The Influence of International Actors on Political Order

Publications | Working papers | Research in progress

Scholars of the state tend to think about weak statehood as the outcome of purely domestic phenomena. This perspective fails to account for international processes and external actors who attempt to shape political order, alter the rules of domestic governance, improve state capacity, and in some cases, actively undermine state authority. Despite norms of Westphalian sovereignty, states have never existed in political vacuums. My work in this research theme examines the myriad ways in which states attempt to influence domestic state authority and the consequences of their actions for political order.

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.

Related work in this research theme examines international efforts to improve governance in weak states. Whereas Crippling Leviathan demonstrates the power of external adversaries in deconsolidating states, my other work shows the limits of what outsiders can achieve. In an invited contribution for the Annual Review of Political Science, I argue that international statebuilders face significant hurdles at achieving reform in the face of domestic resistance. In other work, I show that global performance indicators, an important tool of global governance, are unlikely to stimulate third-party pressure for anti-corruption reform in rated states. Even well-intended efforts to improve development outcomes through development assistance can backfire by weakening state capacity. My current research in this theme examines the promise and limits of external efforts to construct a Weberian and liberal political order after civil war.


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.

Third Party Policymakers and the Limits of the Influence of Indicators.” 2020.  In The Power of Performance Indicators, eds. Judith Kelley and Beth Simmons, 341-374. New York: Cambridge University Press. (with Aila M. Matanock).

Global Performance Indicators (GPIs) serve many policy purposes, including setting agendas, shaping discourses, and permitting comparative judgment between rated entities. Yet these mechanisms are unlikely to provoke reform among states resistant to social pressure. In those cases, material power is an important tool of international influence. Do GPIs influence the application of material power? An important mechanism through which GPIs potentially shape rated state behavior is influencing third-party policymakers’ decisions to employ their material power to press for change. We examine whether ranking states by corruption – an important dimension of state fragility – induces this type of pressure on offenders. We theorize that GPIs influence third-party policymakers through their ability to provide focal points and especially through the attention they draw to the best and worst cases on the particular issue area on which states are evaluated. We test this argument for a highly-visible GPI: Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. We find that the states rated as the top ten most corrupt tend to appear in media reports about corruption while the next ten do not, and we leverage this finding to then compare outcomes among states on either side of this “threshold.” While this GPI garners significant media attention, it does not appear to influence third-party policymakers’ decision to shame or punish corruption offenders by changing the levels of foreign aid or types of foreign aid. Our results raise important scope conditions on the power of GPIs and suggest that their ability to alter state behavior through third-party pressure may be limited.

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.

Aid Externalities: Evidence from PEPFAR in Africa.” 2015. World Development 67: 281-294. (with Melina Platas)

Do targeted aid programs have unintended consequences outside of the target issue area? We investigate this question with an examination of one of the largest targeted aid programs in the world: the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Critics of PEPFAR worry that a targeted program focusing on single diseases has a negative externality, in which the influx of massive amounts of target aid damages broader public health systems in countries that receive PEPFAR funds. Using a difference-in-differences identification strategy, we find statistical evidence that supports critics of targeted aid.

International Statebuilding and the Domestic Politics of State Development” [invited contribution for Annual Review of Political Science]

Managing the threat of violence remains a central concern in international security and development. International actors seek to terminate civil wars and prevent conflict recurrence by building peace and strengthening state institutions. In this article, I review the scholarship on international statebuilding, defined broadly as external efforts to create, strengthen, reform, and transform the authority structures of the state. Much of this literature models international statebuilding as provision, in which external actors act as enforcers to mitigate the commitment problems that plague post-conflict bargains. However, in many cases the assumptions about domestic politics underpinning the provision model do not hold. When the central problem of domestic politics concerns the distributional arrangements of the peace rather than the parties’ ability to credibly commit to the peace, international statebuilding is more fruitfully modeled as imposition. This model allows the preferences of external actors over the post-war order to diverge from the preferences of domestic actors. Divergence arises because statebuilding interventions have distributional consequences that threaten the interests of domestic elites. To unpack why this is the case, I turn to the literature on the domestic politics of statebuilding, which shows that “weak statehood”” can help manage violence by facilitating the distribution of sovereignty rents. Insights from these literatures suggest exciting new avenues for future scholarship.

Paved with Good Intentions (solo-authored book-length project).

External actors such as the United States and the World Bank routinely champion a vision of the state that is both Weberian and liberal. This paradigm of “good governance” occupies a central role in international stabilization and development policy. Despite the influx of massive resources, however, external efforts to transform the state in line with the good governance model have a decidedly mixed record of success. This project explores the consequences of international efforts to promote good governance. In contrast with existing scholarship that emphasizes international factors, I focus on the elite politics of domestic state development. I argue that the principles of good governance are antithetical to the strategies of co-optation that rulers use to monopolize authority and maintain the cohesion of the state. Except under certain conditions, external efforts to promote good governance are unlikely to achieve reform, and in fact have insidious unintended consequences: they reinforce the practices external actors aim to change, and can even destabilize recipient states. This paper introduces an argument about good governance and the elite politics of state development and offers preliminary evidence in support of the theory.