The myth of imperial stability

Benjanim Denison and Andrew Lebovich have a very insightful piece in The Monkey Cage refuting Robert Kaplan‘s argument that neoimperialism will bring stability back to the Middle East.  Many of their points are equally applicable to the debate about whether African states like South Sudan should be placed under neotrusteeship.  Quoting at length because they had so many good points:

More troubling, however, are Kaplan’s claims about supposedly artificial borders and the “order” brought by colonial rule. The artificial borders argument is a common myth that sadly continues to pervade policy discussions of the Middle East. Kaplan simply regurgitates the claim that the Sykes-Picot Agreement was arbitrarily drawn, and did not conform to sectarian or national realities on the ground, implying that the “artificial” borders drawn by the agreement have contributed to the sectarian strife we see today.

Complaints about artificial states imply that borders can ever be natural. While nationalist elites may like to portray borders as natural to their kin groups, around the world, states were formed through social processes involving conflict and negotiation to create the borders we see today. That’s true whether those borders have expanded, contracted, or been drawn by outsiders or insiders, but in all cases they are socially constructed and no more artificial than any other borders. To hold up some imperial divisions (like Ottoman borders) as “natural” while calling more recent colonial borders “artificial” greatly confuses the extent to which all borders are drawn through social processes, politics and violence.


The crux of Kaplan’s neoimperial argument is that imperial control over the Middle East promoted more social order and less conflict. This rosy view of imperialism misses the various forms of resistance to foreign rule and the incredible violence of colonial conquest. This is most obvious in areas that faced the most intense forms of settler colonialism, such as South Africa, Kenya or Algeria. In these countries, British and French colonial governments alike faced repeated uprisings. They regularly resorted to brutal and horrific repression and awful legal regimes like the corvée or the indigénat in North and West Africa, statutes that forced colonized peoples to provide labor for the colonial government or gave colonial officials enormous latitude to criminalize many aspects of daily life. Both existed at least in part to regulate labor and exert greater control over colonized peoples. … Imperial “order” often involves almost ceaseless bloodshed and repression, something the United States learned after “liberating” Iraq.


“Empire” is not one constant thing; it’s an idea, acted out by people, in very different ways. And imperial rule doesn’t necessarily deliver stability. The Italians struggled to consolidate rule over Ethiopia, the Ottomans faced resistance in the Balkans, and the British stumbled seriously in attempting to govern Iraq after World War I.

Kaplan and others call for imperialism-lite — without acknowledging that empires aren’t always sunny, stable and successful. Policymakers and scholars alike need accurate historical examinations of imperial rule, and need to stay alert to the ways in which local politics, outside political forces and military intervention affect countries in untold and infinitely complex ways.

Recent conference highlights

It’s been a busy few months of conference attendance recently, and I wanted to share some of the papers that really stood out to me.  At ISA:

  • Lior Lehrs had a very interesting presentation on what he calls “private peace entrepreneurs” – people who act without state support to reach out to the opposing side in a conflict and promote peace.  It doesn’t appear that the paper is public, but Ynetnews has a short summary of his work.
  • Olukunle Owolabi also presented a fascinating comparative study on the extension of political rights to former slaves in the US South and the French Antilles.  It’s currently under review, so keep an eye out for it!

Next up was a workshop on “clientelism in comparative perspective,” organized by the Center on the Politics of Development at Berkeley.

  • Nancy Hite discussed her current book project on how economic development changes citizens’ perceptions of the state in the Philippines, building on an earlier microfinance RCT by Dean Karlan and Jonathan Zinman.  No public paper yet, but I’d definitely look for this book when it comes out – it’s a really interesting micro-level look at how growth affects political behavior.
  • Another highlight for the sheer quantity of data used was Pablo Querubin‘s work with Cesi Cruz and Julien Labonne on political family networks in the Philippines.  Because Filipino surnames contain the family names of both parents (for unmarried people) or a father’s family name plus a husband’s name (for married women), they constructed a database of more than 20 million people and traced family and marriage relationships of everyone in 15,000 villages.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that politicians tended to come from disproportionately well-connected families.

Finally, I had a great time (as always) at PacDev.

  • Berk Özler presented joint work with Sarah Baird, Ephraim Chirwa and Craig McIntosh on a five-year follow-up to a program in Malawi which offered young women cash transfers aimed at getting them to stay in school.  The program had offered conditional grants to women who were already in school, and unconditional grants to women who had already dropped out, both of which were effective in getting them back into school.  Five years later, however, the women who got the CCTs (who might have stayed in school anyway) had marital and economic outcomes that looked similar to the control group, while the UCT group (who otherwise would have dropped out) did have persistently better outcomes.
  • David Yang and Yuyu Chen had a fascinating paper on how people perceive the credibility of the Chinese government in trying to shift the narrative around the Great Leap Forward.  The government blamed the famine of that period on drought, and Yang and Chen find that people living in famine-affected areas where there was in fact a drought reported higher levels of trust in the state than those who didn’t observe drought in their region.  The effects persisted for more than half a century, and tended to get reinforced by marriage, as people who didn’t trust the state disproportionately married each other.

