Geography is a defining feature of war. Yet, its importance to understanding the causes and consequences of civil war was not recognized until recently. Now, the availability of new data and updated research approaches are transforming the field, underscoring the importance of “geographic thinking:” using geography to define, study, and understand civil war and how it evolves over time. In this essay, I discuss some of these developments and their policy implications.
Recent claims about the risk of “a second civil war” in America have been garnering attention (1). Policymakers and scholars alike argue that weakened political institutions, unscrupulous leaders, and hard political polarization may intersect to make the unthinkable happen again. By focusing on these issues, however, they ignore a key factor that decides not only which countries will experience conflict, but also when and where war will start: geography.
In this article, I explore some implications of geography to our understanding of civil war, emphasizing how “geographic thinking” can improve our ability to prepare for – and ultimately prevent – civil war and other types of political violence. Most importantly, civil wars start in countries with governments that are too weak to prevent them, not because of anger and enmities; they do not take over an entire country all at once, but start in specific locales with high-risk factors. For policymakers, focusing on improving the capabilities to identify and preempt nascent threats, focusing specifically on the most susceptible locations within the country, is the most effective way of reducing the risk of civil war.
Geography shapes human behavior. It determines lifestyles, affects customs and cultures, and often dictates economic opportunity, for example, due to the availability of specific types of jobs. Likewise, the geographic environment can play a critical role in affecting the risk of civil war (which I define as events that are organized by clearly established rebel groups and involve at least two dozen combatant casualties, not “lone wolf” attacks or spontaneous riots), including not only how and why wars are fought, but also when conflict will erupt and whether it will spread or fizzle out.
Policymakers and the public believe we should look at governments, leaders, and the general socioeconomic standing and military capabilities of countries. Consider, for example, how Russia’s invasion into Ukraine is often framed as “Putin’s war” (2). This framing makes more sense in interstate war, or armed disputes between two states. Decisions related to diplomatic relations, status, territory, and military deployment are decided by the governments involved.
Intrastate – or civil – war, however, is a different story, but until recently scholars who study conflict did not even treat it as such. Since the end of the Cold War, policymakers became more interested in research on civil war (3). But instead of producing new research and policymaking that specifically focus on the unique aspects of civil war, they continued to focus on leaders and country-level factors when trying to understand domestic conflict. As it turns out, country-focused perspectives are too simplistic to provide actionable insight into the complex web of factors that drive political violence and the decisions made by rebel groups.
For example, a widely cited study found that weak states are more likely to experience civil war, even if their societies are not ethnically or religiously polarized (4). The explanation the authors offer is that the governments in these countries lack the military capacity to detect and effectively engage with emerging rebel groups. The emergence of rebellions in rural, especially mountainous areas, also makes it harder for militaries to fight, which gives rebels a chance to level the playing field.
From a scholarly perspective, the ability to collect and analyze local geographic data improves our understanding of how location, topography, and natural resources shape the risk of conflict beginning in specific locations. This has important implications for our ability to explain what drives civil war, and how policymakers may preempt it.
For example, while it is true that countries with weak governments are at a higher risk of experiencing conflict, looking at the local data can help pinpoint areas within such countries where conflict is most likely to break out. In a study my colleague and I published in 2018, we find that, within weak countries, which are at a greater overall risk of experiencing civil war, conflict is more likely to start in areas where national governments have more power (4), a finding that contradicts the claims rebellions start where the state cannot prevent them. We hypothesize that this has to do with both the motives of rebels – who want to conquer important areas, dealing a greater blow to the target government – and the composition of rebel groups, which often include elites who live in important cities or on military bases (in the case of coups d’état).
This is one illustration of how “geographic thinking” can help provide more complete answers to questions and policies that focus on risky political behaviors. By leveraging data that measure political and socioeconomic strength and importance over time, we can begin to identify and predict the timing and location of conflict outbreak.
With this in mind, let us revisit some recent fears about the risk of “a second civil war” in America. These claims rely on country-level data that do a poor job at capturing how the power of the U.S. government varies within the country. Most U.S. citizens live in cities, where the ability to monitor and address pre-planned, anti-state behaviors is very high. These cities may be more likely to experience less severe forms of government opposition, such as peaceful civil unrest or even spontaneous riots, but a strong government has a great advantage in preventing military organization there.
Even if insurgents may find it easier to organize in rural areas before moving into the city, the level of policing, even in rural areas in the U.S., is also higher and more aggressive compared with many other countries (5), allowing for potential threats to be identified and thwarted relatively early on. In remote and mountainous areas, the largest share of the human footprint is directly related to the Federal Government – such as the U.S. Park Service (6) – or big corporations, such as those for drilling oil and mining.
The security capabilities of the U.S. government, in other words, are strong, on average, across the entire country’s territories, which reduces the opportunity of anti-government groups to mount a significant challenge. While no country is fully immune to the risk of mass armed violence, studying local geographies is key in moving beyond country-level biases (7) and improving our understanding of how national and local governments can reduce the risks of civil war.
As rates of urbanization increase globally, climate change continues, and technology advances rapidly, the importance of understanding how local dynamics can shape conflict trends is also rising. These global changes and their impacts are hard to predict because rather than occurring slowly over time, they accelerate unevenly, producing sudden unanticipated threats. It is possible that at some point in the future—maybe when we reach a certain threshold of warming—we will face faster and more extreme changes in civil war due to environmental change. Or, maybe as more and more people around the globe live in cities, the nature and goals of rebel organizations will shift to satisfy their interests, generating new challenges in large cities.
As we move deeper into the 21st century, thinking geographically about conflict and its causes will not only be important, but also necessary as we seek to adapt to ever-changing physical and political environments.
- Walter, B. F. How civil wars start: And how to stop them. 2022.
- Schwirtz, M. et al. ” How Putin’s War in Ukraine Became a Catastrophe for Russia.” The New York Times, 2022.
- Mack, A. “Civil war: Academic research and the policy community.” Journal of Peace Research 39, 2002.
- Fearon, J. D., and Laitin, D. D. “Ethnicity, insurgency, and civil war.” American political science review, 2003.
- Koren, O., and Sarbahi, A. K. “ State capacity, insurgency, and civil war: A disaggregated analysis.” International Studies Quarterly, 2018.
- Cheatham, A., and Maizland, L. “How Police Compare in Different Democracies.” Council on Foreign Relations, 2022.
- Everhart, W. The national park service. 2019.
- Varshney, A. “Introduction: urban bias in perspective.” The Journal of Development Studies, 1993.