Small Wars Journal

Leveraging Incomplete Sovereignty: Building a Peaceful Empire on the Cheap

Wed, 08/07/2019 - 5:09am

Leveraging Incomplete Sovereignty: Building a Peaceful Empire on the Cheap

Jesse Humpal


In a misguided and bloody pursuit of liberal hegemony, the United States has missed the opportunity to peacefully stabilize vulnerable countries and build a global empire by leveraging the incredible amount of ungoverned land around the world. The majority of countries suffer from incomplete state consolidation. Even though this land is outside the control of the central government, it is in fact controlled, but who controls it, and how, should be of concern to the United States. Instead of accepting this issue as a natural condition of the modern world, the United States should shape this new battlespace in a way acceptable for the current global climate and inspired by the requirements needed to address the inevitable war with rising China.

Tilly, and His Old-World View

Prior to 1945, we lived in a Tillyan world. This meant wars destroyed and created states. In this time, state centralization and state consolidation were intimately connected. However, Charles Tilly’s proclamation that war makes the state is now obsolete, and most geographic boundaries remain fixed, incomplete consolidation has become an engineered problem.

With new world order comes new norms. With the fall of the Soviet Union the United States has become the rare unipole. With this status, the United States adopted a liberal internationalist strategy. In pursuing global liberal hegemony, the United States used their new position to try to social engineer vast areas across the world. From this grand strategy, and the sudden decline of superpower backed proxies, a new post-cold-war challenge emerged. This new challenge is countries with incomplete domestic sovereignty and fixed borders.

Why the U.S Should Capitalize on this Landscape Now

In the pursuit of liberal hegemony, the United States has failed to spread meaningful democracy, fought the longest war in United States history, and has lost relative ground to the most immediate global threat. Depending on the metric one looks at, China is set to, or has already, over taken the United States in the global economy. Militarily they are closing the gap as well. Realist logic, the same realism that defeated the Soviet Union without firing a shot, would tell the United States to get out of the democracy spreading business and focus on ways to slow the impending collision with rising China[1]. Unfortunately, the global landscape has changed. The world has changed in profound ways as it relates to control. The United States and the various international organizations have proved they are not in position to invoke the control that they would hope. The Russian annexation of Crimea and the hydra that is the Taliban in Afghanistan are just two examples of groups exerting control over an area they know to be ungoverned.  Further, these two examples show that local knowledge and credibility is more important than being a global superpower. Paul Staniland of the University of Chicago rightfully said, “The people being “provided security” frequently have absolutely no interest in strange men with guns appearing in their villages to tell them what to do.”[2] With this insight, why does the United States continue to act as if they, the outsider, are in the best position to invoke change, assuming that is the goal?  Superpowers still make the rules, however, the areas in which they dominate has slipped. Perhaps the United States should manipulate the current global trends and build a peaceful empire using new rules before it is too late.

China has begun their pursuit of peaceful empire. From their Belt and Road Initiative to their military base in Djibouti, China has started laying the ground work. In doing so, they have tapped into the current vulnerability of incomplete sovereignty. China, by injecting money and influence into otherwise incomplete countries, paying both state and non-state actors, is spreading their web of influence across Asia and Africa. In fact, Italy just signed on to the Belt and Road initiative making it the first western European country to do so[3].  Using this strategy, when a war between the United States and China happens, will vastly improve China’s position.

Despite China’s growing influence, the United States still has the vastest empire ever created. At current time, there is no corner of the globe that the United States cannot have immediate influence. This is not maintainable for two reasons. First, it is too expensive. Barry Posen of MIT beautifully lays out the cost benefit of the current strategy and concludes that not only is it far too expensive, but also the United States is subsidizing rich, capable nations that would otherwise protect themselves[4]. Second, and more important, the United States in liberal hegemonic pursuit, is inadvertently losing control for the battle of ungoverned areas to less capable countries. This loss of control will eventually become irreversible without military intervention if the United States does not act before a likely superpower war takes place.

Invoking Clausewitz for the modern world Lee noted “if war is politics by other means, then subversion is war by other means.[5]” Countries across the economic spectrum are engaged in unknowable subversive wars, gaining influence, and carving out footholds in strategically important countries across the world. The only two things they need are means and motive. It is from this modern warfare that the United States could adopt a strategy.

