Expert on civil wars warns US faces 'downward spiral of instability'

Expert on civil wars warns US faces 'downward spiral of instability'

In the past, Barbara F. Walter — author the new book “How Civil Wars Start, and How to Stop Them” — served on an advisory panel for the Central Intelligence Agency, she helped CIA agents identify signs that a country is facing serious political instability and the potential for widespread conflict. Now, in 2022, Walter is pointing to her own country, the United States, as a country with that potential.

Walter, in an op-ed published by the Washington Post on January 24, compares the political tensions in the U.S. to what she observed in other countries in the past.

“I will never forget interviewing Berina Kovac, who had lived in multi-ethnic Sarajevo in the early 1990s, when Bosnia and Herzegovina (were) moving toward independence from Yugoslavia,” Walter recalls. “Though militias had begun to organize in the hills and former colleagues increasingly targeted her with ethnic slurs, Kovac continued to go to work, attend weddings and take weekend holidays, trusting that everything would work out.”

“One evening in March 1992,” Walter continues, “she was at home with her infant son when the power went out. ‘And then, suddenly,’ Kovac told me, ‘you started to hear machine guns.’ The civil war that followed, however, was not surprising to those who had been following the data. A year and a half earlier, the CIA had issued a report predicting that Yugoslavia would fall apart within two years and that civil war was a distinct possibility. One reason, the agency noted, was that citizens were organizing themselves into rival ethnic factions — which tends to occur in societies that political scientists call ‘anocracies.’”

Walter goes on to explain what an “anocracy” is and why the Center for Systemic Peace (CSP), at one point, considered the U.S. an “anocracy.”

“Anocracies are neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic,” Walter explains. “Their citizens enjoy some elements of democratic rule, e.g., elections, while other rights — e.g., due process or freedom of the press — suffer. In the last weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency, the respected Center for Systemic Peace (CSP) calculated that, for the first time in more than two centuries, the United States no longer qualified as a democracy. It had, over the preceding five years, become an anocracy. That rating improved to ‘democracy’ just this month, but to put it in perspective, the current U.S. score is the same as Brazil’s 2018 rating — the most recent available for that country — which was two points below Switzerland’s.”

When Trump “attempted to halt the peaceful transfer of power” following the United States’ 2020 presidential election, Walter notes, the CSP believed the U.S. had slipped into “anocracy” territory.

“Anocracy, not autocracy, is our most immediate threat,” Walter warns. “Anocracy is usually transitional — a repressive government allows reforms, or a democracy begins to unravel — and it is volatile. When a country moves into the anocracy zone, the risk of political violence reaches its peak; citizens feel uncertain about their government’s power and legitimacy. Compared with democracies, anocracies with more democratic than autocratic features are three times more likely to experience political instability or civil war.”

When Walter appeared on Joy Reid’s show, “The ReidOut” on MSNBC on January 11, she laid out some reasons why — as someone who has studied civil wars around the world — she finds the United States’ political divisions so troubling. The modern-day Republican Party, Walter told Reid, is obsessed with White “identity” politics rather than “ideology,” and White Americans on the far right fear becoming a minority in the future.

Walter has also discussed her concerns with Reid’s MSNBC colleagues Mehdi Hasan and Lawrence O’Donnell.

“If experts like those who prepared the CIA report on Yugoslavia had assessed the United States at the end of Trump’s term, they would almost certainly have deemed us at ‘high risk’ of instability and political violence,” Walter writes in her Post op-ed. “The United States was an anocracy, the CSP found, with parties increasingly organized around identity-based grievances. These underlying forces are not going away. We could easily slip back into anocracy. This is what average citizens should be thinking about when they hear that America’s democracy is declining. They are being led, unaware, into a downward spiral of instability, in which extremists and opportunists spread fear — and then grab power by force.”


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