Was Singapore’s growth really exceptional?

The success of the Asian Tiger economies has always posed an interesting question for African economic policy: if these post-colonial countries could grow so rapidly, why haven’t most others?  Strong authoritarian leadership and favorable geography are generally thought to explain some of the difference, but the rest is usually attributed to poor industrial policy on the part of African leaders.

Since the death of Lee Kuan Yew earlier this week, I’ve seen a number of articles questioning this narrative of Singapore’s exceptional growth.  Kevin Lees notes that Lee’s own policy ideas weren’t always very good – the disasterous federation with Malaya being prime among them – and that he was supported by capable finance ministers who might have achieved good outcomes even under a different leader.  More importantly, however, both Singapore and Hong Kong benefited greatly as destinations for overseas investment from China.  As Lees writes, “The obvious inference is that, though British colonial rule of Hong Kong through 1997 may not have been democratic, liberal freedoms didn’t especially hinder the same kind of economic ‘miracle’ there.”

Tom Pepinsky points out that Singapore’s per capita GDP was already fairly high at independence.  In his words,

Already by the 1970s, Singaporean GDP per capita actually exceeded that of the UK. But the main point to take away … is that Singapore entered the community of independent states as a prosperous country, at least by the standards of the time. That Singapore has progressed tremendously since independence is true, but not a story of turning the “Third World” into the first. If anything, it is a story of how to escape the middle income trap.

In another post, Tom shared a video that makes a similar point: the Singapore of 1957 looked more similar to the Singapore of today than one might have expected.

While not directly related to economic growth, I also found Emmanuel Yujuico’s post on the establishment of the Singaporean military fascinating.  Lacking the domestic capability to build a strong army quickly, Lee solicited help from Israel, and the strong military relationship between the two countries persists to this day.

Does precolonial political centralization matter in Africa?

7-KumasiKumasi in the late 19th century, from Encyclopaedia Britannica

For a long time, Northern scholars of Africa used to write about the continent as though the colonial period was the beginning of history.  Jean-François Bayart famously argued against this, but even after his book appeared well-known authors like Mahmood Mamdani and Crawford Young made the case that colonization changed everything in Africa.

More recently, however, Northern researchers have started to take precolonial politics seriously again.  I was thinking about this recently when Tanu Kumar sent me a link to this working paper by Mark Dincecco, James Fenske, and Massimiliano Gaetano Onorato.  They argue that precolonial warfare in Africa led to greater levels of political centralization, but is also associated with higher rates of civil war today.  Since civil war is generally bad for state capacity and development outcomes, this suggests that more centralized states in the precolonial era should be less developed today.

How does this argument hold up?  Jacob Hariri suggests that stronger precolonial states outside Europe tended to resist the spread of European institutions which could promote democracy and economic growth, leading to lower income levels and higher rates of autocracy today.  However, a number of other authors find that precolonial centralization in Africa is actually good for development.  Nicola Gennaioli & Ilia Rainer and Stelios Michalopoulous & Elias Papaioannou all find higher rates of local public goods provision in places that had strong precolonial states.  The mechanism here is presumably that strong states are able to solve coordination problems and engage in more economic activity.  Philip Osafo-Kwaako & James Robinson also find that stronger precolonial states lead to better development outcomes today, although they argue that centralization wasn’t driven by warfare like Dincecco, Fenske and Onorato suggest.

It’s a really interesting literature, and I think it would be even stronger with more of a focus on mechanisms, and more explanatory case studies.  If you look at subnational examples within Ghana and Uganda, you do tend to see stronger economic growth in the southern parts of those countries where precolonial polities were strongest (the Asante and Buganda kingdoms, respectively).  But does this mean that the kingdoms were solving coordination problems somehow, or that centralized states simply arose where the economic prospects were better in the first place?  Similarly, the link between precolonial centralization and contemporary civil war isn’t very intuitive to me.  Civil war is badly overdetermined in Africa, in that most countries fit the criteria (poverty and weak institutions) that are thought to increase civil war risk.  Academics still don’t seem to have a good model of why war happens when and where it does, rather than looking at aggregate risk factors, and I think until we understand more about the specificity of civil war it’s hard to know how to add precolonial centralization into the equation.

Book recommendations: war and the state in Africa

I’m in the midst of preparing for my first comprehensive exam in African studies, which has been a wonderful opportunity to delve into all the unread Africana on my bookshelves.  Three books in particular have stood out to me as uniquely insightful.

