Publications | Book Manuscript | Working Papers | Other Papers


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. 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.

WORKING PAPERS (please email for copies)

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

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.

“Enforcing the Territorial Order” (with Lauren Prather)

Many political scientists acknowledge the existence of a series of international rules or norms that collectively provide for the territorial status quo in the contemporary international state system. Yet as the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea show, even well-established rules are sometimes violated. Norm enforcement presents a potential solution to the problem of norm violations, and policymakers justify the costly action of enforcement on the grounds that unenforced violations will erode the norm. To what extent do norm violations encourage subsequent violations, and does norm enforcement actually preserve the status quo in the case of territorial integrity norms? We introduce a theory about when and how violations and enforcement affect the conflictual behavior of third party states, and we test these arguments using event data from the Integrated Early Crisis Warning System (ICEWS). Our preliminary results show that countries with territorial disputes do not appear particularly conflictual after violations in general, but that when the threat or imposition of sanctions immediately follows a violation, territorial dispute dyads experience an important but short-lived drop in conflictual behavior relative to the six months prior. This research project contributes to the literatures on international norms and territorial disputes in international relations by demonstrating the promise and limits of international enforcement.

“On the Development of State Capacity: Legibility and Language in 19th Century France” (with Nan Zhang)

State-society interactions are crucial for the development of state capacity, as such interactions provide the means by which citizens and their activities are made legible to the state. An often-overlooked aspect of this process involves the crucial choice of an official language of interaction. Official languages which differ from the citizens’ local speech impedes legibility by reducing state-society interaction. This effect operates through two channels: a direct language barrier, which increases the costs of transacting with the state, and a language disenfranchisement effect, which reduces the legitimacy of state institutions. We study the effect of official language choice in the case of France in the 19th century during an important period of state- and nation-building. We demonstrate that departments where citizens were less fluent in French paid fewer taxes on the registration of legal documents with the state, and we pair this analysis with an instrumental variables approach to identify the causal effect of language on taxation. We also show that our argument about the relationship between language and state capacity generalizes to a broad set of countries 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 barrier to state capacity.

“What Determines Public Support for International Norm Enforcement?” (with Lauren Prather)

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.