International Influences on State Weakness


This research project centers on the following question: What are the causes of state weakness in the contemporary period?

I examine this question through an international lens. Although states have never existed in political isolation from each other, much of the literature has focused on domestic explanations rather than international explanations for state weakness. My work contributes to the scholarship on statebuilding and state development by demonstrating that geopolitics and international actors are central for understanding the contemporary politics of state weakness.

The centerpieces of my work on international influence are my first solo-authored book, Crippling Leviathan (Cornell University Press, 2020) and its related article. I explore why state consolidation, defined as state authority over territory, is not uniform within countries. I show that external adversaries weaken the state and promote ungoverned space through foreign subversion. Both projects developed from my dissertation, which won APSA‘s 2016 Helen Dwight Reid (now Merze Tate) award for the best dissertation in the field of international relations, law, and politics.

Crippling Leviathan: How Foreign Subversion Weakens the State. 2020. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 

Policymakers worry that so-called “ungoverned spaces” pose dangers to security and development. Why do such spaces exist beyond the authority of the state? Previous scholarship addresses this question with a list of domestic failures and has overlooked the crucial role that international politics play. This book argues that foreign subversion undermines state authority and promotes ungoverned space. Enemy states empower insurgents to destabilize the state and create ungoverned territory. This kind of foreign subversion is a powerful instrument of modern statecraft – one that is less visible and less costly than conventional force but has insidious effects on governance in the target state. To demonstrate the harmful consequences of foreign subversion for state authority, the book marshals a wealth of evidence – including statistical analysis using an original measure of state authority. It also presents in-depth studies of Russia’s relations with the post-Soviet states, Malaysian subversion of the Philippines in the 1970s, and Thai subversion of Vietnamese-occupied Cambodia in the 1980s. The evidence is powerful and persuasive: foreign subversion weakens the state. This book challenges the conventional wisdom on statebuilding, which has long held that conflict promotes the development of strong, territorially consolidated states. It argues instead that conflictual international politics prevent state development and degrade state authority. The book also illuminates the use of subversion as an underappreciated but important feature of modern statecraft. Rather than resort to war, states resort to subversion. Policymakers interested in ameliorating the consequences of ungoverned space must recognize the international roots that sustain weak statehood.

The International Politics of Incomplete Sovereignty: How Hostile Neighbors Weaken the State.” 2018International Organization 72(2): 283-315. 

Why do some countries fail to govern their territory? Incomplete domestic sovereignty, defined as the absence of effective state authority over territory, has severe consequences in terms of security, order, economic growth, and human well-being. These negative consequences raise the question of why such spaces remain without effective authority. This article investigates the impact international factors have on domestic sovereignty. I argue that hostile neighbors can weaken state authority over territory. This sovereignty-undermining behavior can yield domestic or foreign policy benefits. I investigate the effects of hostile neighboring states through a cross-national, within-country statistical analysis and a case study, and I show that this international explanation is an underappreciated yet important contributor to weak state authority even after accounting for domestic factors. The conclusions of this study challenge our understanding of the effects of international politics on internal political development.