Scott Hawkins Lecture: The Paradox of Global Oil Politics

Oil and natural resources have always been a large part of our lives and have helped the development of many nations. Regardless, with oil prices skyrocketing, the topic of oil and gas production is on the very surface of people’s minds all over the world. Even before a gallon of gas cost four dollars in the U.S., this was a contested topic because of climate change concerns. Ross’s research looks at how oil and gas have affected politics on many levels and on how the oil curse has affected many countries’ capability of ruling a nation.

To understand just how much significance oil has on the political economy of countries, Ross starts the presentation by showing countries that rely on oil as their primary export. He lists 30 countries whose oil/gas exports are greater than 40%; of these 30 countries, 23 have autocratic regimes. Popular theories would suggest that an increase in government revenue would lead to the establishment of democratic institutions, thus, further democratization. However, the contrary can be observed in oil-rich countries, and Ross points out the Dutch disease as the leading cause of this. Dutch disease is when a country experiences an increase in oil revenue, resulting in the government becoming larger and more powerful while harming the development of private sectors. In addition, capital gained from oil revenue comes in a form that is easily concealed, facilitating the empowerment of leaders with corruption. This can also increase the likelihood of violent conflicts and civil wars. Nevertheless, the governments of these oil-rich countries tend to become more autocratic as oil revenues diminish the need to rely on taxing the citizens for income.

The principal issue that Ross seeks to answer is whether a reversal of these autocratic characteristics is possible as the world moves away from fossil fuels. His research finds that similar processes have successfully occurred in many cases. Using measures to observe a country’s democratic features, Ross finds that some countries started to democratize immediately after they had reached peaks in oil production. As governments shrank from the lack of funding, dictatorships fell and displayed bottom-up processes towards democratization. Ross offers Indonesia and Mexico as examples of successfully democratized countries. Indonesia and Mexico, no longer ruled by an authoritarian government, experienced peaceful democratic transitions, and are now relatively stable democracies.  On this note, Ross theorizes that oil-producing nations will be able to move toward more democratic governments as the world attempts to move away from fossil fuels.

To conclude, Ross touches upon how this topic correlates with the current Russia-Ukraine conflict. He mentions that this conflict could potentially be a positive force for climate change, despite its harm to Ukraine. The efforts seen in many countries to move away from Russian oil is essential because the world must also start to move away from its significant oil consumption, and this conflict could help in taking the first step. His research that had pointed out countries successfully democratizing after peaking in oil production gives him an optimistic view of the outcomes of what may happen in the near future of these developing, but oil-rich countries. With ongoing conflicts and many changing variables, Ross’s research, which looks at a prevalent issue in the international sphere, is vital to preventing the forthcoming consequences of climate change.

This blog post is written by Yuta Beppu ’24. In 2021-2022, he is studying Political Science at SMU as an exchange student from Kwansei Gakuin University (KGU), Japan. At KGU, he is in the School of International Studies, where his areas of interest are Political Science, International Relations, and International Business.