga) territory on the Barents Sea could not be detached from the drive to acquire access to natural resources either (Westing 1986, p. 9).  Likewise, France’s long and bloody involvement in Algeria after World War II was partly related to its reluctance to lose a colony rich in petroleum (Westing 1986, p. 206). 

Historically major power involvements could have been for the purpose of mere acquisition and control.  In current times, it seems to be more about securing the positions of their domestic firms and the stable supplies of strategic commodities.  Despite some differences in the means employed as well, large industrialized countries continue to resort, among other things, to military deployments near exploitation sites and along shipping lines, gunboat policies and proxy wars (e.g. Le Billon 2004, p. 3).  Struggle for dominance among powerful states in the Persian Gulf, Africa, and more recently in the Caspian Sea region is well documented (Klare 2001, p. 25).  In this context, Klare (2001, p. 53) draws attention to increased American military presence in the Gulf region, against the backdrop of its diminishing forces in other parts of the world after the end of the Cold War.  The United States’ differing stances in handling the conflicts with North Korea and Iraq have been linked to oil reserves of the latter, and the U.S. dependence on it.  The alleged tacit support for a coup against democratically elected Hugo Chavez of Venezuela by the George W. Bush administration has been speculated upon similarly (Le Billon 2004, p. 21). [1]
It is not uncommon for natural resource companies to get involved in the domestic affairs of resource-rich nations.  Shell’s seeking deals with separatist groups in West Papua while it was under contested Indonesian rule (Le Billon 2004, p. 15), Unocal’s alleged involvement in human right abuses in Burma, French companies Elf and Total’s, Canadian Talisman’s, and Belgian Union Miniere du Haunt Katanga’s in Africa are some examples in this regard (Harker 2000; Nelson 2000; Westing 1986, p. 35).  Firms with sufficient technological and financial capacity to dominate the industry tend to be registered with relatively powerful states.  This implies that these companies’ involvement in the sensitive political affairs of resource-rich nations may increase the probability of interference by their home states, hence that of the consequent interstate conflicts involving major powers.  Thus, the expectation is that ownership of resource-rich regions will make states vulnerable to the aggression of major powers.
The dependent variable, Force Use Onset, is taken from the Militarized Interstate Disputes (MID) Dataset (Ghosn and Palmer 2003).  It includes militarized interstate disputes with hostility levels of four (uses of force) and five (wars). [2] Non-renewable resources have been studied under two main categories: fuel and non-fuel minerals.  The same principle is employed in this paper, too.  The resource dataset is taken from Hamilton and Clemens (1999), which is annually updated by the World Bank (2006).  Ross (2006, p. 273) refers to it as one of the best measures available.  The first variable, Energy Rent “is equal to the product of unit resource rents and the physical quantities of energy extracted.  It covers crude oil, natural gas, and coal,” and is measured as the percentage of GNI.  The second variable, Minerals Rent, is measured in exactly the same way, and includes ten minerals: bauxite, copper, iron, lead, nickel, phosphate, tin, zinc, gold, and silver.  The article defines major powers in accordance with the MID Dataset (Ghosn and Palmer 2003).  The list mainly includes the permanent members of the UN Security Council.  Additional control variables are included in the model to make sure that the would-be association between resources and war is not attributable to other factors.  The article uses time series cross sectional models that cover the period from 1970 to 2002, and looks at up to 144 countries and about 3,500 country-years utilizing rare events logit regression (King and Zeng 2001).

As the first raw in Table 1 (see the PDF version) shows, major powers are more likely to target energy-rich states than energy-poor ones.  But the countries that are rich in terms of non-fuel minerals are no more likely to be attacked by major powers than their minerals-poor counterparts.  The key to this puzzle may lie with oil, a component part of energy variables in this paper, and its incomparably high strategic value regarding the functioning of the global industrial machine (Beblawi and Luciani 1987).  After all, what makes major powers major powers is the scale and scope of their industrialization which mainly runs on hydrocarbons and especially oil.  The association between energy resources and international wars is not striking however.  It is significant only at a 10 percent level, and for each one unit addition to the country’s energy rent the odds of its being attacked by major powers rise by 2.7 percent.  The outcome resonates with Hammarström’s (1986; 1997) works on “resource imperialism.”  This paper finds a slightly stronger support for the claim, in line with, if not proportional to, the expectations of a great number of anecdotal evidence provided by various well known scholars in the field (Westing 1986; Klare 2001; Le Billon 2004).  There could be several reasons for the absence of a stronger relationship between energy abundance and international conflicts, such as the exclusion of lesser forms of conflict (displays of force, threats to use force) from the dependent variable and defining major powers too narrowly.  All in all, however, the claim that more powerful nations are more likely to be aggressive towards energy-rich countries compared to energy-poor countries (other things being equal) turns out to have a statistically significant empirical support.   


Beblawi, Hazem and Giacomo Luciani (1987) “Introduction,” in The Rentier State, ed. Beblawi, Hazem and Giacomo Luciani (London: Croom Helm).

Ghosn, Faten and Glenn Palmer (2003) Codebook for the Militarized Interstate Dispute Data, Version 3.0, available at: http://cow2.la.psu.edu"http://cow2.la.psu.edu (accessed December 20, 2008). 

Hamilton, Kirk and Michael Clemens (1999) “Genuine Savings Rates in Developing Countries,” The World Bank Economic Review, 13 (2), pp. 333-356.

Hammarström, Mats (1986) Securing Resource by Force: the Need for Raw Materials and Military Intervention by Major Powers in Less Developed Countries, Report no. 27 (Uppsala: Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University). 

Hammarström, Mats (1997) “Mineral Conflict and Mineral Supplies: Results Relevant to Wider Resource Issues,” in Conflict and the Environment, ed. Nils Petter Gleditsch (Dordrecht: Kluwer).

Harker, John (2000) Human Security in Sudan, Ottawa: Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, available at: http://www.reliefweb.int/library/documents/cansudan2.pdf (accessed November 15, 2008).

Homer-Dixon, Thomas F. (1999) Environment, Scarcity and Violence (Princeton: Princeton University Press). 

King, Gary and Langche Zeng (2001) “Logistic Regression in Rare Events Data,” Political Analysis, 9 (2), pp. 137-163.

Klare, Michael T. (2001) Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict (New York: Henry Holt and Company).

Le Billon, Philippe (2001) “The Political Ecology of War: Natural Resources and Armed Conflicts,” Political Geography, 20 (5), pp. 561-584. 

Le Billon, Philippe (2004) “The Geopolitical Economy of Resource Wars,” Geopolitics, 9 (1), pp. 1-28.

Westing, Arthur, ed. (1986) Global Resources and International Conflict: Environmental Factors in Strategic Policy and Action (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 


[1] Beblawi (1987, pp. 59-60) coins a phrase “location rent” to indicate the increased strategic value of resource-rich regions.  Yet such a strategic value may very well turn out to be a burden, rather than an asset. 

[2] It should be noted that this study does not cover cases in which two states have a militarized dispute over extra-territorial resources, since MID data do not include such cases.