Oil, The State, and War

  • Published

Oil, The State, and War by Emma Ashford. Georgetown University Press, 2022, 351 pp. 

When searching for oil, a “gusher” is an oil well at such great pressure that the oil geysers out of the well. While an oil gusher is a tremendous resource waste, Emma Ashford’s book, Oil, The State, and War provides similar high-velocity jets spewing information, analysis, and detailed discovery. 

Starting with the title comparison to Kenneth Waltz’s seminal work, Man, The State, and War, every part of this book delivers valuable knowledge. Ashford statistical analyzes oil producers, importers, and relevant behaviors during the past century to expose unique petrostate observations. The conclusions contradict some well-known assumptions through significant factual analysis relating proxy support and economic trends. The core thesis examines how states use oil as wealth, experience resource curses, and convert market share into political power. I recommend this book for anyone in any political science field as a model study, especially for those concerned with energy politics as a seminal work for permanent placement on the shelf. 

The central thesis explores oil and foreign policy from petrostates. Oil is defined as hydrocarbon production focusing on gas and oil while a petrostate is defined in three categories and one subcategory: oil-dependent, oil-wealthy, and super-producer with a sub-category of super-exporter.

An oil-dependent state is one whose oil rents are greater than 10 percent of the GDP, oil-wealthy are those with revenues greater than $1,000 per capita, the super-producer creates more than 2 percent of global oil supply, and a super-exporter creates more than 2 percent while producing more oil than consumed.

The basic definition leads to the three petrostate challenges: wealth, the resource curse, and foreign power applications. Wealth problems deal with resource arms problems where countries rapidly expand the military, conducting foreign proxy sponsorship, and foreign altruism to improve their own reputation. The resource curse suggests states with high oil incomes do not develop internal institutions, control personalization, and the citizens’ expectation that oil incomes will continue without other economy-building efforts. Finally, foreign power issues occur from using use oil as soft or hard power, or the expectation that other nations will contribute to their defense based on global need for oil production. Each approach is thoroughly supported by statistics and case studies. 

Wealth problems with resource arms racing and petroleum proxies appear in two chapters, each with two case studies. Multiple small resource arms racing cases are available, but the major impetus comes from what Russia gained from oil price increases from 2000–11. The price increase caused Russia to forecast such a defense budget raise that for the following decade the arms ministry was unable to accommodate the spending. Though $636B was projected, each dollar drop in the value of oil per barrel after 2011 cost Russia about $2B.

This shows a problem when dealing with long-term procurement of modern military weapons where their logistics tail may suffer. These aspects link the proxy aspect where petrostates spend money externally. The case study addresses Venezuela and Chavez’s support for the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionaires de Columbia (FARC), a communist insurgent group in neighboring Columbia. Chavez had personal FARC ties early in his career and then supported them with weapons, shelter, and training after his presidential election. His primary interest was furthering his own ideological belief which was made possible by Venezuelan oil revenues.

The lack of controls around government oil revenue spending in arms purchases and funding proxy wars is defined as the resource curse. Ashford uses the definition that a state’s capacity is defined by the ability to tax as well as the range of spending capacity to implement those revenues. Income directly tied to a resource, such as oil, subverts these processes in petrostates not suffering the same growing pains as other states and not building sufficient infrastructure to support nonoil functionality.

The case study highlights Saudia Arabia’s internal ministries that are controlled by individuals with direct oil wealth connections. The example explains how the Saudi minister of defense conducted an independent war in Yemen. The Yemen War, lasting more than eight years without formal government controls at a cost of $25B yearly, was maintained by proxy sponsorship and direct military intervention. The case also represents petro-personalization where a central individual controls oil revenues and expands into how Saddam Hussein executed centralized control in Iraq. The control meant no funding existed for options not supported by Hussein. The book documents how the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War were based on Hussein’s decision and confidence in himself as a general rather than any governmental support. 

The final several chapters examine how petrostates used oil as power through sanctions, soft power through attraction and social capital, or the hegemonic umbrella when seeking protection from third parties based on super-exporter status. Ashford notes 18 instances of oil as a sanction weapon. Only five were successful and each of those five was between Russia and a former Soviet state. Success was based on single control points of oil distribution. The widely distributed and interdependent global oil market makes it difficult for any one state, or group to restrict oil access.

One example relates even during the 1970’s Saudi oil embargo on the United States, the Saudis still provided military fueling for US forces headed to Vietnam. Kazakhstan appears as an example of soft-power failures. Despite extending their influence after the Soviet collapse to markets in Europe and China, the Kazakh pathways for oil were still Russian-controlled. This vulnerability in shifting oil volumes leads to a failure in supporting desired gains.

Finally, the first hegemonic umbrella appears during the Tanker War in the 1980s when Kuwait convinced the United States to US flag Kuwaiti tankers to prevent attacks by Iran or Iraq. The next example uses the Gulf War in that the primary reason for American basing in Saudi was to protect the region from any further expansion of Iraq’s Kuwaiti incursion that would restrict global oil markets.

This review portion would normally address complaints about the book or potential problems with the methodology. Instead, one must point out that after thoroughly decomposing statistical elements in earlier chapters, Ashford adds four wonderful appendices that precisely detail where the information was obtained and how deconstructed. These appendices take graphical information from early on to the measurements and validity behind those arguments.

The book’s flow in analyzing statistical correlation in power follows one of my all-time analytical favorites, Brandon Valeriano and Ryan C. Maness’s Cyber War Versus Cyber Realities. Case studies are excellent in showing when and how events occurred but the statistical elements supporting why are often hard to obtain and any analyst who makes those connections should be applauded. If anything, more case studies would have been excellent but could probably result in an additional book series beyond this one. 

The overall book provided a sound thesis, clear steps, illuminative case studies, and the statistical correlation supporting those conclusions. If only one book appeared on the next year’s reading list for those who consider themselves foreign policy experts, this should be it. Most policy books have a variety of positive and negative aspects, but I honestly cannot find any downside to Ashford’s excellent work on how oil affects foreign policy. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in foreign policy as a model of how the analysis should be done, especially to those more interested in oil politics.

Mark T. Peters, PhD, USAF, Retired

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."