The Global Cable, Conflict, Power & Security

Crippling Leviathan: How Foreign Subversion Weakens the State

July 5, 2020
By Summer Reading List | Perry World House

This summer, we've launched a special edition of The Global Cable - our 'Summer Reading List.' Every other week, we'll release a new conversation with an author, discussing their latest book and the inspiration behind it.

This week's guest is Melissa Lee, Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and our next Lightning Scholar at Perry World House. She talks to our host John Gans about her new book, Crippling Leviathan: How Foreign Subversion Weakens the State.

She explains why not all nation-states are created equal, how the Internet has become a space for foreign subversion, and how the fight against COVID-19 has impacted her thinking on state capacity in recent months. 

Listen on Apple Podcasts | Libsyn | Spotify | Stitcher

Music & Produced by Tre Hester.

Franklin Few

On every episode of The Global Cable, we ask our guests the 'Franklin Few' - an updated version of a questionnaire used by Penn founder Benjamin Franklin. Here are Melissa Lee's answers.

Someone you'd like to meet: Harry Truman, 33rd President of the United States, and Terry Crews, actor and comedian.

A book, movie, or anything else you'd recommend to listenersThe Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer

Someone who's recently done something that deserves praise or attention: Girls Inc., an organization that empowers young girls to be strong, smart, and independent, through both service and advocacy. 

Something Penn and Penn students can do to be of service to the world: To listen more, in order to find out what other people need, where they think problems exist, and what they think the solutions are.

Listen now


Melissa Lee [00:00:09] Well, so Leviathan is a metonym for the state.  Besides being this biblical sea beast, it is a word that we use to describe the state itself, a country. And the choice of the term crippling, I think, was to evoke this image of wounding or weakening without killing the Leviathan. So it's an illlusion to help subversion works, which is to undermine governance and territorial state authority without conquering the state, without annexing the state's territory, without dismembering it.

John Gans [00:00:43] Welcome to The Global Cable, a podcast from Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, where we discuss the world's most important issues with people who work on them. I'm John Gans, Director of Communications and Research here at Perry World House. COVID-19 restrictions maybe limiting people's holiday plans and time by the pool, but the  corona virus can't dampen another summer tradition: the Summer Reading List. Here at the Global Cable, we're reading some of the most interesting new books in global affairs and speaking with their authors.

[00:01:11] On each episode this summer, we'll talk with a writer. Our guest this week is Melissa Lee, Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, and our next Lighting Scholar at Perry World House. She talks to us about her new book, Crippling Leviathan: How Foreign Subversion Weakens the State.

[00:01:29] She explains why not all nation states are created equal, how the Internet has become a space for foreign subversion, and how the fight against COVID-19, has impacted her thinking about state capacity. Melissa Lee, welcome to The Global Cable.

Melissa Lee [00:01:50] Thanks so much for having me.

John Gans [00:01:52] Great to have you here, and we're looking forward to having you on campus this fall at Perry World House. So thanks for joining us for our Summer Reading List here at the Global Cable this summer. And we're very excited about your new book, which is still new, Crippling  Leviathan, which came out earlier this spring. Correct?

Melissa Lee [00:02:13] March, actually.

John Gans [00:02:14] March, oh man. Perfectly timed for all those people looking for something to read during quarantine. And it's a great title, so why don't you sort of it's one that jumps off the bookshelf. So explain. Explain the title for the book. Why did you go with "Crippling Leviathan"?

Melissa Lee [00:02:31] Well, so Leviathan is a metonym for the state. Right. So besides being this biblical sea beast, it is a word that we use to describe the state itself, a country. And the choice of the term crippling, I think, was to evoke this image of wounding or weakening without killing the Leviathan. So it's an illusion to help subversion works, which is to undermine governance and territorial state authority without conquering the state, without annexing the state's territory, without dismembering it.

[00:03:02] And this point is particularly important for the book, because [00:03:06]this idea of wounding the state really contrasts with the conventional wisdom of how scholars think about state building. We used to think that's that war, sort of conventional use of force, would actually build states because if you lost a war, you got wiped off the map. Right. You got annexed, you got conquered. But that's not really how states prosecute conflicts anymore. They subvert their adversaries. They weaken them. States don't get wiped off the map today. [26.2s] And that's what I'm trying to capture with this title.

