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


In my book-length dissertation I argue that the effects of war on state formation are contingent on war outcomes. While both winners and losers mobilize and extract from society during wartime, its outcome ultimately determines the long-term impact on state capacity. This occurs because victorious states consolidate their wartime coalitions in government and victory legitimizes the state-building project. In contrast, defeated states lose capacity over time. Existing research has overlooked the key role of war outcomes in state formation because bellicist theories are largely based on the European experience where most defeated states disappeared. Nineteenth-century Latin America, in contrast, allows us to observe the consequences of both victory and defeat. To provide evidence for my theory, I carried out archival fieldwork in four 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 in this region, suggesting war might have played a secondary role. Yet, Latin America’s ranking of state capacity was forged in the nineteenth century, when wars were fought, and has frozen in the twentieth century, when wars were conspicuously absent. Moreover, states at the top waged and won the most intense amongst 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 dissertation I apply a multimethod approach that combines a comparative historical analysis  of the nineteenth century (1810-1914) and statistical analysis of a panel of Latin America at the height of state formation (1865-1914). Using a set of techniques such as fsQCA, process tracing, difference-in-differences analysis, and synthetic control methods, 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 has diverted our attention from interpreting how war influences state formation after it is fought. They also suggest the need to reinterpret the bellocentrist approach in competitive environments like Europe where most losers died, introducing selection bias.