Key Points from Book: How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them

by Barbara F. Walter

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

Civil wars rose alongside democracies. In 1870, almost no countries were experiencing civil war, but by 1992, there were over fifty. Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) were fighting one another in a fracturing Yugoslavia. Islamist rebel groups were turning on their government in Algeria. Leaders in Somalia and the Congo suddenly faced multiple armed groups challenging their rule, as did the governments in Georgia and Tajikistan. Soon the Hutus and the Tutsis would be slaughtering each other in Rwanda and Burundi. By the early nineties, the number of civil wars around the world had reached its highest point in modern history. That is, at least until now. In 2019, we reached a new peak. It turns out that one of the best predictors of whether a country will experience a civil war is whether it is moving toward or away from democracy. Yes, democracy. Countries almost never go from full autocracy to full democracy without a rocky transition in between. Attempts by leaders to democratize frequently include significant backsliding or stagnation in a pseudo-autocratic middle zone. And even if citizens succeed in gaining full democracy, their governments don’t always stay there. Would-be despots can whittle away rights and freedoms, and concentrate power, causing democracies to decline. Hungary became a full democracy in 1990 before Prime Minister Viktor Orbán slowly and methodically nudged it back toward dictatorship. It is in this middle zone that most civil wars occur. Experts call countries in this middle zone “anocracies”—they are neither full autocracies nor democracies but something in between. Ted Robert Gurr, a professor at Northwestern, coined the term in 1974 after collecting data on the democratic and autocratic traits of governments around the world. Prior to that, he and his team had debated what to call these hybrid regimes, sometimes using the term “transitional” before settling on “anocracy.” Citizens receive some elements of democratic rule—perhaps full voting rights—but they also live under leaders with extensive authoritarian powers and few checks and balances.

To everyone’s surprise, they found that the best predictor of instability was not, as they might have guessed, income inequality or poverty. It was a nation’s polity index score, with the anocracy zone being the place of greatest danger. Anocracies, particularly those with more democratic than autocratic features—what the task force called “partial democracies”—were twice as likely as autocracies to experience political instability or civil war, and three times as likely as democracies.

A government that is democratizing is weak compared to the regime before it—politically, institutionally, and militarily. Unlike autocrats, leaders in an anocracy are often not powerful enough or ruthless enough to quell dissent and ensure loyalty. The government is also frequently disorganized and riddled with internal divisions, struggling to deliver basic services or even security. Opposition leaders, or even those within a president’s own party, may challenge or resist the pace of reform, while new leaders must quickly earn the trust of citizens, fellow politicians, or army generals. In the chaos of transition, these leaders often fail.

A primary reason for revolt is that democratic transitions create new winners and losers: In the shift away from autocracy, formerly disenfranchised citizens come into new power, while those who once held privileges find themselves losing influence. Because the new government in an anocracy is often fragile, and the rule of law is still developing, the losers—former elites, opposition leaders, citizens who once enjoyed advantages—are not sure the administration will be fair, or that they will be protected. This can create genuine anxieties about the future: The losers may not be convinced of a leader’s commitment to democracy; they may feel their own needs and rights are at stake.

A painful reality of democratization is that the faster and bolder the reform efforts, the greater the chance of civil war. Rapid regime change—a six-point or more fluctuation in a country’s polity index score—almost always precedes instability, and civil wars are more likely to break out in the first two years after reform is attempted.

Democratic countries that veer into anocracy do so not because their leaders are untested and weak, like those who are scrambling to organize in the wake of a dictator, but rather because elected leaders—many of whom are quite popular—start to ignore the guardrails that protect their democracies. These include constraints on a president, checks and balances among government branches, a free press that demands accountability, and fair and open political competition. Would-be autocrats such as Orbán, Erdoğan, Vladimir Putin, or Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro put their political goals ahead of the needs of a healthy democracy, gaining support by exploiting citizen fears—over jobs, over immigration, over security. They persuade citizens that democracy as it has existed will lead to more corruption, more lies, and greater bungling of economic and social policy. They decry political leaders’ compromises as ineffective, and the government as a failure. They understand that if they can persuade citizens that “strong leadership” and “law and order” are necessary, citizens will voluntarily vote them into office. People will often sacrifice freedom if they believe it will make them more secure. Then, once in power, these leaders plunge their countries into anocracy by exploiting weaknesses in the constitution, electoral system, and judiciary. Because they typically use legal methods—partisan appointments, executive orders, parliamentary votes—they are able to consolidate power in ways that other politicians are unable, or unwilling, to stop. This increasing autocratization puts countries at higher risk of civil war.

