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Crippling Leviathan: How Foreign Subversion Weakens the State

Crippling Leviathan: How Foreign Subversion Weakens the State by Melissa M. Lee. Cornell University Press, 2020, 264 pp.

The central problem facing developing countries today is not that the state is too strong but that the state is not strong enough. In her first book, Melissa Lee argues that despite the common misconception that incomplete state consolidation is the result of endogenous mismanagement, foreign subversion—or third-party proxies with the aim of degrading the target state’s authority over its territory—is a common tool used to undermine state authority and impede state consolidation and strength. Foreign subversion is driven by a rational idea—that in the aftermath of World War 2, state boundaries remain fixed—and international conflict has transitioned away from interstate wars to cheaper, harder-to-detect methods of influence. Unfortunately, scholars and policy makers have failed to realize that in spite of a general decline in interstate warfare, states still hostilely claim the territory of their neighbors. Despite the more peaceful veneer, conflict today has morphed and does not contest state borders but authority within those borders.

Exploring the concept of incomplete state consolidation, Lee contrasts the idea of state authority with the fact that most countries have some ungoverned areas. Lee defines ungoverned as “an absence of state authority, not an absence of authority altogether.” This key distinction lies at the crux of Lee’s argument that foreign subversion weakens the state. Motives are important. She asks what conditions lead a foreign state to set up a proxy government in another country. The answer she finds is that policy incompatibility and the availability of proxy groups make subversion likely. Despite subversion being less costly than other tools of international conflict, it is not without cost and therefore is predicated on motive and means being met.

Renowned social scientist Charles Tilly famously said that “war makes the state.” While true in the pre-1945 world, this generalization lacks the reality of the liberal international order. Handicapped with the inability to manipulate physical borders, states still conflict with neighboring countries and seek influence in the region. Honoring the confines of the modern world, Lee shows through a complex yet accessible web of quantitative and qualitative methods that states increasingly and effectively disrupt state autonomy through subversion.

Throughout the book, Lee presents both a causal link from subversion to state weakness and case studies illustrating how subversion is accomplished. Using a mixed-methods approach allowed Lee to fine-tune her coding and provide a greater degree of nuance by using fewer cases. This technique, and subsequent book organization, allows the reader to fully conceptualize the complex series of events needed for awareness of subversion on the international level.

Lee pursues her analysis pragmatically. By providing historical and modern cases of foreign subversion, she is able to articulate not only how subversion affects state authority but also specific instances where foreign manipulation failed to develop. This is best on display when Lee juxtaposes cases of Russian influence in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. She uses three cases with different combinations of policy divergence and proxy availability: Georgia, Ukraine, and Estonia. From this medium-n study, Lee merges theoretical, statistical, and comparative historical analysis into a comprehensive understanding of the effects of foreign subversion.

Lee makes clear that “like the conventional use of force, subversion is an instrument of statecraft that one deploys against adversaries.” From this premise, and the state power subversion executed by Russia, the author continues to detail incidences in pursuit of her central question, Why do some states fail to exercise authority throughout their territories? While she answers it through her central claim of foreign subversion, Lee is also concerned with policy implications of this finding. Notably, using the case of Malaysia’s role in subverting the Philippines, policy makers would be wise to adopt an approach that addresses not only great and rising powers, but any country with the motive and means to pursue subversion as a strategy.

In short, policy makers have been missing the mark on how they perceive international conflict in the post-1945 world. While the United States has been basking in what John Gray calls the “Long Peace,” states, in pursuit of incompatible interests, can harness political subversion against the territorial authority of another state. This, as Lee says, “strike[s] at the heart of what it means to be a state in the international system.” The idea that borders remain fixed is secondary to the sovereignty enjoyed within those confines.

It is clear that the foreign policy of today has not kept up with the modern realities of ungoverned spaces and incomplete sovereignty. It has left a legacy of state weakness, insufficient control, and shadow hierarchies in an unknowable number of countries throughout the world. Lee appropriately modifies Clausewitz in her concluding chapter by noting that “if war is politics by other means, then subversion is war by other means.”

While Lee has written nothing short of a cornerstone book for any international relations or comparative politics scholar, one could not help but long for more actionable policy recommendations. Lee suggests that states pursue policies aimed to reduce sponsor motivation, deprive sponsor means, and increase cost of subversion. These recommendations, while good in an ideal sense, fail to appreciate the massive undertaking these policies would require. I am presuming that Lee is proposing that the United States lead this war against subversion. Unfortunately, she neglects to caveat that the United States’ history of international manipulation leaves something to be desired and is littered with perhaps more weakened states in its outcomes. The vagueness of policy recommendations does not take away from the enormous contribution of this book. An A-plus swing at an A-plus problem.

Maj Jesse Humpal, USAF
PhD candidate, Northwestern University



The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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