The United States has a bad track record of choosing non-state groups to align with. The common theme from these bad arrangements are arms, desire of immediate influence on the central authority, and hostile coup d'états. These tactics fail because groups are chosen based on ideological compatibility with the West, rather than desire of the host people. As explained above, ungoverned areas are generally stable areas that simply lack state authority. Instead of capitalizing on the fringes, America has pursued influence in the central state. Doing this not only disrupts the order within a central government, it undermines the desires of those living in the unconsolidated state. Why I am advocating for United States subversion at all is because it is already happening without the United States influence. Without knowing who is in control of the fringes, the United States is vulnerable to strategic inefficacies. Another common mistake during past United States subversion operations has been the level of involvement. Countries that are most successful in subversion operations often support, but do not interfere with proxy governments. Choosing established groups, and simply assisting with functional support aids in maintaining organic authority.

Since foreign subversion undermines the host nations central government, the United States has a duty to not interfere with the natural limits of central control. Rather, the United States should invoke influence on already ungoverned space with already established proxies. This is a good idea for several reasons. As stated earlier, the United States cannot afford the overt pursuit of a liberal hegemonic strategy any longer. Nor can it ignore the rise and likely clash with China. Pure isolationist policies are unrealistic and dangerous.  It is therefore logical to subvert ungoverned territories across the world, using already present proxies. Doing this would give the United States comparable global strategic footprint at a much lower cost. Leveraging already credible groups would provide stability and predictability in times of peace and infrastructure and non-state allies in times of war. Further, doing this would take the United States out of the social engineering business and back into the more peaceful role of night watchman.  

An example of an opportunity for the United States to use their diplomatic and defense expertise to capitalize on incomplete sovereignty and gently support a non-state group is in Burkina Faso. Outside of the capital city of Ouagadougou, and other densely populated areas, the central government has struggled to fully govern. This is especially true in the north, where a group known as Koglweogo has established legitimacy by providing security and some governance[6]. While their aggressive tactics would not fully align with overt United States policy, they are popular in most of the areas they operate. Rural areas in northern Burkina Faso see Koglweogo as legitimate and welcome because they are providing order to an ungoverned space and protecting the citizens against the growing influence of militant Islamist groups. If the United States would aid Koglweogo with administrative support, not only would Koglweogo be in better position to serve the Burkinabé people, but the United States would have an ally and land in the north where there is a growing Islamist movement. Groups like Koglweogo are common in ungoverned spaces, the United States just has to find and support them.

The strategy of subversion is a smarter, cheaper, and more peaceful strategy than the current United States strategy of liberal internationalism. Subversion is smarter because unlike the current strategy, subversion exploits the desires of other countries rather than forcing “western values”. Since liberalism implies agreement on first principles, the pursuit of freedom spreading cannot stop. If the goal is subversion, rather than freedom spreading, clear end points are present. This strategy is cheaper because rather than stealing land with military force, the United States would simply capitalize on the established norms in fringe areas. Finally, it is more peaceful. The strategy of subversion does not take land, or force ideals by war. The current strategy is rooted in violence. With few exceptions, the United States has not obtained ground without blood, subversion does just that.

You Can’t Count What You Don’t Control: How we Know it’s Ungoverned

The majority of the nearly 200 recognized countries in the world suffer from incomplete sovereignty. The degree to which this is seen is on a spectrum, from almost completely failed states like Somalia to entirely consolidated ones like the United Kingdom. Most countries fall somewhere in-between the two.  In a world of nation-states, it is incredibly difficult to invoke influence without an internationally recognized state. Despite being called the United Nations, only states are represented. Since we live in a world where it pays to be a state, states go to great lengths to project authority and sovereignty on the international stage. This desire goes both ways. The international community has decided that the sovereign nation-state is the norm and will be protected. With status, the idea of incomplete sovereignty can be an uncomfortable issue for the host-nation. For instance, with the current United States grand strategy of interventionist style liberalism, it is not in a countries best interest to advertise their lack of control. This begs the question; how do we know an area is ungoverned?

Melissa Lee of Princeton University was able to determine to a high degree of certainty what areas in a state’s recognized boundary are ungoverned by measuring spatial variation in state authority[7]. In short, Lee looked at inconsistencies in census data and other administrative information and compared the results within the country. Using the Myers Index, Lee can determine how much authority the central state has over various regions. From this, one can establish which areas are under the prevue of the central government, and which areas are ‘ungoverned’. With this understanding, it is right to wonder if the central state is not governing these areas, who is?