For a decaying democracy, the risk of civil war increases almost the moment it becomes less democratic. As a democracy drops down the polity index scale—a result of fewer executive restraints, weaker rule of law, diminished voting rights—its risk for armed conflict steadily increases. This risk peaks when it hits a score of between +1 to −1—the point when citizens face the prospect of real autocracy. The chance of civil war then sharply drops if the country weathers this moment by becoming even more authoritarian, or changes course and begins to rebuild its democracy.

starting in the mid-twentieth century, more and more civil wars were fought by different ethnic and religious groups, rather than political groups, each looking to gain dominance over the other. In the first five years after World War II, 53 percent of civil wars were fought between ethnic factions, according to a dataset compiled by James Fearon and David Laitin, two civil war experts at Stanford University. Since the end of the Cold War, as many as 75 percent of civil wars have been fought by these types of factions. Think of the many wars that have made headlines in the past several decades: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Myanmar, Lebanon, Sri Lanka. All were fought between groups divided along ethnic or religious lines, and oftentimes both.

Countries that factionalize have political parties based on ethnic, religious, or racial identity rather than ideology, and these parties then seek to rule at the exclusion and expense of others.

Two variables—anocracy and factionalism—predicted better than anything else where civil wars were likely to break out.

Political parties begin to coalesce around ethnic, racial, or religious identity, rather than a particular set of policies—as Hutus and Tutsis did in Rwanda, for example, or as many political parties did in Ethiopia. It is a crafty way for leaders to cement both their following and their future. Identity-based parties make it impossible for voters to switch sides; there is nowhere for them to go if their political identity is tied to their ethnic or religious identity.

ETHNIC NATIONALISM, and its expression through factions, doesn’t take hold in a country on its own. For a society to fracture along identity lines, you need mouthpieces—people who are willing to make discriminatory appeals and pursue discriminatory policies in the name of a particular group. They are usually people who are seeking political office or trying to stay in office. They provoke and harness feelings of fear as a way to lock in the constituencies that will support their scramble for power. Experts have a term for these individuals: ethnic entrepreneurs. The term was first used in the 1990s to explain figures such as Milošević and Tudjman, but it’s a phenomenon that has since occurred many times over, in all parts of the world. These instigators of war are often at high risk of losing power or have recently lost it. Seeing no other routes to securing their futures—because, perhaps, they are ex-Communists—they cynically exploit divisions to try to reassert control. They foster identity-based nationalism to sow violence and chaos, using a strategy scholars call “gambling for resurrection”—an aggressive effort to provoke massive change, even against the odds.

People were especially likely to fight if they had once held power and saw it slipping away. Political scientists refer to this phenomenon as “downgrading,” and while there are many variations on the theme, it is a reliable way to predict—in countries prone to civil war—who will initiate the violence.

Native speakers of a country’s official language enjoy a huge economic advantage over citizens whose language is not recognized by the state. Francisco Franco, dictator of Spain from 1939 to 1975, understood this. One of the ways Franco consolidated power was to elevate Castilian over other languages, declaring it Spain’s only official tongue. He then banned citizens from speaking Basque, Catalan, Galician, or any other language in public. Newborns were not allowed to be given regional names, and dialects were no longer allowed to be taught in school or used to conduct business. Language, it turns out, is strongly tied to the identity of a nation, and it determines whose culture ultimately dominates. One of the main fears of ethnic Russians in the Donbas region of Ukraine was that the new nationalist government would make Ukrainian the official language of the state to the exclusion of Russian. It’s hard to compete for well-paying jobs if you don’t speak the language. Controlling access to education, especially higher education, is another way to elevate one ethnic group over another. The same is true of access to civil service jobs, which are some of the most steady and lucrative positions in a country. When people face the loss of such privileges, they can become deeply aggrieved and motivated to resist.

Citizens in poor countries were much more likely to fight than citizens in rich countries. But when scholars took into account measures of good governance—including citizen participation, the competitiveness of elections, and constraints on the power of the executive—economic variables became much less important. Income inequality, which many considered a red flag for war, proved to be the opposite. As James Fearon wrote in a 2010 report for the World Bank, “Not only is there no apparent positive correlation between income inequality and conflict, but if anything, across countries, those with more equal income distributions have been marginally more conflict prone.”

If a country was already at risk of civil war, natural disasters tended 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.

