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Barbara F. Walter on How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them, including in the United States

How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them (book cover)

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 20 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.

Barbara F. Walter is a professor of political science and Rohr Chair in Pacific International Relations at the School and an adjunct professor in the UC San Diego Department of Political Science. She is an expert on international security, with an emphasis on civil wars. Her current research is on the behavior of rebel groups in civil wars, including inter-rebel group fighting, alliances and the strategic use of propaganda and extremism. Walter received her Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago and completed postdoctoral research at the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University and at the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. Walter is on the editorial board of the American Political Science Review, International Organization, Journal of Politics, Journal of Conflict Resolution and International Studies Quarterly. She is also the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships, including awards from the National Science Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and Smith Richardson Foundation.

Shermer and Walter discuss:

  • her personal background story of how she came to study civil wars,
  • her experiences studying unstable nations around the world that fall into civil war,
  • determining causality in political science,
  • autocracies, democracies, anocracies,
  • key features of how civil wars start (it’s not poverty or income inequality),
  • why anocracies with their weak governments fuel civil wars,
  • Germany and Japan as exceptions of nations who successfully transformed from autocracies to democracies and why that model won’t work in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan,
  • militias in history, from the Civil War to Timothy McVeigh to the plot to kidnap Gov. Whitmer,
  • the GOP’s strategy to win elections: (1) business as usual, which is failing them, (2) voter restrictions to prevent people likely to vote democrat from voting, (3) violence,
  • how Trump will likely try to take back the Presidency in 2024 and why most Republicans will support his efforts even if they are unconstitutional,
  • how Dick and Liz Cheney became the moderate/rational side of the GOP,
  • Why we need a centrist GOP: John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859:

    • A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.
  • How to prevent civil wars
  • The dangers of factions: In Federalist No. 10, James Madison outlined the problem with competing factions in a direct democracy (“a landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest…”):

    • [A] pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party. Hence it is, that democracies have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
  • Human nature and politics: James Madison articulated it in Federalist No. 51, one of the founding documents of the inchoate United States, an analogue to what we’re about to embark on in colonizing the red planet:

    • But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
  • Why we have to get our politics right: Charles Krauthammer, Things that Matter, 2013:

    • Politics, the crooked timber of our communal lives, dominates everything because, in the end, everything—high and low and, most especially, high—lives or dies by politics. You can have the most advanced and efflorescent of cultures. Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away.

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This episode is sponsored by The Lost Debate and Wondrium:

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This episode was released on February 22, 2022.

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