Lee, Melissa M. “The International Politics of Incomplete Sovereignty: How Hostile Neighbors Weaken the State.” Accepted for publication at International Organization.

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. In the 25 years since the end of the Cold War, this form of state weakness has occupied the attention of scholars and policymakers alike. The absence of full state authority is associated not only with the specter of terrorism, lawlessness, and violence, but also economic underdevelopment and inadequate delivery of public goods and services. Given the consequences of incomplete state consolidation on security, development, and human well-being, why do such spaces remain without effective authority? This book argues that foreign interference, or meddling, is an underappreciated but important source of state weakness. Hostile states profoundly influence and degrade state authority. They typically do so by utilizing third-party proxies to subvert state authority or by directly coercing the target state into leaving some territory ungoverned. Foreign interference is a potent instrument of statecraft for pursuing policy objectives: meddling in state authority can be used to secure bargaining leverage in policy disputes, tie down and preoccupy targets with internal challenges, or create buffer regions under the influence of the foreign state. Combining cross-sectional within-country statistical analysis, comparisons of Russian foreign policy in its near abroad, and a series of in-depth case studies, the book shows that meddling is a potent obstacle to state consolidation. By illuminating the international sources of incomplete state consolidation in the post-1945 period, this book challenges existing scholarly understandings about the causes of state weakness and the relationship between external threat and internal political development.



Lee, Melissa M., and Aila M. Matanock. “Bottom Ten: Third Party Policymakers and the Limits of the Influence of Indicators.”

Global performance assessments (GPAs) on state failure and fragility have proliferated since the early 2000s. These GPAs in theory serve a multitude of policy purposes, including early warning of conflict, political risk assessment, and as a mechanism for naming and shaming countries or leaders. GPAs, however, lack material power themselves and must rely on other channels to induce changes in targeted states. Yet there are reasons to be skeptical about the power of GPAs to shape the decisions of third party policymakers who control material and symbolic resources capable of influencing offending states. We examine whether identifying and ranking states by corruption – an important dimension of failing and fragile statehood – induces third party states to punish corruption offenders and reward corruption improvers through verbal shaming, the imposition or removal of aid conditionality, and changes in aid flows. We argue that the influential power of GPAs lies in their identification of extremes: the best and worst cases on the particular issue area on which states are evaluated. We test this argument for one highly visible GPA, an indicator, Transparency International’s (TI’s) Corruption Perception Index (CPI). We leverage the fact that the top ten most corrupt states tend to appear in media reports about corruption while the next ten most corrupt states do not, and we compare outcomes among states on either side of this “threshold.” Our results suggest null effects on international aid, suggesting that this mechanism may not be the one through which GPAs affect policy.

Lee, Melissa M. and Lauren Prather. “What Determines Public Support for International Norm Enforcement?”

What explains public support for the enforcement of international norms? Norms provide
for stability, predictability, and order in the international system. Adherence to
international norms is reinforced when violations are punished and corrected. We propose
that a state’s willingness to enforce international norms depends at least in part on
the public’s support of punitive actions against violators. We investigate the individual
determinants of support for a number of norm enforcement actions with a special focus
on how beliefs about the potential long-run costs of norm breakdown shape public
support. Among American respondents, we find significant support for most types of
enforcement actions and an experiment that informs respondents of the long-term costs
of norm breakdown modestly increases this support among some respondents relative
to the control. Interestingly, these findings only partially replicate in the other possible
enforcing countries we study: Sweden, France, and Australia. Overall, this study provides
insights into an understudied dimension of norm development with applications
to the enforcement of a range of norms that govern the behavior of states.

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.


Lee, Melissa M. and Nan Zhang. “On the Development of State Capacity: Church-State Relations in 19th Century France.”

Prominent theories of state development often trace the historic rise of the state to its triumph over competing social institutions that sought to claim the allegiance of citizens. Where such alternative sources of political attachment were strong, the state is argued to face major obstacles in regulating and extracting resources from the populations it purported to rule. This paper investigates the extent to which competing institutions undermine state capacity using the case of the Catholic Church in Third Republic France before World War I. While most existing literature focuses on church-state confrontation among elites, we focus on the effects of this conflict on the behavior of ordinary citizens – the objects of the state’s rule. We argue that during periods of church-state conflict, clerical antipathy to secular state authorities undermined the state’s capacity to carry out crucial state functions, including collecting taxes, conscripting soldiers, and regulating the provision of education for ordinary citizens. To examine this proposition, our empirical strategy exploits both subnational geographic variation in the strength of religious attachments and inter-temporal variation in the Third Republic’s anti-clerical policy in order to isolate the effects of church-state conflict at the local level. This project contributes to the literature on state development by bringing ordinary citizens into the theoretical study of state capacity, and shedding light on how resistance or compliance by citizens caught up in the conflict between church and secular authorities can undermine or strengthen the state.