Anocracies – And Thoughts on International Efforts Related to Conflict Prevention

Anocracy or semi-democracy is, according to Wikipedia, a “form of government that is loosely defined as part democracy and part dictatorship, or as a “regime that mixes democratic with autocratic features.” Another definition classifies anocracy as “a regime that permits some means of participation through opposition group behavior but that has incomplete development of mechanisms to redress grievances.” The term “semi-democratic” is reserved for stable regimes that combine democratic and authoritarian elements. Scholars have also distinguished anocracies from autocracies and democracies in their capability to maintain authority, political dynamics, and policy agendas. Similarly, the regimes have democratic institutions that allow for nominal amounts of competition. Such regimes are particularly susceptible to outbreaks of armed conflict and unexpected or adverse changes in leadership.”


In my blog post “Under The Hood” I wrote that I had pre-ordered “How Civil Wars Start And How To Stop Them”, written by Barbara F. Walter (Crown, 2022, Ebook ISBN 9780593137796). After its publication date it got delivered (in my case as an Apple iBook). I am reading it now, and it is as good as it was assessed in that New York Times book recension. As it was said in that recension, Barbara F. Walter spends much of the first half of the book on a profound history of nearly every civil war haunting mankind in the past many decades before beginning to apply the results of academic research of political scientists on civil wars to the situation of the United States of America.

I am through the first half of the book, and inasmuch as I am now keenly reading her account of the more recent developments in the U.S., I am not intending to write on that subject matter. I have an opinion there, and I share the author’s risk assessment, but this public discourse is already ongoing in the U.S.: Look here and here.

I wanted to reflect on a few general observations that stem from the book’s solid comparative approach of recent situations which led to wide-spread violence, and the solid and vast description of the state of affairs of a number of contemporary nation states. After all, no country is exempted from the danger of plunging into wide-spread violence, just pretending “It can’t happen to us” is nothing less than dangerous denial and wishful thinking of the ostrich burying her head in the sand. In this, Barbara F. Walter’s book establishes itself in the same rational and academic realm as the books “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism” by Anne Applebaum and “Fascism: A Warning” by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.


My line of work has frequently put me into situations where we have wondered how one can measure the risk of a country or constituency descending into violent forms of conflict, including civil war. On several occasions I have been part of the international community’s peacekeeping efforts following the outbreak and the aftermath of civil war. Operationally and strategically I was part of such efforts in Kosovo under the United Nations’ mandate through Security Council Resolution 1244. Strategically I was part of such efforts in situations such as in Sudan, South Sudan, Mali, the Central African Republic, Somalia, and several more.

Then there is peacebuilding: How to make sure that a successful peacekeeping engagement finds its continuation through peacebuilding, and leads to a stable peaceful environment that will not relapse into conflict? That’s one of the elements of my current line of work, or why I was operationally working in Bosnia&Hercegovina, or strategically in headquarters of UN and EU on a large number of similar situations in greater Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and the Carribean.

Finally, there is conflict prevention: I often sat in meetings with like-minded peacekeepers and peacebuilders where we dealt with conflict prevention. Meaning to extinguish the fire when it was starting small, or even better: To help keeping things stable long before they reach critical mass of instability, and to find ways helping a country, or a constituency, in efforts to resolve disputes peacefully, and to succeed in that. Here I will not give examples. There were a number of cases in which I participated and where we could help in de-confliction of interests, and peaceful resolving of grievances. Those cases did not lead to bad-news-stories, in the general public they went almost entirely unrecognized, and good-news-stories sometimes can not be told in order to keep the good news continuing.

Those stories also don’t sell. Even in the “normal” world of crime, crime prevention does not attract the same interest by readers as the gruesome murder story does. Prevention is the silent humble sister of the guys and gals in military and police fatigues. Repression, threat, coercion, and the use of force, all too often these stories outrun any peaceful piece of news. This is the achilles-heel of prevention, and exponentially more so since the advent of social-media, whose algorithms prefer stories, fake or true, that create viral attention: Stories that create anger will always knock out the stories of crime that never happened. Even cute-cats-stories outrun every story about a conflict which never happened because we all did the right things.


In all those discussions on how to prevent conflict better, we asked ourselves how to asses and to measure the risk of conflict with hard numbered indicators. I remember reading the book “The Responsibility To Protect” by Gareth Evans. Evans, one of the chief architects of a concept called R2P, which tragically failed, at one point mentions the many efforts of academia to come up with a measurable set of indicators. He stated that for many years there was inconclusive academic research on that. In his book he mentioned that only one hard statistical fact could be boiled down: That conflict is much more likely in a country where there was one -more recently- before.

For years, I accepted that. Barbara F. Walter’s book has profoundly changed this view. May be I did personally not notice, or may be it is more of a late-breaking recognition, but according to Walter political science has made tremendous progress and has developed a sophisticated set of predictors, or risk indicators, based on sound bodies of empirical data in at least three very large and internationally recognized data-sets. In order to keep this a relatively easy read, I won’t go into details. The book is very captivating and it is very comprehensible. I truly enjoy the way how hard science is transformed into popular language by Barbara F. Walter. There is no need to undergo a 101 course in political sciences, so instead of summarizing a detailed book, I recommend reading it yourself.


Walter’s book has drawn my attention to three factors that increase the potential for, and are the reasons for, civil wars. Academic research appears to have managed to put these three factors into a rock-hard framework of statistical measurability: (1) Transitions from one system of governance to another system of governance; (2) Factionalisation in societies; (3) The drastic effects of social media.