John Gans [00:03:35] But it's a very evocative title, and certainly it gets to know Leviathan obviously being a critical work in the field and the critical concept in the field. So as you sort of mentioned, you know, subversion and state controller are are important concepts, especially in the modern context. And one of the essential points of the book, in addition to sort of this idea of subversion, is that not all states are created equal. It sounds like a truism, but that essential observation has huge implications for the international system and for scholars. Would what do you mean by that? That all states really are the same. When we actually look at the capacities.

Melissa Lee [00:04:19] Right. So this idea that states are not equal, I think, comes about or the fact that we've missed this idea that states are not actually equal when it comes to being effective controllers of the territory. This misnomer comes from how states become members of the international system, become members of the sort club of countries. Membership is based on a principle of mutual recognition. So if other states recognize you, you're a state. But it's also based on this principle of formal equality, which is that once you recognize, you get to participate whether or not you control territory. If you've got some guy in the capital, then you're a state. If other countries say that you are a state, then you're a state. Doesn't matter if you actually control your territory.

[00:05:04] So, like if the United States lost control of the western U.S. tomorrow, it would not lose its treaty-making privileges. It would not get booted out of the United Nations or the WTO. And so polities can be countries in a de jure sense without ever being states in a de facto sense. So they're missing this crucial aspect of stateness, this effective control of a territory.

[00:05:27] And so, like, OK, why does this actually matter? From a scholarly standpoint I think it matters because for international relations scholars, the state is our main unit of analysis. We treat them as similar except in terms of their power and capabilities. And what this book points to is actually states differing on such a fundamental level, which is stateness itself. And you still might say like we shouldn't care, what's the big deal? I would say the reason why we should care about this incomplete stateness, or what I call incomplete state consolidation in the book is that if you live in an area that is not touched by the government in the modern day, this has terrible human welfare consequences. States do so much now. And if you don't have access to the state, you don't get valuable social services, basic protections like the rule of law. And so it matters both in terms of a scholarly perspective, but also in terms of your experience on the ground.

John Gans [00:06:29] Well, it's fascinating, certainly, to talk about the experience on the ground, because you spend a bit of time, I think, in the book looking at how some nations, including the most obvious example being the United States, but really many countries have had an interest in trying to improve the capacity of states from outside the state, for what is commonly known as state building. When an external country tries to get another state to do that, you talk about how difficult that is inherently. That it's hard to build a state's capacity and build the state's ability to sort of governance and control territory. And one of the reasons you talk about that is that other states might have an interest in making sure that that state doesn't have the capacity to govern itself. You talk about how state building is inherently difficult on its own, but even more difficult when you think about subversion. So how do you sort of define subversion and what should policymakers do differently when thinking about state building on its own and state building in the context of subversion?

Melissa Lee [00:07:38] So subversion and specifically territorial subversion, which is what I talk about in the book, is the foreign empowerment of non-state actors, usually armed actors on the ground, to undermine governance in the target state. And you could think of this as war by other means. So the continuation of foreign policy by other means. And what it implies is that the issue of territorial state authority, the issue of governance and deficiencies in governance, we can't purely we can't think of them as purely a domestic phenomena, which is, I think, the default approach in the practice of state building today.

[00:08:21] Right. So we we talk about weak statehood and ungoverned space and we have the sense that this is somehow a problem of the recipient states own making. Right. Like, they're not trying hard enough or it's very expensive or there's something about the terrain or they're mistreating their population. And they may be mistreating their population, but I think what the book points to is that we can't think of this as only a domestic phenomenon. And that in many cases, including the cases we care about today, like Afghanistan, but also Ukraine. This is an international phenomenon as well.

