Research agenda

I study the international and domestic politics of statebuilding and state capacity. Three main themes animate my research agenda:

  1. The influence of international actors on statebuilding and political order.
  2. The domestic and historical determinants of state development and state capacity.
  3. Stability and change in the territorial configurations of states.

Within this agenda, I investigate different facets of stateness: political order and the monopoly of authority, state presence, the capacity of state institutions, and control over territory.

View my Google Scholar page here. Please email me for copies of working papers.

The Influence of International Actors on Political Order

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.

Paved with Good Intentions (solo-authored book 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.

The Domestic and Historical Determinants of State Capacity

Literacy and State-Society Interactions in 19th Century France.” 2020. American Journal of Political Science 64(4): 1001-1016. (with Nan Zhang)

Modern states are distinguished by the breadth and depth of public regulation over private affairs. This aspect of state capacity and state power is predicated on frequent and dense encounters between the state and the population it seeks to control. We argue that literacy in the language of state administration facilitates state-society interaction by lowering the transaction costs of those encounters. We support this claim with evidence drawing upon detailed historical data from 19th century France during a crucial period of state- and nation-building. Focusing on the specific domain of French marriage regulations, we find that increasing literacy predicts greater popular involvement with local authorities across French regions over time. These results demonstrate that literacy plays an important role in political development not solely by enhancing loyalty to the state, as the literature has recognized, but also by lowering cognitive and linguistic barriers to state-society interaction.

Legibility and the Informational Foundations of State Capacity.” 2017. Journal of Politics 79(1): 118-132. (with Nan Zhang)

Recent research in political science has stressed the importance of the state in curbing violence and promoting social and economic development, resulting in an explosion of interest in the foundations of state capacity. This paper argues that state capacity depends in part on “legibility” – the breadth and depth of the state’s knowledge about its citizens and their activities – and that legibility plays a crucial role in effective, centralized governance. We illustrate the importance of legibility through a novel argument that links legibility to the state’s role in curbing free-riding in collective action dilemmas. We then demonstrate this argument in the context of tax contributions to public goods using an original measure of legibility based on national population censuses. The paper concludes by discussing how future research may leverage our indicator’s exceptional temporal and geographic coverage to advance new avenues of inquiry in the study of the state.

Taking the State Back Out: Statehood and the Delivery of Collective Goods.” 2014. Governance 27(4): 635-654. (with Gregor Walter-Drop and John Wiesel)

State-building is a central tenet of many current development efforts. This primacy of the state rests on a global normative script that emphasizes the role of the modern state in providing collective goods and services from security to education to health. We analyze state performance in six dimensions of service delivery in a cross-sectional sample of more than 150 countries. In addition to exploring the explanatory power of statehood, we examine various control variables and also analyze whether external actors affect the delivery of collective goods and services. The core finding of this article is that there is remarkably little evidence of a consistent relationship between statehood and service delivery. This result casts doubt on the conventional wisdom about the centrality of the state for the provision collective goods and services, and suggests that other factors may explain the observed variation.

See our response to Peters and Pierre.

“From Pluribus to Unum? Statebuilding in 19th Century America.” Working paper. (with Nan Zhang)

The centralization of authority is one of most of important aspects of political development. Sovereign authority exists when those that state purports to govern actually think of the state as sovereign. The state- and nationbuilding literature has argued that economic and political modernization explains this transformation, but these theories cannot easily be tested due to a lack of data on national sentiment. We surmount this problem through an innovative analysis of the United States. Over the course of the 19th century, Americans stopped thinking of the United States as comprised of multiple sovereign states and started thinking of it as a single sovereign entity. This transformation in the popular imagination of sovereignty is evident in the well-documented grammatical change in which the phrase “United States” shifted from a plural noun to a singular noun. We use this shift to test theories of modernization against an important alternative in the U.S. context: the centralizing effect of the Civil War. We analyze all Congressional speeches between 1851–1914, linking plural/singular usage to specific individuals and the characteristics of their birthplaces and constituencies. Our preliminary results find no support for the modernization arguments and challenge the conventional wisdom about the Civil War.

“Statebuilding and War in the French Colonial Empire.” Research in progress. (with Gabe Koehler-Derrick)

What explains the uneven reach and presence of the state over its territory? Bellicist theory argues that the Darwinian pressures of war compelled states to build institutions and extend state control to defend against conquest by their neighbors. However, scholars have long noted the limitations of the warmaking-statemaking thesis outside the context of Western Europe. We advance an important theoretical intervention in this debate by arguing that only in sovereign states did war lead to the expansion of the state. In sovereign states, mobilization is predicated on rewards for service.  In non-sovereign territories, the state has greater incentive to shirk, because subject populations are less able and likely to hold the state accountable. We test our argument using a subnational comparison of early 20th-century France, including Algeria, at the time an overseas department. We conduct a difference-in-differences analysis that leverages archival data on the mass mobilization of French citizens and Algerian subjects during World War I to explain variation in a range of local level measures of state presence. This project contributes to the scholarship on war and statebuilding by demonstrating the unequal role of wartime pressures in non-sovereign polities.

The Politics of Territorial Stability and Change

Selling International Law Enforcement: Elite Justifications and Public Values.” 2020. Research and Politics July-September: 1-7. (with Lauren Prather)

International law enforcement is an understudied but indispensable factor for maintaining the international order. We study the effectiveness of elite justifications in building coalitions to enforcement violations of the law against territorial seizures. Using survey experiments fielded in the United States and Australia, we find that the effectiveness of two common justifications for enforcement — the illegality of a country’s actions, and the consequences of those actions for international order — increase support for enforcement and do so independently of two key public values: ideology and interpersonal norm enforcement. These results imply elites can build a broad coalition of support by using multiple justifications. Our results, however, highlight the tepidness of public support, suggesting limits to elite rhetoric. This study contributes to the scholarship on international law by showing how the public, typically considered a mechanism for generating compliance within states, can impede or facilitate third-party enforcement of the law between states.

“The Causes of Modern Conquest.” Working paper. (with Dan Altman). 

Although conquests of entire states became rare after 1945, conquests of small pieces of territory persisted. With puzzling frequency, states continue to seize — and even fight wars over — what are often remarkably small areas. This study investigates the causes of conquest attempts since 1945 by combining new conquest data with new geospatial data on territorial disputes. We argue that traditional explanations predicated on the value of the disputed territory — resources, strategic location, population, and ethnic composition — fail to explain modern conquest, in part because they are mismatched with the size of the seized territories. We theorize instead that the roots of modern conquest lie in careerist incentives within militaries. Senior military officers confront distinctive promotion incentives and tend to hold certain biases that predispose them toward seizing small pieces of territory. Therefore, states in which militaries hold more power are more likely to attempt conquest. We find evidence in favor of this argument and some evidence supportive of domestic diversion and status dissatisfaction. Taken together, these results suggest that leaders more often seize territory to be seen to have seized it rather than because they value the territory itself.