A section of an oil refinery is guarded as it is brought on a truck to the Kawergosk Refinery, some 20 km east of Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, July 14, 2014. (Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

A section of an oil refinery is guarded as it is brought on a truck to the Kawergosk Refinery, some 20 km east of Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, July 14, 2014. (Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

When countries become involved in remote conflicts there is often a significant divide between the justification offered by their governments and what the public perceives to be the motivation for taking action. In the 344 armed interventions in civil wars that took place from 1945 to 1999, and many more since, the official rhetoric has typically revolved around ethically grounded issues such as the “war on terror,” the promotion of democracy, the combating of ideologies such as communism, or the support of oppressed populations. This comes as a stark contrast to the perception of the population at large, which often associates military action with achieving geopolitical or economic aims. Perhaps the most widespread—and controversial—of these suspected goals is the pursuit of oil.

In our recently published study “Oil Above Water: Economic Interdependence and Third-Party Intervention,” co-authored with Kristian S. Gleditsch, we applied statistical evidence and rigorous analysis to investigate the truth of this particular claim. We built on recent studies that demonstrated what was until recently seen as a conspiracy theory: the close interlinkages between military interventions and trade. One of these studies provided statistical evidence that Central Intelligence Agency covert operations during the Cold War resulted in increased imports of United States goods from target countries, without the same holding true for exports. Another, prepared by us and co-author Leandro Elia, demonstrated that US military assistance increased non-military bilateral trade flows with the recipient country. Read more