International Organization

Research Article

The Emperor Has No Clothes: The Limits of OPEC in the Global Oil Market

Jeff D. Colgan


Scholars have long debated the causal impact of international institutions such as the World Trade Organization or the International Monetary Fund. This study investigates Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), an organization that purports to have significant influence over the market for the world's most important commodity–petroleum. Using four empirical tests, I find that OPEC has little or no impact on its members' production levels. These findings prompt the question of why so many people, including scholars, believe in OPEC's influence over the world's oil supply. The idea of OPEC as a cartel is a “rational myth” that supports the organization's true principal function, which is to generate political benefits for its members. One benefit it generates is international prestige. I test this idea using data on diplomatic representation and find that OPEC membership is associated with increased international recognition by other states. Overall, these findings help one to better understand international regimes and the process of ideational change in world politics.

Jeff D. Colgan is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at


  I thank Michael Aklin, André Bernier, David Bosco, Sarah Bush, Ashley Connor, Sikina Jinnah, Robert Keohane, Kristina Johnson, Moonhawk Kim, James Morrison, Margaret Peters, Margaret Roberts, David Steinberg, Jordan Tama, Felicity Vabulas, Sharon Weiner, and participants at the Princeton University Conference on Environmental Politics, the EPSA 2012 meeting, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison International Relations Colloquium, for helpful feedback on early versions of this article. Special thanks to David Parker and Laina Stuebner for research assistance. Any remaining errors are my own. I gratefully acknowledge support from American University and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.