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
“Like those who spoke up clearly about the dangers of global warming decades ago, Walter delivers a grave message that we ignore at our peril.”—David Remnick, The New Yorker
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 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.
Praise for How Civil Wars Start
“It turns out that there is a discipline that you might call ‘civilwarology’—the study of the factors that lead to civil war. . . . Barbara F. Walter became a civilwarologist nearly a quarter of a century ago and her entry is evidently well-thumbed in the Rolodexes of the CIA and the U.S. State Department. In other words, she knows what she’s talking about—which makes this book rather scary.”—The Times (U.K.)
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.