Petro-populist states in the international system

Steffen Hertog, Department of Government

Week 9 (14 March)


The recently deceased Huge Chavez was not short of ambitions. During a visit to Tehran in July 2006, he told students at Tehran that “we have to save humankind and put an end to the US Empire”. In the developing world, his bluster was rivalled perhaps only by that of his host, then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, well-known for predicting the end of the US empire and calls for a “new world order”. The Iranian-Venezuelan axis has extended beyond radical anti-imperialist rhetoric to close diplomatic cooperation in international organizations like OPEC and the non-aligned movement, and substantial security, economic and industrial cooperation, including the joint production of “anti-imperialist cars”.


How come the international stances of Chavez and Ahmedinejad – presidents of two distant, culturally very different and historically unrelated countries – are so similar? This article will argue that the two are merely the most visible cases in a larger class of “petro-populist” regimes in the developing world that have espoused anti-imperialist rhetoric, rejected the capitalist world order and tried to build alternative South-South alliances. Smaller Bolivia, Ecuador, and Libya have at various times pursued very similar policies, often in active collaboration – at a time when the rest of the developing world had long given up “Third Worldist” anti-hegemonic coalitions and plans for a new international economic order.

Taking issue with much of the case-specific literature on the five cases at hand, this article will show that it is indeed hydrocarbons rents that have enabled, though not determined, such anti-hegemonic policy positions. It will also demonstrate that in all cases at hand these foreign policies have been accompanied by similar, oil-fuelled populist political and economic strategies on the domestic level. It will moreover investigate the causal mechanisms through which hydrocarbons income have relaxed political and economic constraints that developing country leaders, including ones who in principle favour anti-hegemonic policies, usually face.

For the time being, the petro-populist challenge seems to have peaked with the demise of Chavez and the election of more pragmatic Hassan Rouhani in Iran. This makes it an opportune moment to analyse it from a broader historical perspective. Petro-populism, however quixotic in its more extreme manifestations, constitutes the only proactive – and, to an important extent collective – challenge to US hegemony and the capitalist world order emerging from the developing world since the 1970s. While states like North Korea, Cuba and Zimbabwe have been defying the US-dominated international order, they do so from a defensive and usually individual position; even Cuba has largely given up its ambitions of exporting its revolutionary model. And while China constitutes the most substantial long-term threat to US hegemony, its aim appears to be to integrate itself into the international capitalist system rather than to defy it.

Petro-populism is also of theoretical interest because it shows the explanatory power of hydrocarbons rents in enabling very similar policies across a range of very different political systems in different world regions. The range of domestic and foreign policy similarities between cases is striking, making just the descriptive inference and building of the petro-populist concept an important theoretical undertaking. The article hence contributes to the literature about regime forms in the developing world, the resource curse discussion – which has been expanding into international relations – as well as the broader literature on the domestic roots of foreign policy.

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