Barbara F. Walter
How Civil Wars Start And How to Stop Them by Barbara F. Walter

When a world expert, who has studied the factors that trigger civil wars globally, gradually realises that these same factors currently exist in the United States, we need to pay attention. So it is with Professor Barbara F. Walter in her book How Civil Wars Start And How to Stop Them.

It has been rare for people to rise up and fight their governments — until 1946 that is, since when more than 250 conflicts have erupted worldwide. Scholars studying these conflicts have tracked a range of social trends and mapped their pattern. There are, apparently, distinct features that are common across these different countries, and this makes it alarmingly possible to mark when individual countries move into what might be thought of as a danger zone. The author frequently refers to a 21-point Polity Score maintained by the Center for Systemic Peace that ranges from -10 (the most autocratic) to +10 (the most democratic). They maintain a dataset on “all major, independent states in the global system over the period 1800-2018 … with a total population of 500,000 or more”. This covers 167 countries. Their website is well worth a visit, as it presents much of the data that Professor Walter covers in her excellent book.

Countries that lie between -5 and +5 on the above index are in an anocracy, a part-authoritarian, part-democratic state. Those within the -1 and +1 points on the scale are at a peak risk of civil war, which can occur as a country slides in either direction, following autocratic take-over or emerging into democracy. It’s interesting to learn that some countries can traverse that peak risk zone without civil war. Embedded factionalism is the determinant (ethnicity and religion being the most obvious) that makes that safe transition almost impossible.

The CSP website is not as up-to-date as the author’s knowledge, which embraces the frightening fact that the USA and Great Britain no longer have a coveted +10 score. The former slid to +5 on January 6th 2021, placing it in the anocracy zone. On a separate 5-point factionalism scale, on which the USA dropped to 3 when Trump was elected, and Great Britain slid to the same level after the Brexit vote, even more peril is brought to light. The two countries share the same ranking on that scale as do Ukraine and Iraq. Make of it what you will.

Two things come into sharp focus in this excellent volume. The first is the author’s reference to ethnicity. Whites are predicted to lose their demographic majority in the USA in 2045. In Canada and New Zealand, that is estimated to happen by 2050. In the UK it may be around 2066, and in all English-speaking countries by 2100. California became ‘minority white’ in 1998, and Texas in 2004. If these countries can avoid a sense of lost privilege amongst the ‘demographically-minoritied’, conflict may be avoided. As Jason Stanley in his excellent How Fascism Works (which I have previously discussed here) makes plain: the appeal of a mythic past pollutes the present.

The second excellent thing about this volume — although it is frightening — relates to social media. The Swedish research institute V-Dem maintains its own dataset, measuring democratic principles, “electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian”. She notes that this dataset shows that since 2010 more countries have moved down “the democratic ladder” than up it. Particularly worrying is that this includes Nordic countries that we might think of as being exempt from such a trend. However, there are notable exceptions, particularly in Africa. After 27 years of semi-authoritarian rule, Burkino Faso experienced a move towards democracy in 2015. Likewise, in Sierra Leone in 2018, the ruling party stepped down following electoral defeat. Gambia and the Ivory Coast enjoyed similar ‘advances’ towards democracy. Africa therefore has been exceptional … until that trend started to flow the other way after access to the internet became more widely available. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — which are often the primary means of accessing the internet in third-world countries (through mobile phones) — have gathered mass audiences, coincidental with a retreat from democracy that matches what had previously happened elsewhere on the planet. As the author reports, “in 2019, democracy ratings on V-Dem for sub-Saharan Africa began to decline like everywhere else in the world.” Through the internet, it seems, streams a variety of anti-democratic toxicity.

How have we come to this? When Clay Shirky optimistically detailed the internet’s dazzling goodwill in his glorious 2010 volume Cognitive Surplus (which I snapshotted here), the future back then looked rosy. 100 million hours of human thought had brought Wikipedia to life. God knows what the statistics would be now. But they would pale into insignificance compared to the time spent collectively on social media. And of that enormous, unknown number of hours, how many will be devoted to telling falsehoods and disseminating democracy-destroying disinformation.

Being an early-adopter of many things tech, I have been a resolute non-adopter of social media. As P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking quoted (of a US Army colonel turned historian) in their excellent LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media (which I reviewed here): “Once every village had an idiot. It took the internet to bring them all together”. If we want further ammunition to anchor the damning case against social media, this volume by Barbara Walter (Professor of International Relations at the University of California, San Diego) will be of immense and timely value. +1 for experts.