Golding on Meierding, 'The Oil Wars Myth: Petroleum and the Causes of International Conflict'

Emily Meierding
Marcus Oliver Golding

Emily Meierding. The Oil Wars Myth: Petroleum and the Causes of International Conflict. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020. Maps. 256 pp. $25.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-5017-4894-3; $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-4828-8.

Reviewed by Marcus Oliver Golding (University of Texas at Austin) Published on H-War (November, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

Oil is perhaps the most important natural resource of the modern era. Since the beginning of the last century, it has powered our economy and fueled human technological progress. It is no wonder that this mineral resource is often understood as black gold—something nations are willing to fight for. Oil has been blamed for many modern wars, from the Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia in the 1930s to more recent episodes like the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Vice (2018), a movie that follows the life of Vice President Dick Cheney (2001-8), provides a telling scene. Top-ranking US military officials meet in a restaurant to discuss invasion plans of Iraq. On the table there is a map with the main hydrocarbon installations to be seized by the invading force. For the audience it is made clear that the main motivation for the war is oil. Popular culture has done its part in strengthening the notion that fighting for hydrocarbon sources pays off handsomely. That is supposedly one of the prime motivations for confrontation among nations in the world. Right? Emily Meierding’s The Oil Wars Myth: Petroleum and the Causes of International Conflict successfully challenges the premise that oil is a main source of international instability. The author argues that countries in fact avoid military engagements that only involved hydrocarbon sources. Throughout the book, Meierding exposes the weak causal linkages between oil and war in the literature and dispels the powerful persuasive myths sustaining them. By using a comprehensive database of oil-related conflicts, the author demonstrates that only one of those engagements, the Iraq invasion of Kuwait, qualifies as a classic oil war. And there are important caveats to it. She concludes by urging policymakers to focus on the real causes that motivate interstate conflicts. Focusing on petroleum as the prime cause of hostilities is misleading and leads to erroneous policymaking.

Meierding focuses the first part of her study on the reasoning behind what she calls classic oil wars, severe militarized interstate conflicts in which participants fight to obtain petroleum resources. In her examination of the literature, the author highlights the predominance of scholarship linking oil with war and conflict. However, scholars in the field of international relations also acknowledge the lack of systematic empirical evidence tying petroleum to interstate conflict. Meierding argues that despite the lack of serious arguments supporting the classical oil war hypothesis, experts keep making “an unmerited cognitive leap” by jumping from the idea that hydrocarbons are extremely valuable resources to the conclusion that countries in fact fight for it (p. 3).

In the absence of elaborate arguments to explain the predominance of the classic oil war hypothesis in the literature, Meierding looks at the myths that sustain it. She finds two overarching narratives that make the classic oil war argument so compelling: the Mad Max myth and the El Dorado myth. The first one suggests that countries fight for oil because they need it for national survival. In contrast, the El Dorado myth assumes that interstate conflicts are driven by the greed of countries and their thirst for wealth accumulation. These two myths render narratives about oil and war “exceptionally believable” (p. 23). They appeal to the common sense and complement each other, making the classical oil war argument seem almost as a given. Meierding explains that these myths shield it from analytical challenges and at the same time they account for the dearth of empirical studies on the linkages between petroleum and interstate conflict.

In the second part of the book, the author proves that states are extremely reluctant to fight for petroleum resources by testing her premise with empirical data. She analyzes 180 contests involving hydrocarbon-endowed territories from the Militarized Interstate Dispute Dataset. Meierding’s findings reveal that no conflict cleanly qualifies as a classic oil war. The author complements empirical facts with a new typology to understand those conflicts that on a first look appear to be inspired by oil. The typology includes four categories: oil spats, red herrings, oil campaigns, and oil gambits. The first three refer to wars that are attributed to petroleum as the main cause but when closely examined are not. Oil spats are launched when territories are contested and resources are offshore and when the conflict is against a neighboring adversary with whom there exists a previous history of hostility. They are extremely rare, produce few fatalities, and fail to escalate. The author cites several examples, such as the Indonesia-Vietnam dispute over the Natuna islands or the border conflict between Venezuela and Guyana over the Essequibo Province. Red herrings in contrast are usually understood as wars motivated by oil but in which petroleum actually did not play a significant role. Meierding studies the case of the Chaco War in South America. Oil campaigns target petroleum as one of the main objectives of the combatants but only once the war has already started and not before. In other words, petroleum becomes a tactical and strategic goal to defeat the enemy in a conflict originally fought for other reasons. The best case is the Nazi campaigns in Russia during World War II. Finally, oil gambits are the only category that presents evidence of countries going to war for hydrocarbon resources. The author analyzes the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990. However, even in this case Meierding advises caution. She explains that Iraqi motivations to take the neighboring oil fields were not tied to a thirst for petroleum per se. Instead, they were connected to national security concerns and the fear that Saddam Hussein felt in relation to the US and the perception that it was working to overthrow him.

Meierding strengthens her argumentation by outlining a series of impediments that make petroleum wars highly risky and not profitable. These are invasion, occupation, international, and investment obstacles. Invasion and occupation are related to the staggering costs of having an occupation army controlling foreign oil installations. Additionally, the aggressor nation can face international sanctions that could cripple its economy before new petroleum can be pumped from the seized fields. Finally, multinational oil companies would be less willing to invest in a business environment characterized by instability, the use of force, and the potential disregard for signed agreements by the conquering force. The book would have benefited more from integrating the impediment conditions with the study of the empirical cases though. They feel forgotten at some points throughout the chapters.

Meirerding’s book is a great contribution to the literature on international relations. She demonstrates the lack of rigorous evidence pointing to a seemingly natural predisposition of states to fight for hydrocarbon resources. The author then reveals how causal linkages between the value of petroleum in modern society and the willingness to fight for it are rooted more in myth than in facts. By analyzing conflicts in petroleum-endowed territories she concludes that oil has seldom been the only motive behind nations going to war. The book is an important read for historians, political scientists, and international relations experts interested in the connection, or lack of, between key commodities and natural resources, and interstate conflicts.

Citation: Marcus Oliver Golding. Review of Meierding, Emily, The Oil Wars Myth: Petroleum and the Causes of International Conflict. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2021. URL:

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