My research interests are united by a drive to understand the ideas, institutions, and practices that produce or inhibit order, conflict, and violence. In addition to my dissertation project and published work, I have a number of research projects in progress on civil wars, revolutionary regimes, and security and state building in the developing world. Working papers are available on request. View my Google Scholar profile here.
When the Rebels Win: State Power and Public Interests after Civil Wars
When rebels win civil wars, what types of state structures do they build, how do they seek to assert their authority, and how do they govern in practice? I theorize that the goal orientation and organizational decisions of top-level leaders shape the institutions and practices of groups while fighting as rebels and that these patterns will carry over into their time in power. I argue that we can distinguish among rebel organizations on the basis of their political-ideological programs, their goals, and their relations with the civilian population, which will shape the form and character of the states built after victory. Drawing on fieldwork in three countries—Nicaragua, Uganda, and Liberia—I find that rebel organizations’ state building and service provision practices depend on whether their leaders develop a transformational program to affect a broader public, or whether they have more narrow aims of gaining power and wealth for their private benefit. This affects the recruitment practices, internal organizational policies, and rebel governance of organizations while fighting as rebels and has path dependent effects into the groups’ time governing internationally-recognized states. I use shadow case studies to test generalizability in a diverse range of cases and am developing a dataset to conduct statistical analyses comparing states led by former rebel groups to other states in the developing world. This research contributes theoretical and historical grounding to academic and policy debates on rebel governance, state building, and post-civil war governance and development.
I have presented draft portions of the theory and case studies at the annual meetings of the American Political Science Association, International Studies Association, and African Studies Association. I have written about the project and my research in the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs’ Centerpiece magazine (pdf here, pp.10-12) and discussed it in a Q&A with the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation’s Challenges to Democracy blog.
“Civil Wars as Critical Junctures: Theoretical Grounding and Empirical Applications” (presented at the 2018 Southwest Workshop on Mixed Methods Research)
Civil wars are not only destructive: they can also give birth to new, long-lasting social, political, and economic structures and processes. To best account for this productive potential of civil wars and to measure and analyze post-conflict changes, I argue that we should view civil wars as critical junctures. Civil wars relax structural constraints, opening opportunities for structural changes generated by wartime processes. The results of the conflict can lock in these changes, creating path dependency. Government victory may foreclose change (critical junctures do not necessarily lead to transformation), but governments can also make lasting reforms in response to conflicts. Rebel victory, meanwhile, has major potential for statebuilding and societal transformation, depending on the ideals and goals of the rebel group. Finally, negotiated settlements can institutionalize a new balance of domestic political power. A critical junctures approach to civil wars offers theoretical and analytical leverage applicable in a monomethod framework, but holds increased potential for advances when integrated into comparative mixed methods research.
“Disentangling African Insurgent Ideologies” (with Jason Warner, presented at the 2017 APSA Annual Meeting)
Ideology guides the policies and actions of African insurgent groups, yet it is often hard to disentangle different groups’ objectives, the origins and components of their ideological principles, and how these principles are put into action. Confusion among academics and policy analysts about variation among African insurgent ideologies has frequently led to suboptimal military and diplomatic engagement with insurgent groups by national and international actors. To address these issues, this paper introduces a new analytic device, the African Insurgent Ideology Matrix (AIIM), to disaggregate the components African insurgent group ideologies and allow for improved comparisons between groups. This approach improves understanding and precision in formulating strategies to prevent and reduce violence in both domestic African and transnational contexts. To demonstrate the AIIM and its utility, we code the ideologies of 54 insurgent groups active on the African continent during the decade of 2004-2013.
“The Paradox of Revolutions: How Can We Isolate the Causal Effects of Transformative Events?” (with Marika Landau-Wells)
Social revolutions are among the most transformative events societies can experience, restructuring social, political, and economic relations. By virtue of their transformative nature, social revolutions may be difficult to study as causal variables leading to subsequent changes. This paper examines the possibility of studying the effect of social revolutions on interstate war outcomes using cross-national statistical analysis. We find that social revolutions’ effects are not amenable to study using this method due to problems of post-treatment bias, collinearity, temporal sequencing, and mediation. Rather than the social revolutions themselves, mediating variables such as level of democracy or alliance membership are more likely to influence states’ war outcomes. We also identify problems with datasets and data sources commonly used in the study of interstate war in international relations and comparative politics. While the causes of social revolutions may be studied using cross-national statistical analysis, provided researchers carefully examine the validity of the data they use, the effects of social revolutions are best studied by process tracing within close studies of individual cases.
“Post-Conflict State-Building and Electoral Democracy: The Liberian Case” (with Susanne Mulbah)
International state-building efforts after conflicts view elections as a necessary component of the transition to democracy and stability. What, however, is the quality of the democracy that is developed, and are democratic institutions consolidated and given domestic legitimacy beyond the elections themselves? We examine these questions through the case of Liberia. Liberia has held two internationally-supported elections in 2005 and 2011 since its civil war ended in 2003. We argue that democratization more broadly in Liberia has been weak, however. The political system continues to be characterized by executive dominance, clientelism, and the grip of traditional elites on socioeconomic and political power. Politics remain personalized, and there has been a failure to institutionalize a stable and competitive party system. Examining the dynamics of the 2005 and 2011 elections, we argue that limited international attention to institutional design in organizing the post-conflict political system combined with Liberia’s structural conditions to undermine democratic consolidation. This situation threatens to continue in the country’s 2017 elections. The combination of presidentialism with multipartism and the failure to foster programmatic, institutionalized political parties highlights the need for careful institutional design to avoid wasting the window of opportunity for sustained democratization opened by conflicts and other transitions.
