How Civil Wars Start by Barbara F Walter review – sounding the alarm

This compelling history delineates the path from democracy to autocracy – and warns that the US is heading the wrong way

Barbara Walter does not expect to see a civil war in the US of the order of the conflict that tore the nation apart in the 1860s, but that’s chiefly because civil wars are fought differently these days. And it’s about the only comfort a concerned reader can take from this sobering account of how civil wars start and are conducted in our time. Walter is a professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego, and a consultant to various government and international agencies. She has studied civil wars and insurgencies for three decades, and iIn this book she draws on her own work and that of other researchers to produce a typology of the descent into organised domestic violence.

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The key concept is that of “anocracy”, a transition stage of government between autocracy and democracy. The transition can be made in either direction, and it is during the transition that most civil wars erupt. Autocracies possess sufficient powers of repression to keep potential insurgents in check; democracies allow dissidents means to effect change without resorting to violence. But when autocracies weaken, repression can fail, and when democracies ossify, the release valves get stuck.

A crucial development in the road to civil war is the emergence of factions. Walter observes that in the early 20th century, civil wars were fought along lines of class and ideology. Hence the Russian revolution of 1917 and the Chinese revolution that began a decade later. But after the second world war, as the old colonial empires broke down, civil wars increasingly reflected ethnic and religious factionalisation. By the late 20th century, such fault lines lay at the heart of most civil wars.

A case study to which Walter returns repeatedly is the breakup of Yugoslavia. Held together by the iron fist of Tito, who ruthlessly suppressed displays of religion and ethnicity, the country fractured spectacularly on ethnic and religious lines after his death. In that conflict, the Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević proved an archetype of another concept that Walter employs, the “ethnic entrepreneur”. Milošević turned Tito’s policy on its head, deliberately fanning ethnic and religious flames.

Walter punctuates her account with recollections by individuals she has interviewed. One informant told of living in Sarajevo before the breakup began and hardly noticing the religious and ethnic differences among her neighbours. But after Milošević and his imitators engaged the propaganda machinery, the social fabric was torn asunder. Walter’s source was at home with her young son in March 1992 when the lights went out. “And then suddenly you started to hear machine guns,” she said.

The factions most disposed to violence are those Walter and others call “sons of the soil”. People with deep histories in a country, traditionally rural, they resent displacement by immigrants and urban elites. When their resentments are stoked by ethnic entrepreneurs, they are much more prone to violence than other groups.

And the most important driver – the “accelerant” – of recent civil wars has been social media. “Social media is every ethnic entrepreneur’s dream,” writes Walter. She finds it not at all a coincidence that the world achieved peak democracy just before social media began to proliferate, and that democracy has been in retreat ever since.

She notes that on the scale researchers in her field employ, the US in the last few years has slipped into the range of anocracy. The slide commenced in the 1990s with the emergence of partisan television networks; it continued with the efflorescence of Facebook, Twitter and weaponised talk radio. And then: “Into this political morass stepped the biggest ethnic entrepreneur of all: Donald Trump.”

Walter’s recounting of Trump’s assaults on decency and democracy is familiar yet still chilling. The good news is that the bad news wasn’t worse. But we haven’t seen the end of it. “America was lucky that its first modern autocratic president was neither smart nor politically experienced. Other ambitious, more effective Republicans – Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley – have taken note and will seek to do better.”

So what is a democrat to do? First, concentrate on improving the performance of government. The research of Walter and her colleagues shows that politics is more important than economics in starting or preventing civil wars. She suggests federalising election laws, curtailing partisan gerrymandering, curbing unaccountable campaign contributions and eliminating the electoral college. More vaguely, she recommends that government “renew its commitment to providing for its most vulnerable citizens”.

And social media must be regulated. “The US government regulates all kinds of industries – from utilities and drug companies to food processing plants – to promote the common good,” Walter writes. “For the sake of democracy and social cohesion, social media platforms should be added to the list.”

Will this be enough? Walter hopes so. But she expects the domestic terrorism that has been on the rise since the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 will continue to get worse, that insurgents and militias – the civil warriors of the 21st century – will continue to proliferate, and that demagogues like Trump will continue to encourage them.

Walter relates that amid the 2020 election campaign, she and her husband, who between them possess Swiss, Canadian, Hungarian and German passports, considered their exit strategy from the US should things get really bad. They even weighed up applying for Hungarian citizenship for their daughter. It didn’t come to that. But they renewed their passports just in case.

• HW Brands is professor of history at the University of Texas, Austin. How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them is published by Viking. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

HW Brands

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