[00:08:57] And I'm not just saying we should make a mental shift. The mental shift is important because it affects the kinds of policy tools that we reach for, that policy makers are reaching for. It affects the type of bureaucratic unit that is going to respond to the problem. If we think of state building and state weakness is purely a domestic issue, we're going to engage bureaucracies like USAID. But if we think it's a foreign issue, a diplomatic issue, an interstate issue, we're going to involve the State Department. If we think it's a military issue, we're going to use the Defense Department. So thinking about it beyond these domestic terms is really important.

John Gans [00:09:36] So you brought up Afghanistan and we have to bring up this issue that we've been hearing about this week, which is this idea that Russia has been reportedly offering bounties to some in Afghanistan too, for attacks on American service members and and their allies and partners on the ground in Afghanistan. And it's an actual decent example of subversion. Of course, Afghanistan isn't U.S. territory, though some people might, after almost 20 years of being involved on the ground there, some might call it the fifty-first state of the United States. Is this a good example of subversion, even if we're not really thinking about it as American territory?

Melissa Lee [00:10:21] It's kind of an interesting question, because subversion, I think, has potentially more than one audience. So one is the direct target of the foreign adversaries or foreign sponsors subversive activity. So to the extent that Russia is undermining Afghan state authority, Afghanistan is one audience member. But there are many cases in which there is a third party who is the target as well, which is the United States and Afghanistan. The kind of subversion that I talk about in the book is of the variety in which a foreign state like Pakistan provides support to it, domestic actor like the Taliban to undermine the target state, which would be the government in Kabul. So this one adds a kind of interesting wrinkle in which the target is not only Kabul. It's the backers of Kabul, which is the United States. And so I think it's subversion and a more complex form than what I discuss in the book. Also, like rather horrifying.

John Gans [00:11:28] Three-dimensional subversion, maybe.

Melissa Lee [00:11:29] Right. There are analytical reasons why I focus on the easier cases, if you will. The direct sponsor against the target. But a lot of the interesting action, I think, is also in this three-dimensional type of subversion, if you will.

John Gans [00:11:44] Well, not to add more complexity to it, but, you know, it did come up, as I read the book, as intrigued by sort of other ungoverned space and to a degree, non-territorial space. And the one I was thinking of was the Internet and how it's also become a space for subversion, both in Eastern Europe, where we've seen a lot of sort of mischief online from Russia and elsewhere, but also in the United States, right where we've seen some Russian proxies and Russian actors playing games and other actors as well, playing games in America's Internet and running conversation. What are the implications, do you think, of your theory for a space like the Internet? And does the US experience with interference make China's Great Firewall and its efforts to control its the non-government space of the Internet seem at least more strategic?

Melissa Lee [00:12:41] So to answer this question, I think it's it's useful to think about why any country would engage in subversion. And so let me talk about the territorial variety for for a moment. The reason why you would use subversion as opposed to military force is that it's cheaper than military force, right, you don't need to have a standing army. It provides plausible deniability since it's harder to observe. It's harder to attribute to the adversary state. If you do detect it, there's ambiguity over intentions. Think about Russian support of armed actors in eastern Ukraine or in Georgia; they call this humanitarian assistance.

[00:13:23] So I think subversion in the territorial sense has a lot of advantages and there are parallels once we translate this to non-territorial spaces like the Internet. Mischief online, again, it's cheaper than having a military and you can still get what you want, which is disorder. To the extent that there's some kind of delegation involved to a non-state group, there's this plausible deniability like you see in the territorial case. I wouldn't want to stretch the parallel too far in the sense that maybe attribution is a little bit easier. But I do think what this shows us is that technology is making subversion easier. It's gonna make territorial subversion easier and it makes a non-territorial forms of subversion easier as well. And so I would suspect that this is going to stick around. This is the reality we live in.

John Gans [00:14:17] We mentioned that your book was published in March just as the Corona virus pandemic was sort of taking over and really challenging governments in Europe, China and the United States and elsewhere. And so I was wondering, as you've watched the most powerful country on Earth, the United States, struggle in the face of this virus, how that experience and how that sort of terrible case study has changed, how you think about government capacity in terms of basic contribution services, control of one's territories, and things along those lines.

