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Crippling Leviathan: How Foreign Subversion Weakens the State. Forthcoming from Cornell University Press (available April 2020).

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.

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.

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.

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.


“Third Party Policymakers and the Limits of the Influence of Indicators” (with Aila M. Matanock). In The Power of Performance Indicators, eds. Judith Kelley and Beth Simmons. Under contract at Cambridge University Press.

Ranking and rating states through global performance assessments (GPAs) is increasingly common as a tool of global governance. Existing research shows that GPAs shape rated state behavior through social mechanisms. 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 GPAs influence the application of material power? We argue that GPAs attract attention and coordinate material power among third-party states through their production of focal points and provision of political cover. We test our arguments about GPA influence on third parties using Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). We show that while the CPI attracts considerable media attention, it does not influence the allocation of foreign aid, an important lever of international influence, despite the aid community’s avowed commitment to good governance. These findings suggest that the promise of GPAs is limited to social forms of influence.


Speaking like a State: Language and State-Society Interactions in 19th Century France” (with Nan Zhang). Under review.

Modern states are distinguished by the breadth and depth of public regulation over private affairs. The everyday practice of the state’s rule-making authority is predicated on frequent and dense encounters between the state and the population it seeks to control. This paper argues that linguistic standardization 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 linguistic standardization predicts greater popular involvement with local authorities across French regions over time. These results demonstrate that linguistic standardization plays an important role in political development not solely by enhancing loyalty, as the literature has recognized, but also by lowering the barriers to encounters with the state.

“Selling International Law Enforcement: Elite Justifications and Public Values” (with Lauren Prather). Under review.

This paper investigates the effectiveness of leader justifications for marshaling public support for international law enforcement. We study two justifications — the illegality of a country’s actions, and the consequences of those actions for international order — and argue that their effectiveness depends on two public values: ideology and interpersonal norm enforcement. We test our arguments in the case of international law prohibiting the violent seizure of territory. Using an original survey experiment fielded in the U.S. and Australia, we find that elite justifications shape support for enforcement, and that the frames appeal to different segments of the public. These results imply elites can build a broader coalition of support by using multiple justifications. This study contributes to the scholarship on international law by showing how the domestic public — typically considered a mechanism for generating compliance within states — can impede or facilitate third-party enforcement of the law between states.


The Art of Counting the Governed: Census Accuracy, Civil War, and State Presence.” 2013. CDDRL Working Paper Series, No. 146. Stanford University. (with Nan Zhang)

Recent research in both political science and economics has stressed the importance of the state for providing public goods, curbing civil influence, and fostering economic growth. Moreover, it is now widely recognized that areas where the state is contested, limited, or absent can serve as havens for transnational terrorists, drug cartels, human traffickers, pirates, or insurgents. Yet, despite the centrality of the state as a variable of interest, quantitative research has been hampered by disagreements over how to conceptualize state strength and how to measure it in a credible way. To address these problems, in this paper we develop and operationalize a new measure of state presence that aims to capture the extent to which state institutions, agents and rules influence the decision-making of citizens residing within national boundaries. We present an extensive series of validity checks to distinguish our idea of state presence from other related but distinct concepts in the social science literature. Finally, we demonstrate the potential for our new measure to advance quantitative research on questions of substantive importance in political science by deploying it in a statistical analysis to disentangle competing explanations for civil war onset.