How Civil Wars Start: Barbara F. Walter

Over the last couple of years, the most prominent minds in American political scientists have sought to make sense of record tensions through works like Lilliana Mason’s “Uncivil Agreement” and “Why We Are Polarized” by Ezra Klein(you can read our review of that HERE(
)). But in 2018, Barbara F. Walter intensified the conversation by evaluating an even more extreme scenario — what if the United States was heading toward civil war? Looking granularly at case studies from more than 30 years, Walter evaluates her question while giving both domestic and international extempers a framework to understand the recipe for sectional conflict.

The author begins the book by discussing several indicators of civil war. You could use her predictor as the A subpoint when asked to evaluate if a country may embark on civil war. Then, in your B subpoint, explain how the situation your question addresses, fails or meets the criteria. You could also work backward- understanding why civil wars start to prevent them. You may know nothing about Libya’s sectionalism, but understanding the broad recipe for civil war can give you an inference to jumpstart your in-round research! 

According to Walter, the strongest predictor of civil wars is democratization. Often, efforts to promote democracy don’t lead to any meaningful change, or worse, cause a deterioration of democratic practices. Even when nations become more democratic, leaders often withhold rights and freedoms, accumulating more power. Therefore, countries that are neither fully democratic nor autocratic, “anocracies,” as she calls them, are most vulnerable to civil war. 

  • The best example of Walter’s trend is Iraq. During the 26 years Saddam Hussein governed Iraq with an iron fist, violent political unrest and revolution were a rarity. But as George Bush pushed the country to democratize following the American invasion in 2003, conditions became ripe for subsequent sectarian and ethnic conflicts. 
  • The most critical civil wars of the modern-day— Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen— all stem from attempts to democratize, a fact that is incredibly helpful to support your analysis or use as an on top!
  • Tip: a piece of evidence you can use to corroborate the predictor is the Polity Project at The Center for Systemic Peace which provides a numerical rating of how democratic different countries are

But the question you(and your judge) are likely asking is: why is this trend true?

  • Undergoing democratic reforms weakens a regime’s institutional, political, and military hold on power. Leaders are especially vulnerable to attacks from opposition figures as democratization shifts social status creating insecurity and resentment. 

Next, Walter teaches some of the other causes. Ones particularly relevant to extemp include: 


  • According to the author, another cause of civil war is when the country fractures along ethnic lines. Ethno-nationalist and religious conflicts are characterized by powerful autocratics stoking fear based on religion, territory, ethnicity, or race. Therefore, ethnonationalism can run tandem with political or economic changes


  • Economic inequality among groups exacerbates ethnic tensions and regional tensions. Individuals may feel that their ethnicity is being cheated of riches, and globalization has caused urban centers to consolidate more wealth.  

Climate Change:

  • A 2016 Study in the Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences found that conflict was more likely in ethnically divided countries’ post-climactic events. Droughts, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes will cause more angst surrounding issues like migration, inequality, and instability. 

Social media:

By design, social media sources like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter fuel outrage and sectionalism. Algorithms intend to draw users’ attention, giving the most heated topics the limelight. Coupling this with fake news and misinformation makes social media a catalyst to accelerate underlying social divisions. Domestic extempers, look out for connections to Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter or Donald Trump’s access to social media!

Singular event:

  • Often, factors causing a civil war capitulate into civil war because of a single powerful trigger like a failed protest movement, election, natural disaster, or massacre. In competition, you could be asked if x event could trigger a civil war. In that case, reflect on Walter’s underlying instabilities to evaluate whether an event could push the country over the edge. 

In the book’s latter half, the author talks about how the criteria for civil war align with modern American politics. She concludes that while division in America has grown dramatically, the country can be saved from an emerging civil war. 

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