Melissa Lee [00:15:02] You know, when I'm not thinking about how international actors shape governance and state authority on the ground, I think a lot about state capacity itself. And so, if anything, I think the pandemic really reinforced what I already thought about state capacity, which is that it's absolutely essential to have. Well, you might say that there's a difference between political will and state capacity, and this is something that often comes up in discussions about the United States. Are we fumbling because we lack capacity or are we fumbling because we have an administration that hasn't been taking this as seriously and has been not following the advice of scientists?

[00:15:42] And you know, what I would say about that is that state capacity is definitely a prerequisite, right? If you're going to do something, you have to have some baseline capability of the state to to respond, to monitor, to deploy resources, to get them where they need to be. At the same time, you know, I do think political will is important. This is the question of how you're gonna use state capacity. At the end of the day, state capacity is a tool, and our politicians make decisions about how to deploy that tool. And so that is going to be a function of a lot of different things.

[00:16:14] But I would like to say, you know, just to to make it more complex, more complicated. I've given this so much thought. Looking at the US case, at the end of the day, these nice distinctions may make sense in a vacuum, but when we look at it on the ground, we look at it in the moment. Maybe the distinction is not so clear cut between will and capability. Capability is has to be built. It's the product of conscious investments on the part of our politicians. Some of whom are not interested in building capability and some of whom want to dismantle certain aspects of the state. And so, as with many things, I guess the answer is, it's complicated. But as a state capacity scholar, I would say we absolutely have to have it as a prerequisite.

John Gans [00:17:03] That's great. And so my last question on the book is, what is your favorite part of writing it? It sort of sort of a labor of love, right? You've been working at this for a while.

Melissa Lee [00:17:13] I was finishing. It is the best part! No, I'm just kidding. I think one of the best things about writing the book, and a book in general, is that you have this freedom to write with a style and a voice that's distinctive from the kind that you would use in an academic article. I feel like articles are very formulaic in terms of their structure and the voice you use. The book is just liberating in that way that you don't have to stick to that structure and that you can use plain language, or plainer language at least. I also really like the ability to speak to a broader audience, including practitioners and policymakers and scholars other than political scientists. Really, anyone who's really interested in this phenomenon of weak statehood.

John Gans [00:18:01] I think it does do that. I mean, it's a book that does sort of come from is deeply academic and deeply scholarly, while also allowing for, I think, anybody from voters, to those serving and government, to those running governments in the United States and elsewhere. Whoever appreciates the issues and appreciates these hugely important and impactful trends that we sort of seeing global affairs and will likely be for the years coming. This book gives them an opportunity to sort of get smart on it in a hurry. So hugely encourage people to give it a look.

[00:18:44] You've been from here at Perry World House for a while. You won our essay prize last year, for emerging scholars, and you're gonna be joining the Perry World House community in residence, as we can, this fall. So you're you're familiar with a bit of Penn's history, which is that Ben Franklin helped found it some centuries ago. But I bet you didn't also know too well that he also developed a questionnaire that he used for conversations among fellow Philadelphians who were interested in current and global affairs. And as you're a new Philadelphian, and as you're a guest on a The Global Cable here, we thought we would ask you these these few questions, the Franklin Few. These are short questions and they can have short answers. They might have evolved over the since we last talked about them in the fall and give you the opportunity to sort of talk through some of the important issues you're dealing with in coronavirus, including, you know, during your quarantine and recent move, who you would most like to meet today and why.

Melissa Lee [00:19:44] Yeah, these questions are are super tough. Does it have to be someone alive, like living today?

John Gans [00:19:50] I mean, you know, I think given that we can't none of us can meet anybody right now, it seems to me like you can meet whoever you want. Might as well bring somebody back from the dead. You're not going to to give me a hug or a handshake anyway.

Melissa Lee [00:20:03] I don't know! I've been asked this question before and in the past I used to say President Truman, and the reason I said Truman is because he's the one who made the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. And when I was in college, I studied abroad in Japan, which had an incredible influence on my trajectory, both personal and professional. And one of the first things we did was learn about Japan's involvement in World War Two, both as an aggressor and as a victim of the atomic bomb. And I always wanted to know whether Truman made the decision to drop the bomb principally because he truly believed it would save American lives, or if there was this more sinister explanation and that he wanted to demonstrate to the Soviet Union that we had this weapon and that that was going to shape how the United States interacted with the Soviet Union that after. So I used to say that. If you wanted a silly answer, I would say Terry Crews, the TV star. He's in Brooklyn Nine Nine, who was also the guy in the Old Spice ad.

