How Civil Wars Start
And How to Stop Them
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A leading political scientist examines the dramatic rise in violent extremism around the globe and sounds the alarm on the increasing likelihood of a second civil war in the United States
“Required reading for anyone invested in preserving our 246-year experiment in self-government.”—The New York Times Book Review
WINNER OF THE GLOBAL POLICY INSTITUTE AWARD • THE SUNDAY TIMES BOOK OF THE YEAR • ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: Financial Times, The Times (UK), Esquire, Prospect (UK)
Political violence rips apart several towns in southwest Texas. A far-right militia plots to kidnap the governor of Michigan and try her for treason. An armed mob of Trump supporters and conspiracy theorists storms the U.S. Capitol. Are these isolated incidents? Or is this the start of something bigger? Barbara F. Walter has spent her career studying civil conflict in places like Iraq, Ukraine, and Sri Lanka, but now she has become increasingly worried about her own country.
Perhaps surprisingly, both autocracies and healthy democracies are largely immune from civil war; it’s the countries in the middle ground that are most vulnerable. And this is where more and more countries, including the United States, are finding themselves today.
Over the last two decades, the number of active civil wars around the world has almost doubled. Walter reveals the warning signs—where wars tend to start, who initiates them, what triggers them—and why some countries tip over into conflict while others remain stable. Drawing on the latest international research and lessons from over twenty countries, Walter identifies the crucial risk factors, from democratic backsliding to factionalization and the politics of resentment. A civil war today won’t look like America in the 1860s, Russia in the 1920s, or Spain in the 1930s. It will begin with sporadic acts of violence and terror, accelerated by social media. It will sneak up on us and leave us wondering how we could have been so blind.
In this urgent and insightful book, Walter redefines civil war for a new age, providing the framework we need to confront the danger we now face—and the knowledge to stop it before it’s too late.
Political scientist Walter (Committing to Peace) issues a stark and deeply informed warning that the U.S. may be headed for another civil war. Drawing on her extensive studies of foreign conflicts, Walter highlights factors that make countries susceptible to sectarian violence, including a government that is neither democratic nor totalitarian, loss of status by a historically dominant ethnic group, and the closing of political avenues for change. Explaining how social media foments political instability, Walter notes that Facebook and other companies showed little inclination to police calls to violence and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, while providing a platform for anti-democratic political organizing even in countries with deep democratic traditions, such as Sweden. Drawing incisive parallels to societies in which ethnic grievances have been harnessed to mobilize armed forces for civil war, Walter notes the increasing visibility of right-wing militias in the U.S. Such groups financed and abetted by white nationalists in other countries and America's geopolitical rivals could eventually engage in armed struggle against the government. To avoid civil war, Walter writes, America needs to improve its democratic institutions by making elections freer and more open and increasing civics education. Distinguished by its lucid analysis and global perspective, this wake-up call rings clear.
Scary to read, but you must follow the facts. This is filled with acts and historical search that clearly shows the path.
Fascinating and Timely Reading
Water provides a succinct and detailed survey of just why factional conflicts occur both internationally and domestically. She emphasizes that such occurrences can be prevented through lowering the volume of social media misinformation on any divisive topic and creating a pool of informed citizenry alert to warning signs and change the outcome for the better.
Read Yascha Mounk instead — it’s a better use of your time and money.
It’s unfortunate to me that 8/9 chapters are look at the causes of civil war and just 1/9 examines how to avert war, which is a far, far more important, though perhaps less hot topic. This book must be read with caution. America is not gone. Let’s not let it slip by acting as though it is.