  • Warfare in African History, by Richard Reid.  A concise (180 pages) and engrossing look at changes in the technology of warfare and patterns of African state formation from roughly 500 CE onwards.  Read it along with Jeffrey Herbst’s States and Power in Africa.  Herbst makes a series of good points about the way that exerting authority over clearly bounded territories was not generally the focus of precolonial African states, but Reid’s work is a valuable reminder that centralized polities with complex military organizations also arose when social and environmental conditions permitted.  Another good book in the same Cambridge series on “new approaches to African history” is Will Reno’s Warfare in Independent Africa.
  • Political Topographies of the African State, by Cathy Boone.  This has been out for more than a decade, and I have no idea why I haven’t seen it recommended more often, because it’s a fascinating piece of theorizing on the relationship between states and rural elites in west Africa.  I read this in the context of the debate about the nature of the colonial state, which (in a stylized way) ranges from Jean-François Bayart’s depiction of a state that was undermined and instrumentalized by traditional leaders, to Mahmood Mamdani’s description of states that captured and manipulated rural power brokers to their own ends.  Boone’s work cuts through this argument by pointing out that the nature of colonial states’ interactions with traditional leaders depended on the strength of those leaders as well as the overall governance strategies pursued by the state.  Even within a single country, colonial and post-colonial officials often dealt with rural elites in different ways.  Some were empowered by the state and granted substantial revenue streams from it, while others (particularly those with independent sources of funding) were undermined, and others were ignored entirely.  Boone’s major contribution is not just pointing out this variation, but establishing a compelling theoretical framework to explain why such variation is observed.  Between this book and Property and Political Order in Africa (which I wrote about here), she’s one of the most innovative American researchers in African politics today.
  • Violence and Social Orders, by Douglass North, John Wallis and Barry Weingast.  Also not a new recommendation, having come out in 2009, but I’ve read a number of books about statebuilding and was particularly impressed by this one.  I am often not convinced by simplification in the name of theory, but in this particular case the sweeping set of generalizations they make in dividing contemporary polities into “natural states” and “open access orders” really rang true for me.  It’s an analytical framework that seems to capture the fundamental growth challenges faced by states as otherwise disparate as medieval France, the Congo in 1965, and contemporary Cambodia (just to pick a few cases I’ve been mulling over recently).  It’s also refreshingly positive rather than normative, pointing out the sheer unlikelihood of establishing secure and equitable systems of property rights rather than faulting countries that haven’t been able to do so.  Probably my new recommendation when someone asks me why some countries are rich and others poor.

For what it’s worth, all three of these books were published by Cambridge.  I’ll be keeping a closer eye on their publication catalogue from now on.

Highlights from APSA

I had a fantastic time at APSA last week.  Early-stage PhD students, it’s definitely worth attending even if you’re not presenting.  Here are some of the papers that really stood out to me:

The international roots of civil war

Dropping briefly by to point to a few recent articles which offer up variations on this theme.  At Dart-Throwing Chimp, the essential Jay Ufelder has a very good post reviewing the academic literature on international involvement in civil wars in light of recent events in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere.  Key points:

Strong foreign hands are a common and often decisive feature of the fights we call civil wars.  In Syria, for example, numerous foreign governments and other external agents are funding, training, equipping, and arming various factions in the armed conflict that’s raged for nearly three years now. … In the Central African Republic, it’s Chad that’s played “an ambiguous and powerful role” in the conflict that has precipitated state collapse and ethnic cleansing there.

Ludicovic Lado’s post on arms trafficking in sub-Saharan Africa at Africa Up Close has an interesting example of how foreign involvement can also be (to some degree) unintentional:

The proliferation of arms in Africa has been a longstanding threat to the security and the stability of states and the situation has worsened since the fall of Kaddafi, former Libyan president, prompting an ongoing heated debate in African circles as to whether this widely supported move by western powers was strategically beneficial for Africa. … Most analysts agreed today that the dismantling of Kaddafi regime has benefited a good number of militia in the Sahel region, thereby boosting both arms trafficking and the rebellion business.

Stephen Weissman’s Foreign Affairs article on the true extent of the CIA’s involvement in Congolese politics over the first decade of independence is also worth a read.  He draws on a number of recently-declassified documents to reevaluate the CIA’s role in propping up Mobutu, concluding:

We now know that even though the threat of communism in Congo was quite weak at the time of Congo’s independence, the CIA engaged in pervasive political meddling and paramilitary action between 1960 and 1968 to ensure that the country retained a pro-Western government and to help its pathetic military on the battlefield. So extensive were these efforts that at the time, they ranked as the largest covert operation in the agency’s history, costing an estimated $90–$150 million in current dollars, not counting the aircraft, weapons, and transportation and maintenance services provided by the Defense Department.

Not only was U.S. involvement extensive; it was also malignant. The CIA’s use of bribery and paramilitary force succeeded in keeping a narrow, politically weak clique in power for most of Congo’s first decade of independence. And the very nature of the CIA’s aid discouraged Congolese politicians from building genuine bases of support and adopting responsible policies. The agency’s legacy of clients and techniques contributed to a long-running spiral of decline, which was characterized by corruption, political turmoil, and dependence on Western military intervention. So dysfunctional was the state that in 1997 it outright collapsed — leaving behind instability that continues to this day.

One must wonder what would have happened to Mobutu, Lumumba, Mulele and the rest if they’d been allowed to carry out their fight for political dominance on their own, rather than having the field tipped towards Mobutu by the US and later France.