Scholars know where civil wars tend to break out and who tends to start them: downgraded groups in anocracies dominated by ethnic factions. But what triggers them? What finally tips a country into conflict? Citizens can absorb a lot of pain. They will accept years of discrimination and poverty and remain quiet, enduring the ache of slow decline. What they can’t take is the loss of hope. It’s when a group looks into the future and sees nothing but additional pain that they start to see violence as their only path to progress.

It’s the failure of protests that eliminates hope and incentivizes violence. That’s when citizens finally see that their belief in the system has been misplaced. In Israel, Palestinians engaged in nonviolent protests for years—participating in mass demonstrations, work stoppages, strikes, and boycotts—but made no progress in negotiations with the government. The result? “People exploded,” said Radwan Abu Ayyash, a Palestinian journalist. This helps explain why violence tends to escalate in the aftermath of failed protests. Protests are a last-ditch effort to fix the system—the Hail Mary pass for optimists seeking peaceful change—before the extremists take over.

Early militants, of course, know that civilian deaths at the hands of the government can tip conflicts into all-out war; they see the opportunity in a harsh government response and plan accordingly. Hamas has stored weapons in schools, mosques, and residential neighborhoods, goading the Israeli military to bomb them. Carlos Marighella, a Brazilian Marxist revolutionary, urged fellow militants to target government forces in order to provoke a violent reaction. He believed that if the government intensified its repression against Brazilians, arresting innocent people and making life in the city unbearable, citizens would turn against it. In Northern Ireland, Tommy Gorman, a member of the IRA, recalled that the British Army and government, with their harsh tactics, “were our best recruiting agents.” And in Spain, the violent separatist group ETA was not particularly popular with Basque citizens until President Franco allowed the Germans, during World War II, to viciously bomb Basque villages. According to one expert on the Basques, “Nothing radicalizes a people faster than the unleashing of undisciplined security forces on its towns and villages.” That’s why civil wars appear to explode after governments decide to play hardball. Extremists have already embraced militancy. What changes is that average citizens now decide that it’s in their interest to do so as well.

leaders were less inclined to negotiate—and more likely to fight—in nations with multiple potential separatist groups. If a leader believed that granting independence to one group would lead others to make their own demands—setting off a secessionist chain reaction—then fighting would help deter future challenges. Indonesia’s harsh response to East Timor’s declaration of independence, which killed an estimated 25 percent of East Timor’s population, was made in part to dissuade the country’s many other ethnic groups from demanding independence as well.

What America’s eighteenth-century leaders couldn’t have predicted was that the factionalization they feared would be rooted not in class but in ethnic identity. That’s because in 1789, at least at the federal level, all American voters were white (and all of them were men). Today, the best predictor of how Americans will vote is their race. Two-thirds or more of Black, Latino, and Asian Americans consistently vote for Democrats, while roughly 60 percent of white Americans vote for Republicans. That represents a dramatic shift from the middle part of the last century, when the ethnic minority vote was split roughly between the two parties, and most white working-class Americans tended to vote Democratic. In fact, as late as 2007—the year before Barack Obama was elected president—whites were just as likely (51 percent) to be Democrats as they were Republicans. Today, 90 percent of the Republican Party is white.

Working-class whites had been hailed as the backbone of America, their ways and values memorialized in Norman Rockwell paintings. And now, it seemed, the government was abandoning them. Global trade agreements were signed that benefited coastal elites and city dwellers at their expense. Immigration continued, and allowances were made for illegal immigrants. To whites experiencing real economic and social decline, the U.S. government was like the Indian government that encouraged Bengalis to migrate to Assam, the Indonesian government that encouraged Javanese to migrate to West Papua, or the Sri Lankan government that had encouraged the Sinhalese to migrate to Tamil regions. White Americans were seeing young people from countries like India and China—whose first language wasn’t English, whose religion was not Christianity—get lucrative tech jobs and live an American dream that no longer existed for them.

Members of AWD were among those who participated in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, yelling “You will not replace us!” as they marched with torches. Soon after the rally, the hashtag #ReadSiege spread like wildfire on Twitter. Some in the group found Charlottesville—and the subsequent arrests, deplatforming, and bad press—to be disheartening, proof that Mason had been right all along: They would not be successful if they stayed within the bounds of the law. As one former AWD member later told investigative journalist A. C. Thompson (who made the ProPublica documentary), Charlottesville sparked the group’s shift toward violence, because members felt their efforts had been ineffectual. “Huge rallies don’t work,” he explained. “All that happens is people get arrested, people lose jobs, and you get put on some FBI watch list.” The answer, he continued, was to go underground, and to pursue a form of cell-style terrorism known as “leaderless resistance.” The term “leaderless resistance” originated in the 1950s with a former CIA officer named Ulius Amoss, who was analyzing ways to protect CIA-supported resistance cells in Eastern Europe. The concept was picked up by Louis Beam, a soldier in the Vietnam War who, after returning to the United States, became a Ku Klux Klan member. In 1983, Beam published an essay advocating leaderless resistance as the best way for white nationalists to continue their struggle against the far more powerful U.S. government. Beam believed that the movement could survive only if it became decentralized.

