What a new U.S. civil war might look like
Following an earlier 2017 survey, Foreign Policy’s Best Defense blog opened a poll about the likelihood of a second U.S. Civil War.
By Chris Arkenberg
Best Defense Second Civil War correspondent
Following an earlier 2017 survey, Foreign Policy’s Best Defense blog opened a poll about the likelihood of a second U.S. Civil War. However, framing it as a second civil war embeds numerous assumptions about warfare on U.S. soil that are based more on history than the current reality of how power acts in the world. The distinction is critical to effectively counter the emergence of networked violence in America.
It’s easy to imagine that a second civil war might proceed like the first: two institutionalized factions wielding state militaries against each other along prescribed strategic fronts. Generals would choose a side, those with the most troops and firepower at their disposal would claim victory. The outcome, we imagine, would likely be a winner-take-all restructuring of the United States.
But that’s not really how wars are fought in the 21st century. Indeed, much of the last century was about deconstructing the habits of large-scale, state-driven conventional warfare. As networks distribute power to the edges, warfighting shifts further away from a handful of monolithic forces and towards a diverse web of small actors. Warfare now often proceeds from ideologically and economically marginalized communities whose suffering and fear is wielded by cunning global actors. They become guerrillas, rebel factions, proxies, and insurgencies. Sometimes they look more like tribal conflicts composed along racial, religious, familial or economic lines, often on top of resource crises that push violence to become a necessary solution. But they are rarely simple two-sided conflicts.
To neglect this distinction risks missing the signs of coordinated disruption and violence. If we keep thinking in terms of opposed armies, we’ll fail to develop effective strategies for recognizing and containing networked, hybrid warfare.
For the United States, the shape of future homeland conflicts will be asymmetrical, distributed, and heterogeneous. A contemporary homeland conflict would likely self-compose with numerous dynamic factions organized by digital tools around ideological and affinity networks. It would likely be a patchwork of affiliated insurgency groups and their counterparts engaging in light skirmishes along the overlapping edges of their networks, mixed with occasional high-value terror attacks against soft and hard targets. Such groups are much smaller than conventional militaries and where they lack in firepower, they wield transgression. As in Charlottesville and Berkeley, the fronts are less territorial than ideological.
Furthermore, digital networks erode the boundaries of the state. Like the Islamic State and al Qaeda, any cell can browse the literature, claim allegiance in some far-flung burb, and start whipping up violence against their targets. Antifa and the Alt-Right are a hodge-podge of varying affinities loosely coupled under their respective brand names with local chapters coordinated across global networks. These are not top-down hierarchies. They’re agile and shapeless with the capacity to grow quickly then disappear.
“One simply cannot explain the speed and scale at which the Islamic State formed without that network effect,” Emile Simpson commented in another Foreign Policy article trying to augur the tremors of a new world war.
Just as we risk missing the signs of networked violence, thinking in terms of a classic civil war can blind us to the many actors working to disrupt the U.S. from within and beyond our borders.
Behind the extremists are often additional layers of benefactors and provocateurs: oligarchs, plutocrats, transnational criminal networks, and foreign powers wielding them on both sides towards their strategic goals. We’ve seen this with Russian-backed Facebook groups organizing right wing protests in the U.S., and in the increasing regularity of information warfare originating from Macedonian server farms, reclusive billionaires, and adversarial governments.
With these characteristics in mind we can envision what a modern U.S. civil war might look like. More sporadic and unexpected conflicts but with fewer deaths. Factions sprouting like mushrooms, taking different forms but coordinated across invisible networks. Waves of information warfare. Chaos and an accelerated bazaar of violence with a healthy immune response from the local and national authorities. The outcome (and probable goal) would likely be a fragmentation of the republic into smaller, more manageable alliances, though it may just as easily harden an increasingly authoritarian federal government. This is essentially how Russia waged its non-linear war against Ukraine.
To counter this emerging threat in America it’s critical to establish more formal practices for identifying and tracking domestic extremism — with an honest recognition that young, white males on both ends of the political spectrum are the most likely to commit violence. Likewise, we must formalize robust network analysis to map and track these distributed groups across their digital territories and to identify their backers, funders, and agitators. Finally, there needs to be a very serious conversation about how to regulate Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter as platforms for influence, instigation, propaganda, and recruiting.
For now, America is held in line by a strong rule of law and a good-enough economy that most people still have something to lose by choosing violence. But as our government and corporate leaders continue to deconstruct rule of law and economic opportunity, the norms degrade and the space for transgression becomes bigger. To FP’s poll, my gut says the likelihood of a second U.S. civil war in the next five years is between 20 and 40 percent but trending upward significantly.
Chris Arkenberg studies the interaction of disruptive technologies and complex systems. He is a technology analyst and strategist for Fortune 500, non-profit, and government clients. Among other roles, he’s been an advisor to the CTO of the Nature Conservancy, a visiting futurist with the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, a senior lecturer at the California College of the Arts, and a visiting researcher at Institute for the Future.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
More from Foreign Policy
Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak
Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.
Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage
The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.
The West’s False Choice in Ukraine
The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.
Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.