John Gans [00:21:26] Why do you want to meet him?

Melissa Lee [00:21:28] He's hilarious! He's just a funny, funny person with that funny Internet personality who, you know, I think on a serious note. I think he did a very brave thing in 2017, which is when he came out and spoke publicly about sexual abuse, which is not something that men often do publicly. So there's that. But also he just seems like a great guy. He's interested in Lego. Also, he's a bodybuilder and I'd love to get some tips.

John Gans [00:21:58] Alright, Terry Crews and Harry Truman, not not not a dinner party you often would hear. But you know this, these are crazy times. Other than Terry Crew's Twitter feed, have you read any, books or articles, seen anything, movies or documentaries or listen to anything, podcast or music related to world affairs that our listeners might be interested in?

Melissa Lee [00:22:26] Besides The Global Cable? (laughs) I make it a point every few years to reread this book called The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William Letterer. It was written during the Cold War. It's a fictional book about the U.S. struggle in Southeast Asia against communism. And it's actually the book that gave rise to the stereotype of the Ugly American, which is the trope about, you know, Americans behaving boorishly and arrogantly abroad. But interestingly, in the book, the Ugly American is as a good human being who represents his country, the United States, rather well just by being on the ground and listening to people and thinking about why do Southeast Asians in this fictional country actually need from the United States, what would make their lives better? And it contrasts this experience of this humble American with the failures of the diplomatic community and their fight against communism. It's just a humbling read. And unfortunately, I think it stayed relevant since it was written in the 1950s. So I always reread every few years.

John Gans [00:23:32] The Ugly American is not nearly as well known as The Quiet American. But both books speak to the same issue. But, you know, tend to celebrate different components of the American personality. So it's kind of fascinating. I'm a big fan of both books, but it's been a while since I read The Ugly American. I would say that that would be the book I would probably give to somebody more than I would give The Quiet American. But that's just, that's where we are.

John Gans [00:24:00] Alright so do you know of any individual, ugly or quiet or otherwise, in the in the United States or elsewhere who's done something recently that deserves praise or attention?

Melissa Lee [00:24:12] Maybe not an individual, but there's this organization that I support called Girls Inc, which is an organization that empowers girls to be strong and smart and independent. And they have chapters all over the United States. I used to do some work with them in their Orange County, California chapter, because in my life, before I became an academic, I worked in a trial court. Some time, which was set in juvenile dependency and starting programs to help girls, including at risk girls. The work that they do is just so incredible and so important for equipping girls with the skills they need to be confident young women later in life.

John Gans [00:25:00] We need a few more of them. Sign me up. That sounds good. And then the last question is, can you think of anything right now in which Penn or Penn students can be of service to the country, to the world?

Melissa Lee [00:25:11] I would say to listen. We hear talk so much about action, to do things, to fight, to get out there, fight that good fight, but I think we should all be doing more listening. Because well intentioned efforts can go awry often because we're not doing enough listening to those who are on the receiving end of our good intentions. So before we act, before we do, I think we should listen. Find out what other people need, what they want, what they think the problem is, what they think the solutions are. This will make us better policymakers. This will make us better practitioners. And it's something that I tell my own students in my policy classes.

John Gans [00:25:53] That's great. Well, we appreciate you joining us and we look forward to listening to you at Perry World House this year and encourage everybody to spend a little time with Melissa Lee this summer and read her new book, Crippling Leviathan, which you can get just about everywhere. And certainly from Amazon. And where else can they sort of check it out, Melissa?

Melissa Lee [00:26:18]  Cornell University Press.

John Gans [00:26:20] Perfect. Well, thank you so much for joining us at The Global Cable. We look forward to seeing it at the end of the summer.

Melissa Lee [00:26:26] Thanks so much for having me.