Publications | Book Manuscript | Working Papers | Other Papers

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Lee, Melissa M. 2018. “The International Politics of Incomplete Sovereignty: How Hostile Neighbors Weaken the State.” International Organization 72(2).

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.

Lee, Melissa M., and Nan Zhang. 2017. “Legibility and the Informational Foundations of State Capacity.” Journal of Politics 79(1): 118-132.

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.

Lee, Melissa M., and Melina Platas Izama. 2015. “Aid Externalities: Evidence from PEPFAR in Africa.” World Development 67: 281-294.

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.

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

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.


Lee, Melissa M. Crippling Leviathan: How Foreign Interference Weakens the State.

Based on my award-winning dissertation, this book investigates the problem of incomplete state consolidation, or the failure of the state to exercise authority over its territory. Incomplete state consolidation has severe consequences in terms of security, order, economic growth, and human well-being. These negative consequences raise the question of why ungoverned and undergoverned spaces remain without effective authority. This book argues that foreign subversion is an underappreciated but important contributor to this form of state weakness. States with severe policy disputes subvert their adversaries by utilizing third-party proxies to undermine state authority over territory, and do so because subversion is a potent and politically useful foreign policy instrument. I substantiate this claim about the effects of subversion on state authority using a combination of statistical analysis, a comparison of Russia’s relations with the post-Soviet successor states, and two in-depth case studies. By illuminating the international dimensions of incomplete state consolidation in the post-1945 period, this book challenges two conventional wisdoms in the literature on state development. First, contrary to the international relations literature, this book suggests that today’s weak states persist not because of the absence of external war, but because wars are now commonly fought in a manner that undermines the state’s ability to consolidate authority throughout its territory. Second, contrary to the comparative politics literature that explains state weakness as the product of underlying structural and political conditions, this book shows that international factors also perpetuate weak statehood above and beyond the effects of domestic variables. Together, these two contributions illuminate how international politics profoundly affect state development in the contemporary period.


All in the Family: Language and State-Society Interactions in 19th Century France” (with Nan Zhang)

Modern states are distinguished by the breadth and depth of the extension of public authority over private life. The state’s regulation of private affairs rests on interactions between the state’s administrative apparatus and society, and it is these interactions that provide the basis for state capacity. An often-overlooked aspect of this process is the crucial choice of an official language of interaction. In this paper we argue that the use of official languages that differ from patterns of local speech impede state-society interactions. This effect operates both as a direct linguistic barrier to the comprehension of official rules and regulations, as well as an indirect impediment to the acquisition of human capital, thereby increasing the cognitive costs of transacting with the state for non-native speakers of the national language. Empirically, we study the effect of this linguistic divergence in the operation of French family law in the nineteenth century, an important period of state- and nation-building. Drawing upon richly detailed historical data at the subnational level, we demonstrate that that the effectiveness of civil marriage regulations increases when linguistic barriers to state-society interaction are lowered. We discuss the implications of our results for language policy and state capacity in developing countries today through an analysis of linguistic barriers in the contemporary period. This paper contributes to the literature on state capacity and state development by highlighting the role of linguistic diversity as an important and previously under-appreciated impediment to state-society interactions.

“Third Party Policymakers and the Limits of the Influence of Indicators” (with Aila M. Matanock)

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. 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.

“The Determinants of Public Support for International Norm Enforcement” (with Lauren Prather)

A web of rules and norms against the seizure of territory and the violent alteration of borders are an integral foundation of the contemporary international state system. Yet states sometimes violate even well-established rules; indeed, land grabs are on the rise. Norm enforcement provides a solution to the problem of norm violation, but enforcement is often costly and does not clearly deter future violators. Why, then, do third-party states engage in international norm enforcement and undertake costly action to defend the territorial order? We argue that international enforcement can provide domestic utility to leaders in democratic societies through the vehicle of public opinion. While we acknowledge that publics are wary about the short-term costs of enforcement, we argue that publics also care about the possibility of long-term rule breakdown – and those that worry about breakdown is more likely will be more likely to support enforcement. We develop an original survey experiment to test these arguments and deploy our survey in two potential enforcer states: the United States and Australia. This study advances our understanding about the origins of international enforcement of the territorial order and also provides insights into an understudied dimension of norm development.


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

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.