Extremist groups also tend to wield greater psychological power by offering greater recompense: Honor, martyr status, and glory in the afterlife, and an extreme ideology weeds out those who are less committed to a cause, reducing the problem of poor performance, side switching, or betrayal. We have not yet seen the outbidding strategy take hold in the United States, but it’s easy to imagine it as right-wing groups proliferate. What ISIS did in Iraq and Syria provides a blueprint: The group invested heavily in internet propaganda, advertising its military strength and publicizing both the brutal acts it was willing to commit and the public services it was willing to provide to local populations. When it entered a town, it quickly targeted leaders of the opposition. If this was to occur in the United States, you would see one extreme group, such as Atomwaffen, escalating to ever-more brutal acts of violence, to prove that it was stronger, more capable, and more dedicated to the cause than other groups. A final terror strategy is “spoiling.” Terrorists wield this tactic when they fear that more moderate groups—those that would put aside violence in exchange for, say, concessions from the government on immigration—will compromise and subvert the larger goal of establishing a new ethno-state. This strategy usually comes into play when relations between more moderate insurgent groups and the government are improving, and a peace agreement seems imminent. Terrorists know that most citizens will not support ongoing violence once a deal is in place. When Iranian radicals kidnapped fifty-two Americans in Tehran in 1979, it wasn’t because relations between the United States and Iran were worsening, but because there were signs of rapprochement: Three days earlier, Mehdi Bazargan, Iran’s relatively moderate prime minister, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the U.S. national security adviser, had appeared in a photograph together shaking hands. The radicals knew that reconciliation between the two countries would be disastrous for them, so they did whatever they could to prevent it. Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, and talks between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, have also been “spoiled” in this way.

Most countries that were able to avoid a second civil war shared an ability to strengthen the quality of their governance. They doubled down on democracy and moved up the polity scale. Mozambique did this after its civil war ended in 1992, when the country moved from one-party rule to multiparty elections. In the wake of a conflict that ended in 2003, Liberia increased institutional restraints on presidential power and pushed for more judicial independence. Countries that created more transparent and participatory political environments and limited the power of their executive branch were less susceptible to repeat episodes of violence.

Free elections are the central mechanism of accountability in a democracy, but unlike many other countries, America lacks an independent and centralized election management system. According to the political scientist Pippa Norris, an elections expert and the founding director of Harvard University’s Electoral Integrity Project, almost every new democracy going through a transition sets up a central independent election management system to protect the integrity of elections. This helps to build trust in the electoral process. Uruguay, Costa Rica, and South Korea all did this when they created their democracies. Large federal democracies such as Australia, Canada, India, and Nigeria have also managed their elections this way. Canada’s election system is run by Elections Canada, and all voters follow the same procedures no matter where they live. An independent and centralized election management system establishes a standard procedure for designing and printing ballots and tabulating votes accurately and securely, untainted by partisan politics. It can handle legal disputes without the involvement of politicized courts. In a 2019 report, the Electoral Integrity Project examined countries’ electoral laws and processes and found that the quality of U.S. elections from 2012 to 2018 was “lower than any other long-established democracies and affluent societies.” The United States received the same score as Mexico and Panama, and a much lower score than Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Chile. This is the reason why it is easier to spread claims about voter fraud in the United States, and why Americans are more likely to question the results.

To fulfill the promise of a truly multiethnic democracy, the nation must navigate deep peril. We need to shore up our democracy, stay out of the anocracy zone, and rein in social media, which will help reduce factionalism. This will give us a chance to avoid a second civil war.

About Journeyman

A global macro analyst with over four years experience in the financial market, the author began his career as an equity analyst before transitioning to macro research focusing on Emerging Markets at a well-known independent research firm. He read voraciously, spending most of his free time following The Economist magazine and reading topics on finance and self-improvement. When off duty, he works part-time for Getty Images, taking pictures from all over the globe. To date, he has over 1200 pictures over 35 countries being sold through the company.
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