Melissa Lee


Klein Family Presidential Assistant Professor of Political ScienceDirector of the World House Student Fellows Program, Perry World House



Melissa M. Lee is the Klein Family Presidential Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the Director of the World House Student Fellows Program at Perry World House.

Professor Lee studies the international and domestic politics of statebuilding and state development. She is the author of Crippling Leviathan: How Foreign Subversion Weakens the State (Cornell University Press, 2020). Her research has also been published in the American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Politics, and International Organization, and her policy writing has appeared in Foreign Affairs and the Irregular Warfare Initiative. Her work has received the American Political Science Association’s 2016 Helen Dwight Reid (now Merze Tate) award, APSA’s European Politics and Society Section 2020 Best Article Prize, and Perry World House’s inaugural Emerging Scholar Global Policy Prize.

Lee received her Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford University and her B.A. in Political Science from the University of California San Diego. Prior to joining the faculty at Penn, Lee was Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and the Lightning Scholar at Perry World House.

Selected Publications


Crippling Leviathan: How Foreign Subversion Weakens the State (Cornell University Press, 2020) 

Description (from the publisher’s website):

Policymakers worry that "ungoverned spaces" pose dangers to security and development. Why do such spaces exist beyond the authority of the state? Earlier scholarship—which addressed this question with a list of domestic failures—overlooked the crucial role that international politics play. In this shrewd book, Melissa M. Lee argues that foreign subversion undermines state authority and promotes ungoverned space. Enemy governments empower insurgents to destabilize the state and create ungoverned territory. This kind of foreign subversion is a powerful instrument of modern statecraft. But though subversion is less visible and less costly than conventional force, it has insidious effects on governance in the target state.

To demonstrate the harmful consequences of foreign subversion for state authority, Crippling Leviathan marshals a wealth of evidence and presents in-depth studies of Russia's relations with the post-Soviet states, Malaysian subversion of the Philippines in the 1970s, and Thai subversion of Vietnamese-occupied Cambodia in the 1980s. The evidence presented by Lee is persuasive: foreign subversion weakens the state.

Lee challenges the conventional wisdom on statebuilding, which has long held that conflict promotes the development of strong, territorially consolidated states. Lee argues instead that conflictual international politics prevents state development and degrades state authority. In addition, Crippling Leviathan illuminates the use of subversion as an underappreciated and important feature of modern statecraft. Rather than resort to war, states resort to subversion. Policymakers interested in ameliorating the consequences of ungoverned space must recognize the international roots that sustain weak statehood.