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Bringing War Back In: State Formation in Nineteenth Century Latin America


In my book I propose an important extension to the bellicist theory of state formation, arguing that the effects of war on state capacity are contingent on war outcomes. During wartime both eventual winners and losers mobilize and extract from society, but war outcomes will ultimately determine the impact of these policies in the long term. While victorious states consolidate their wartime coalitions and see their state-building project legitimized, these actors and ideas are challenged in defeated states, who usually lose capacity after war. Bellicist theory has so far been largely based on a European experience where defeated states usually disappeared. Therefore, existing research has overlooked post-war mechanisms. In contrast, the invariable survival of states in nineteenth-century Latin America allows me to observe the protracted consequences of victory and defeat.

To provide evidence for my theory, I carried out archival fieldwork in several Latin American countries, the United States, and the United Kingdom, surveying statistics and diplomatic accounts of nineteenth-century wars. This novel data allows me to question the conventional wisdom that variation in state capacity across Latin America is unrelated to inter-state armed conflict. According to this prevalent view, wars were not intense, nor were they sustained through taxation, suggesting they played no role in forming states. Yet, when systematically confronted against the best available cross-national time-series data, bellicist mechanisms show to be present. State capacity in Latin America was forged precisely when wars were fought, and froze when wars were conspicuously absent. High-capacity states today typically waged and won the most intense of these wars. Restated as “victory made the state,” I find bellicist theory explains the puzzle of political development in Latin American better than any alternative.

In my book I apply a multimethod approach that combines comparative historical analysis with analyses of panel data for Latin America before WWI. Using a broad set of statistical and case study techniques, I find that, while victory consolidated state formation, defeat in international war had a considerable negative effect on important dimensions of state capacity in the long run. My findings suggest a traditional focus on pre-war dynamics should be balanced by paying more attention to the aftermath of war. They also suggest the need to reinterpret the bellocentrist approach in competitive environments like Europe where most losers died, introducing selection bias.

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