Geopolitics: Writing Petropolitics: The Poverty of Geo-Political Analysis

Iain Grant, Dalhousie University, Canada

There are sub-fields of Political Science that have devoted valuable attention to the oil and gas trade – Comparativists’ treatment of rentier states and Public Policy analyses of regulation come to mind – but the study of International Relations has been remarkably remiss in this area. This neglect is surprising, for two reasons. First, for a field so enamoured of issues pertaining to national interests, it is difficult to imagine a more appealing subject. Few International Relations scholars would deny that the relationships between economic growth, industrial capability and military power are viable realms of study, but beyond the assertion that oil is central to modern warfare and, by extension, to national interests, the relationship between the global oil and gas trade and world politics has been curiously neglected. Second, given the decades-long experience of western states with volatilities too numerous to count in the oil-rich areas of the globe, it should have been expected that greater attention would have been paid to global ‘petropolitics’ within International Relations. But with the exception of a burst of scholarship that followed the oil crises of the early 1970s – most of it emanating from the United States – the subfield has taken an a very narrow view of the subject.

The contrast between this dearth of attention in IR and the ways in which global petropolitics has been treated by economists could not be more stark. With greater acceptance of the importance of markets and the decentralized, equilibrating properties they comprise, Economics routinely offers a treatment of the subject that is richer, more quantitatively and qualitatively sound, and more sophisticated than that which has been offered so far by practitioners of International Relations. The discussion that follows traces the reasons for this, and advances an argument as to why this theoretical shortcoming should be of concern to economists. The first section deals with the dominance of ‘Realist’ international relations theory, with a focus on North America, and explains the conditioning effect that this tradition has had on the perceptions of global oil that obtain among policymakers, academics and media, particularly in the United States. The second section introduces two interpretations of the intersection of oil and world politics – the geopolitical and the ‘petropolitical’ – and uses the developing oil relationship between China and the United States to illustrate the differences between them. This section also offers the Global Oil Regime (GOR) as a practical venue of structure, process and principle for petropolitics. The third and final section seeks to explain why the geopolitical view has become the default one in many North American quarters, a point of particular importance when the American position on global oil is considered; again, the U.S.-China relationship will serve to examine this question. Throughout, the argument will be advanced that while the geopolitics view is well entrenched, the petropolitical view of the GOR is a more accurate and productive interpretation of global oil, and that economists would do well to appreciate the under-development of petropolitics and the GOR in the minds of political scientists, in the media, and in the many influential decision-making corners of American politics.


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