How Civil Wars Start and how to stop them by Barbara F. Walter

What a fantastic and very readable book. Absolutely fascinating and well written and not something I knew an awful lot about.

So, how do civil wars start?

Walter goes through 5 key elements exploring and explaining with examples and of course there is so much in here that resonates with where we are at present.

If a country is moving towards or from a democracy to this middle zone between the two this is where most civil wars start. There is the Polity scale which rates countries on lots of factors and those that end up in the +5 – -5 are in the middle and are known as anocracies: neither autocracies or democracies but with elements of both. For instance the country may have some elements of of democracy such as full voting rights but no checks or balances on their leaders that have full authoritarian powers. Anocracies can also be known as illiberal democracies such as Turkey. This is the danger zone because often the leaders are weak in the face of injustice and can not manage the new winners and losers in the system. The UK slipped from +10 to +8 in 2016, America slipped to +5, the danger zone, at the end of Trump’s presidency and remains there.

When Saddam Hussein was captured, researchers who study deomcratisation didn’t celebrate. We knew that democratisation, especially rapid democratisation in a deeply divided country, could be highly destabilising. In fact, the more radical and rapid the change the more destabilising it was likely to be. The United States and the United Kingdom throught they were delivering freedom to the a welcoming population. Instead they were about to deliver the perfect conditions for civil war.


The development of factions or small, organised dissenting groups. Most political parties have them – think Nigel Farrage! But factions can also follow religious, ethnic and race lines and identity-based politics or factionalised politics often has rigid boundaries and are intransigent and inflexible. This did make me think about Northern Ireland.

You can get superfactions where groups share more than two criteria such as ethnicity, language, religion, and here you are more likely to have a civil war if there are two dominant groups

  • The greatest fault lines are urban and rural where urban communities respond to change and are diverse and rural ones are stable and traditional. Just think about fox hunting here.
  • The factions need a mouthpiece or what are known as ethnic entrepreneurs who have media power such as Modi in India.
  • And finally, citizens who are unaware that factionalisation is happening.

Groups who are excluded from power. People were more likely to fight if they once had power and saw it slipping away or what is known as being ‘downgraded’. This idea is used to predict who is most likely to initiate violence – Trump and his supporters on Capitol Hill. Other downgradings can be:

  • loss of political or cultural status or status reversal or exclusion.
  • an official language belonging to one group and being used in positions of power as this determines whose culture dominates. Interesting that in Northern Ireland it is language that is one of the sticking points at present.
  • access to higher education
  • economic inequality and the idea that you are losing your job to ‘others’.
  • modernaisation and globalisation which lead people to be vulnerable to competition.
  • immigration is often a flash point, and
  • climate change and natural disasters.

If a country was already at risk of civil war, natural disasters tented to make things worse. In a world where drought, wildfire, hurricanes and heat waves will be more frequent and more intense – driving greater migration – the downgraded will have even more reasons to rise up


Loss of hope particularly when it is understood that peaceful protest won’t work.

  • protests are a warning sign and indicate that a system still works but is troubled.
  • elections can be destabilising. two losses indicates that there are not enough voters to gain control and the group therefore loses power.
  • presidential systems are more likely to lead to civil war as the winner takes all.
  • elections reveal whether the party in power is likely to play fair and to be committed to democracy.
  • governments can become the greatest recruiters for groups if they respond with brutal force or are out of touch with what the people think – here I had to think of Johnson and his parties during Covid times.
  • violent extremists hijacking a social movement.

An accelerant is needed and often that is social media. This works by

  • tech giants refusing to acknowledge what is happening on their sites and the part they are playing in the discontent.
  • misinformation and conspiracy theories
  • certain sites becoming a pipeline for radicalisation
  • influencing elections
  • It can drive a country down the democratic ladder and heighten divisions with their tribes.

Are there ways to stop civil wars? Yes, but sadly this section of the book is tiny in comparison with what starts them. What we need are:

  1. Leaders who can compromise both at political, business and opposition levels.
  2. To strengthen the quality of governance which through research has been shown to be more important than improving the economy. I am writing this at the time when the Conservative party are electing a new leader and prime minister after Johnson stood down. This point is really relevant to the candidates who are standing but unfortunately all they want to talk about is lowering our taxes. Strengthening government can be achieved by:
    • ensuring equal and impartial application of legal procedure (also relevant to us as trial lawyers are out on strike because they can not afford to take the cases).
    • the extent to which citizens can participate in selecting their government and freedom of speech and expression and a free media as they provide a check and balance.
    • the quality of public services and the independence of the civil service which for us in the U is being eroded with each successive government.
  3. All of these are ways in which a government serves its people. But it also needs to understand that
    • most of our threats come from within rather than ‘outside’.
    • take great care that right-wing groups do not infiltrate the military and police forces.
    • regulate social media to promote the common good. They can do it because they have done so over vaccination and Covid.
    • People always say they didn’t see it coming. We need to be open to the elements that go towards civil wars and guard against them.

This book is quite a sobering read. It ends with Walter and her family considering leaving the country (America) but deciding in the end to stay – hope! But they did renew their passports!

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