De Facto States in World Politics

Project: Research project

Project Details


This project enriches understanding of when civil wars are likely to occur and of whether and under what conditions war contributes to state making, that is, the construction of effective political order. Existing research on the onset of civil war focuses only on official governments. Current research incorporates no information about groups likely to rebel. Theories about state making assert that war and preparation for war are important elements of the process by which effective governance is created. And yet extant empirical assessments of the proposition that wars help make states are deeply flawed: the political organizations that do not succeed are omitted from analysis.

In both of these areas of research, the gaps in our knowledge stem from the fact that existing datasets only contain information about official states. What is lacking is information about de facto states, defined as political organizations governing recognizable, populated territories, but lacking universal diplomatic recognition. Examples include Abkhazia, Somaliland, and the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus. Many and perhaps even most civil wars occur because a de facto state has arisen within the territory recognized as governed by some official state. The war is then an effort either to protect the independence of the de facto state (as occurred when Eritrea won its civil war against Ethiopia) or to re-assert the sovereignty of the official state over its territory (as occurred when Sri Lanka eliminated the last pockets of Tamil independence). Importantly, it is not uncommon for a de facto state to emerge without subsequent violence.

This project generates a dataset on de facto states and permits identification of a population of potential rebels?groups that did and some that did not wage war against official governments. With that dataset, the researcher is equipped to test arguments about the onset of civil war that combine information about both governments and rebels.

This project promises to remake the empirical study of civil wars. The de facto state dataset also has the potential to remake the study of state making. Both official states and de facto states strive to maintain and increase their political control over their territories. Many theories assert that war is helpful to state makers because it provides them with a justification to extract more resources from society, which are then used to increase the government's political control. The ultimate failure of political control occurs when a state maker is eliminated and ceases to exist. However, official states, at least since the creation of the United Nations, almost never meet this fate. Hence existing state making research that considers only official states necessarily is incomplete: it includes no cases of state making failure and so cannot determine whether war advances or detracts from state making. De facto states, in contrast, frequently are eliminated. The dataset of de facto states will finally allow analysis of both successes and failures, and will permit the first ever critical test of the hypothesis that war participation and war outcomes advance state making.

This project has several broader implications. Understanding the conditions under which civil wars erupt and the conditions under which effective forms of governance can be established throughout a given territory stand as pressing questions in international politics today. This project sheds new light on those fundamental questions. In addition, the project will help train the next generation of researchers by involving a team of undergraduate research in every step of the project.

Effective start/end date8/1/117/31/15


  • National Science Foundation: $234,947.00


Explore the research topics touched on by this project. These labels are generated based on the underlying awards/grants. Together they form a unique fingerprint.