Hobbes and Leviathan Fallacy

The idea of ungoverned space may be hard to conceptualize. Generally speaking, it means an area in which a state faces significant challenges in establishing control. Far from a Hobbesian state of nature, the ungoverned areas around the world resemble the order that one would expect from a functioning state.  These ungoverned areas persist as buzzwords for policymakers and warmongers because of their potential of harboring terrorism. Despite these broad claims, ungoverned areas are only a problem if one has a narrow state-centric understanding of governance. Organization in areas outside state control often resembles hybrid management where control is a combination and permutation of state and non-state local actors[8].  Even in warzones, it is common for governments to either share sovereignty or passively cooperate with insurgent or opposition groups[9]. In these wartime political orders, states can discriminately concede large areas of control to rebel groups for the purpose of stability and order.

Despite the relative stability in ungoverned areas, policymakers still point to these places as security risks. This view does have some merit. For instance, ungoverned areas across the Sahel and MENA regions have provided incubation room for groups such as AQIM and IS respectively. While the presence of these groups expands to areas of state control, they are most active in regions not controlled by central governments. This is true for a variety of reasons, but two of them are of highest concern for western policymakers. First, without a state apparatus, the group that holds the military capability often has tacit control. In a Weberian sense, when no state holds the monopoly on legitimate violence, the group with monopoly of violence can be seen as the de facto state. Second, and more concerning is that when a state lacks control of a region, non-state groups vying for power often are forced to solicit militias to act as defense forces. This is evident in the failed state of Somalia where al-Shabaab not only acts as a police force, but the entire judicial branch of government in incomplete tribal areas in the southern part of the country[10].

The idea of ungoverned space is a misnomer because these areas beyond the reach of the state are governed, just not in the traditional sense. While these areas are controlled, who controls them and how they are controlled becomes a concern for traditional global powers. The United States is uncomfortable with this scenario because unlike with fully consolidated states, the United States does not have an international order in place that allows it to monitor and manipulate influence. Unconsolidated states are governed, stable, and controlled for the most part, but they invoke a level of uncertainty for the superpowers in the world. This uncertainty has led to some disastrous foreign policy results and has taken the priority away from the rising giant in the east. There is time to mute this uncertainty, grow a global and peaceful empire, and stay focused on the real threat facing the United States. 

Critics will argue that the United States has no right to invoke unsolicited influence inside sovereign borders. These critics are right. The United States does not have the right. This does not mean the United States does not have an obligation to take every advantage for self-preservation in an anarchic world. Building an empire through the subversive occupation of ungoverned areas is the cheapest and most peaceful way to maintain presence throughout the globe. This strategy, combined with the foreign bases and allies obtained in the traditional manner, should ward off the rising threat of China longer and more efficiently than the failing strategy of spreading democracy. General Austin Miller as commander of Joint Special Operations Command said in an address to his troops, “…the United States is not in the business of fair fights.[11]” This is true, the United States must leverage every opportunity, and take advantage of every inefficiency presented to remain dominate in the modern world.

End Notes

[1]There were shots fired as a result if the Cold War, just not between the United State and Soviet Union directly.

[2] Staniland, Paul. "States, Insurgents, and Wartime Political Orders." Perspectives on Politics 10, no. 2 (2012): 243-64.


[4] Posen, Barry R. Restraint a New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015.

[5] Crippling Leviathan How Foreign Subversion Weakens the State

Melissa M. Lee. Forthcoming, Cornell Press


[7] Lee, Melissa M. "The International Politics of Incomplete Sovereignty: How Hostile Neighbors Weaken the State." 72, no. 2 (2018): 283-315

[8] Raleigh, Clionadh, and Caitriona Dowd. "Governance and Conflict in the Sahel's 'Ungoverned Space'." Stability: International Journal of Security and Development 2, no. 2 (2013):

[9] Staniland, Paul. "States, Insurgents, and Wartime Political Orders." Perspectives on Politics 10, no. 2 (2012): 243-64.

[10]Solomon, Hussein. " Somalia's Al Shabaab: Clans vs Islamist nationalism." South African Journal of International Affairs, 2014, 21:3, 351-366. DOI: 10.1080/10220461.2014.967286.

[11] Author firsthand account

About the Author(s)

Major Jesse Humpal is an Active Duty Air Force Officer and Ph.D. Candidate at Northwestern University studying insurgent behavior, civil wars and incomplete sovereignty.  Prior to his current work, Major Humpal served as a SOF Air Force Pilot where he deployed in support of several global operations including OEF.  He graduated from The University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2008. In 2012, he graduated from Northwestern University with a Master's degree in Public Policy. The views expressed in his articles are solely those of the author and may not reflect the views and policies of the U.S. Air Force or the Department of Defense.



Sat, 09/25/2021 - 8:12am

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