(1) Transitions from one system of governance to another system of governance

For me, one important contribution of Barbara F. Walter’s book sits with drawing attention to process, rather than a snapshot of a state of affairs in time. Any form of governance can be categorized, and put on a scale. A true representation of all common criteria for a democracy can put a State into a category of “best in class”. Another State can be a full representation of what we call an autocracy. That State would be on the opposite side of that scale. From the viewpoint of a true defender of democratic values, that would bring this State into the zone of “worst in class”. Of course, “the other side of the aisle” would disagree with that judgement, and there we are in a polarized discussion.

But the true focus of Barbara F. Walter is not on the snapshot where a State finds herself on such a scale. It is about the movement from one end to the other, in both directions, and it is about the speed of that process. A State can find herself on the path towards more autocratic forms of government, or on the path from autocratic governance towards democratic governance. Political science has established evidence for that the “middle zone” between one form of governance and another form of governance is the most dangerous and volatile area, and the faster the transitional process from democracy towards autocracy, or from autocracy to democracy, the more risk for wide-spread violence exists on a statistical level.

And this makes perfect sense. Here is my attempt to visualize it:

It means that the “door swings in both directions”: The risk of violence does not only exist in a situation where a country is slipping towards semi-autocratic or fully-autocratic forms of governance. The same risk exists in a situation where interested parties, supported by the international community for example, engage in promoting and establishing regime change towards democracy. Barbara F. Walter makes it clear that the risk for violence is highest when this process into either direction has placed the constituency in question into the middle zone, when transformational change is most unfinished, with the old being ripped down and the new not yet formed and rooted.

Secondly, science tells us that, again, the risk is quantifiably higher if the process of transformation is either too slow or too fast, for which there can be many reasons. From how I look at things from my own experience, it is scientific evidence for what happens when the international community pushes too fast, is compartmentalised in such efforts, displays not enough comprehensive depth in supporting transformational change, nor patience for a long-term coherent support approach based on vision and strategy. Which I often saw when international mandates and policy discussions were held unter terms such as “democratization”, or “state building”.


(2) Factionalisation in societies

The second aspect in Barbara F. Walter’s book is a comprehensive analysis of previous civil wars and the relation between constituencies moving into the “danger zone” of being an anocracy, and the existence of factions in these societies. Also here, the book is very comprehensive in giving a detailed account for a vast array of previous civil wars. In my reading this book, one aspect stood out: Any change of one system through which a state applies governance to citizens towards another set of governance rules inevitably leads to the demise of old elites and the struggle which is happening when new elites try to form, and old elites fight to participate in societal control, for their benefits. This is the second factor which makes the “danger zone” so volatile, and the book provides detailed analytical results to the question when, how, and why this leads to violence. I want to highlight one sentence:

“Remember, it’s not the desperately poor who start civil wars, but those who once had privilege and feel they are losing status they feel is rightfully theirs”.

Likewise I quote her account on a declassified CIA report from 2012: “Most insurgencies, the report notes, “pass through similar stages of development during their life cycle.” In the pre-insurgency phase, a group begins to identify a set of common grievances and build a collective identity around a gripping narrative—the story or myth that helps them rally supporters and justify their actions. They begin to recruit members, some of whom even travel abroad for training. They begin to stockpile arms and supplies.

I note that it is the last sentence which connects my current line of work with the larger picture.

Then Barbara F. Walter goes on to analyze the role of social media in contemporary conflicts:


(3) The drastic effects of social media

Social media acts like the proverbial gasoline poured on a fire. By now, many of us have begun to appreciate this very dark side of a technology which also has contributed so much to bringing us close together in a global world. The author’s account on how social media has been, and continues to be, systematically exploited by those who seek control, including by inciting violence, is nothing short of scathing criticism. Again, the book is unbiased by taking a very comprehensive view on situations of recent violence, and contemporary situations in countries all around the globe, within something which appears to be a rising global pattern of instability, emerging and brooding conflict. She refers to solid data that would allow to conclude that there is a clear connection between the exponential rise of volatile situations and war on one hand, and the the abuse of social media for that purpose on the other hand. It is here where the role of social media and its systematic and professional exploitation by reckless individuals and groups is pervasive. Whereas encouraging factionalism on religious, ethnic, racial, or any grounds has been the key defining modus operandi of individuals manipulating populations into fear and hate of the other, and the acceptance that “Dear Leader” may be the lesser evil, contemporary situations are characterised by a systematic manipulation of many, through some, using social media. The book demonstrates this in Myanmar, in countries in Europe including Eastern and Central Europe, and elsewhere, before even beginning to analyse what happened in the U.S. in recent years.

Our societies struggle with the question of how to apply accountability and regulative frameworks to this new phenomenon. Because, new it is: The effects of how social media can be used for manipulation, inciting hatred, and fueling violence, they may be just ten years old. But they are extremely transformative. And again, we see different approaches in relation to how to control social media in China or Russia, say compared to how open societies handle this challenge. But what we also see: Aspiring autocrats virtuously use social media to gain control. After that, these individuals will undertake everything to control the instrument they have used.

Because, they know better than anyone else how it can be used to their advantage, and against them.


This got long again. I leave it without conclusions, simply because there are so many. This is true for a paradigm change on how we consider engaging in conflict prevention in a world filled with old instruments of international order which require overhaul, or may be outdated if we don’t succeed in transforming them into effective tools. This is also true for how we accept our being affected by what we call “social media”. Personally, I feel this question may belong to the most important ones in our lifetime, in all aspects of our lives.

One thought on “Anocracies – And Thoughts on International Efforts Related to Conflict Prevention

  1. Pingback: On the rule of law and trusting it in times of misinformation and manipulation spread using social media | Stefan Feller

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