Jeff Colgan

Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies
Jeff Colgan
Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies
Image: Peter Goldberg
Oil by itself doesn't necessarily lead to conflict, Jeff Colgan points out, but oil money paired with revolutionary governments or leaders is a different story. His recent book explains why oil-rich countries are often involved in conflict.

Jeff Colgan has always had an interest in energy, but he hasn’t always pursued it in an academic setting.

After graduating from McMaster University in Ontario with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, Colgan began his career as an engineer at a nuclear design firm in Canada, his native country. Quickly realizing that he “didn’t have a passion for engineering,” Colgan returned to school after a year to study energy through a public policy lens. He received a master’s degree in public policy from the University of California–Berkeley as a Canada-U.S. Fulbright Scholar. But after a few years working as a consultant for McKinsey and the Brattle Group, Colgan decided that academia would be a more satisfying way to explore his interests.

“As a consultant, your job is answering other people’s questions. And being a little intellectually greedy, I wanted to answer my own questions. I knew I could do that as a scholar,” Colgan said.

Returning once again to school, Colgan earned a Ph.D. in philosophy with a focus on international relations from Princeton University. He set out to teach at American University’s School of International Service, where he remained until coming to Brown this fall. Colgan’s research focuses on international security and political economy and touches on a range of topics, including energy politics and political revolutions.

Colgan’s most recent book, Petro-Aggression: When Oil Causes War, hits all of these issues. Published in 2013, the book explores why oil-rich countries are often involved in conflicts.

“Oil distorts the domestic politics within those countries,” Colgan said. “Oil on its own is not so bad for foreign policy because it doesn’t necessarily lead to conflicts. But when it’s paired with revolutionary governments, and those leaders have access to oil money that they can use to separate themselves from any kind of accountability from their population, then you have a real problem.”

Citing examples like former Iraq President Saddam Hussein and Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, Colgan said that the highly ambitious, risk-tolerant characteristics that are common among revolutionary leaders — combined with a lack of accountability to their people and the immense resources that an abundance of oil gives them — makes them typically more hostile in matters of foreign policy.

Oil is a frequent subject in Colgan’s research, and his latest peer-reviewed article is no different. Published this summer in the journal International Organization, “The Emperor Has No Clothes: The Limits of OPEC in the Global Oil Market” sought to refute the description of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries as a cartel.

“The whole idea of a cartel is that you are supposed to restrict production so you can drive up prices,” Colgan says. “OPEC is not a cartel. It is a political club that likes the idea of selling people the notion that they are a cartel because it brings them power, prestige, and status. But they don’t cooperate very well, they don’t restrict oil sales very well.”

Colgan points to data that shows the group doesn’t actually collude in any meaningful way. Investigating why many countries see them as a cartel if they aren’t, Colgan found that countries that are members of OPEC receive more diplomatic attention and have a higher status in diplomatic affairs than those that are not. Data such as the number of ambassadors visiting a country when they are part of the organization versus when they are not support this finding, according to Colgan.

So why does the world perpetuate this label?

“The short answer is that it’s this catchy idea that doesn’t get disputed. And despite people saying for a long time that it’s not true, that version just isn’t a marketable story in the same way as having this shorthand of OPEC as an evil cartel that controls the price of oil.”

In addition to a steady stream of articles, Colgan is also beginning a new book on the ways energy consumption since the Industrial Revolution has changed the politics of empires. Completion of that project is still a few years away, so for now Colgan is settling into his new office at the Watson Institute, where he’s starting his first semester as an assistant professor of political science and international studies. He’ll teach two courses this year: an undergraduate fall semester class on international political economy and, in the spring, a course on the geopolitics of oil and energy.

Colgan, with his focus on international issues, says he feels like he chose a good time to come to Brown and Watson.

“I was really attracted to Brown’s tradition of academic excellence and the new aspirations around the Watson Institute that are changing this place and have a real potential for global reach — a bigger impact than we’ve had in the past as an institute.”

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