The Department of International Studies in the School of Social Sciences kicked-off the 2008-2009 season of its International Studies Public Forums (ISPF) series with guest lecturer Michael Ross, a political science associate professor at UCLA. The event took place in UC Irvine’s Social Science Plaza A, on Thursday, Oct. 9.
The bulk of Professor Ross’ lecture detailed the ways in which oil-producing countries are prone to political instability and civil wars due to what Ross termed “the oil curse.” According to Ross, though oil is inarguably a widely sought-after commodity, countries with large amounts of this resource often suffer rather than benefit from having an abundance of oil due to internal conflict.
Ross launched into his presentation in simplistic terms, focusing on the good news and bad news concerning international conflicts. The presenter noted that the most comforting issue concerning global disputes is that relatively few wars have happened between sovereign nations in recent years.
“Last year, according to the standard databases, there was not a single war between two sovereign governments … The real problem is not the wars between countries, but the wars within countries,” Ross said.
Although Ross recognized the recent conflict between Russia and Georgia as an example of a recent war, he stated that the majority of wide-scale disputes occur in nations internally.
In analyzing civil wars in countries such as Nigeria, Columbia and Sudan, Ross stated that oil played a factor because of its high value in the international market. According to Ross, when countries are able to tap into this resource, they often experience a sudden influx of wealth. Yet, despite this benefit, much of the same problems they faced prior to the discovery of oil, such as government corruption and a volatile economy, persist.
“The bad news is that if you divide the world into two categories of countries – countries that produce oil and countries that do not – you see very different patterns … All of these drops in the number of wars throughout the world occurred in countries that do not produce oil. Countries that produce oil continue to have civil wars,” Ross said.
Still, it is important to note that the oil curse does not affect all oil-producing nations. For example, Ross eliminated the oil-producing countries of Canada and Norway based on their high-per-capita-income. Internal violence, he claimed, is not prevalent in states where the national wealth is distributed to the people.
As Ross’ findings showed, in countries where heavily disenfranchised citizens exist, the presence of oil can act as a catalyst to civil war. This can be attributed to violent anti-government groups taking advantage of their nation’s natural resources.
“My best interpretation looking at this is it helps rebel sources raise money if there’s some kind of natural resource around,” Ross said. “You cannot run a rebellion and overthrow a government unless you have some cash available.”
While the majority of Ross’ lecture focused on war-ravaged nations, he also analyzed the impact of natural resources on more established countries, such as the United States. According to Ross, the U.S. is the world’s largest petroleum importer. Additionally, in recent months the country has experienced record-high oil prices. Ross thus expressed that because of these two factors, it is crucial that the government reevaluate its dependency on foreign oil.
Referencing the current presidential election, Ross appeared optimistic as he mentioned that John McCain and Barack Obama have agreed that the country must move towards more oil independence. However, he also said that which steps the U.S. needs to take to achieve this is a more complicated issue.
Jonathan Kelman, a fifth-year graduate student in the department of political science, stated that while he found the subject interesting, he felt that Ross was too broad in his presentation.
“It was more quantitative than I was expecting … I would have preferred more qualitative examples,” Kelman said.
Upcoming ISPF activities touch on a variety of subjects, ranging from Islamic fundamentalism to global leadership. Prior to Ross’ presentation, Deborah Avant, the director of the international studies program at UCI, explained some unifying themes that remain consistent throughout the series.
“We have a very impressive lineup of speakers, all of which will examine [issues] no doubt in the context of the elections … and now also [issues] in the context of global financial crisis,” Avant said.
The next scheduled ISPF event is entitled “Students Making Peace? Report from UCI’s Olive Tree Initiative” On Oct. 30. The presentation will focus on the experiences of a group of Jewish and Muslim UCI students that visited the Middle East this past summer.
Suzanne Casazza contributed to this report.