“Rationality, Perception, and Strategic Decision Making in a Developing State: Security Policy in Revolutionary Nicaragua” (presented at the 2015 ISA Annual Convention)
In decisions on national security strategy and foreign policy, leaders’ decision making does not always display what objective observers, especially those enjoying the benefit of hindsight, would consider rationality from the standpoint of security interests. Certain actions and decisions may ultimately turn out to be suboptimal, yet this does not necessarily mean that they were not rationally chosen. To evaluate the rationality of decisions, one must understand the mindset and perceptions of decision makers and seek to evaluate the information that was available to them at decision points that constituted critical junctures in the shaping strategy and policy. I conduct such an analysis through the examination of a case of state decision making with clearly suboptimal results: revolutionary Nicaragua’s development of its defense strategy and security apparatus, making use of archival and secondary sources. I argue that the revolutionary Sandinista government in Nicaragua initially misperceived the risk of a direct US invasion and thus devoted excessive resources to external defense, while failing to adequately address an ongoing, multiple-front insurgency. Subsequent strategic recalibration resulted in improved counterinsurgency outcomes, but only after the country paid an unnecessarily high cost in blood and treasure.
“Revolutionary Legacies and Threat Management: Security Apparatus Development in Revolutionary Nicaragua and Iran” (presented at the 2014 APSA Annual Meeting)
Revolutionary regimes come to power in an environment of great uncertainty. Inexperienced in governing and taking the helm of a weakened state, they must address three types of threats: the threat of a coup internal to the state, domestic protest or rebellion, and interstate rivalries. When a revolutionary regime takes power, it inherits either remaining elements of the old regime’s state apparatus or a blank slate. I argue that the presence or absence of remnants of the old regime security apparatus determines the security structure and strategy pursued by the revolutionary regime to manage the threats it faces. This argument is explored with a structured comparison of the revolutionary regimes in Nicaragua and Iran, whose revolutionary movements exhibited very similar characteristics, but differed in that the old regime security apparatus was destroyed in Nicaragua, while part of the military remained intact after the revolutionary takeover in Iran. This led to divergent patterns of security apparatus development and security strategy in the two countries: the Nicaraguan regime emphasized defense from foreign enemies, while the Iranian regime was worried about coups and thus sought to protect itself from internal enemies. These strategies both resulted in suboptimal outcomes in the regimes’ first several years in power, with Nicaragua allowing an insurgency to develop within its borders and Iran making itself vulnerable to foreign invasion. Over time, however, the two regimes corrected their initial missteps, balancing their security apparatuses’ abilities to manage internal, domestic, and foreign threats. Drawing on historical evidence from Nicaraguan and U.S. archives, this comparison demonstrates the importance of the status of the old regime security apparatus in revolutionary transitions, and reinforces the importance of the security apparatus in analyses of regime change and survival, concluding by exploring the theory’s implications for non-revolutionary regimes.
“Strategic Pandering and Rebel Mobilization” (under review)
In civil wars, predatory, violent rebel groups sometimes gain support from politically-motivated individuals or groups who should, by outside appearances, logically oppose the rebels. I explain this counterintuitive result through a principal-agent logic in which rebel leaders (the agents) pander to aggrieved civilian populations (the principals), presenting themselves as in sympathy with and providing solutions to grievances, even if leaders are purely self-interested. Leaders exploit an information asymmetry about their true preferences to gain allegiance using cheap sociopolitical appeals, rather than more costly material incentives. Strategic pandering is particularly useful for opportunistic leaders pursuing private political-economic interests and for ideologically-motivated, but highly violent groups. For civilians with anti-state grievances, mobilization may be rational even if rebel leaders are insincere, due to the opportunity to resist the government and to the threat of state or rebel violence. I inductively developed the theory through a case study of Renamo, a predatory, foreign-sponsored proxy group in Mozambique that pandered to rural populations with grievances against state repression of traditional life. I then test the generalizability of the logic through two case studies—drawing on interviews, archival materials, and secondary sources—of the Nicaraguan FDN, a proxy group similar to Renamo, and the NPFL in Liberia, which developed independently. The article explicates a previously undertheorized phenomenon in the study of rebel recruitment and mobilization. I demonstrate how apparent popular support for rebels may be more tenuous than it appears, creating openings for peacemaking and counterinsurgency efforts by redressing grievances.
Work in Progress
“Resistance in the Shadow of Revolution: Historical Resonance and the Emergence of Nicaragua’s 2018 Protests” (with Eric Mosinger, to be presented at 2019 LASA Congress)
How do diverse actors coalesce in rapidly shifting and uncertain circumstances to form a protest coalition and spark mass civil resistance? Nicaragua’s 2018 mass protests caught most Nicaraguans and outside observers by surprise, quickly growing from initial demonstrations against social security reforms to a nationwide mass uprising calling for regime change and democratization, prompting harsh state and paramilitary repression. We argue that standard models for mass protest that highlight rational self-interest or underlying economic and political grievances fail to explain the speed with which protests grew and spiralled. Instead, the best explanation lies in history-based heuristics that shape actors’ perceptions of their opponents and the issues at stake. The initial April 18-20 interactions between pro-government forces and protestors activated powerful frames resonating with Nicaragua’s history of dictatorship and revolution. Nearly overnight, President Daniel Ortega’s regime was reframed as equivalent to the Somoza dictatorship. Protesters, meanwhile, set up barricades and adopted the symbols, rhetoric, and roles of the Sandinista revolution of the 1970s, contesting Ortega and his supporters’ claims to Sandinismo and nationalism and seeking to control symbolic spaces. It is only by looking to history that protesters were able to mobilize a large coalition so rapidly, and thus it is only by examining history and the agency of protest leaders in making use of it that we can understand the eruption of unforeseen civil resistance.