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A Brave New Dangerous World

Updated: January 9, 2010 3:28 pm

Dual demographic trends in the developed and developing worlds point to increased future conflict and instability, Peter A Buxbaum writes Peter Buxbaum

“The world is entering a demographic transformation of historic and unprecedented dimensions.”

That was the essential message of a recently released monograph from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan Washington think tank. The coming demographic dislocations are beginning to attract the attention of geopolitical and military thinkers and planners.

Geopolitics, much like the local variety, is an intensely human endeavour. So is the expression of geopolitical aspirations in the form of war and armed conflict.

That explains why, when the United States Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) examined trends that will impact the future posture of US military forces, first and foremost on its list was demographics. Around the same time that JFCOM released its Joint Operating Environment report last month, the CSIS, which often contributes thought leadership to the US government, released The Graying of the Great Powers: Demography and Geopolitics in the 21st Century.

“In the future, conflicts will remain human,” Rear Admiral John Richardson, JFCOM’s director of strategy and policy, told ISN Security Watch. “That’s why demographics are important.”

“There is a growing interest in demographics among governments and policymakers,” added Richard Jackson, a senior fellow at CSIS and co-author of its report, in an interview. “The developed world is

rapidly approaching a demographic tipping point where the trends are about to turn negative. The window of opportunity to prepare for this challenge is now closing.”

In a nutshell, there are two broad demographic trends facing the world through 2030: A population boom in the developing world and population decline in the developed world.

The world will add 60 million people each year and reach a total of eight billion by the 2030s, noted the JFCOM report. Ninety-five per cent of that increase will occur in developing countries, many of which will experience “youth bulges”. A “youth bulge” is defined as the ratio of youth aged between 15 and 24 to the total population aged between 15 and over. Political demographers say youth bulges are predictors of civil unrest, revolution and war.

“The developed world confronts the opposite problem,” said the JFCOM report. “During the next 25 years population growth in the developed world will likely slow or in some cases decline.”

Russia’s population is already declining by one-half of one per cent annually, with the prospect that the decline will continue. Japan’s population will fall from 128 million to approximately 117 million in the 2030s due to a collapse in the country’s birth rate. China’s population will continue to grow over the next quarter century, but its population will age significantly because of the strict enforcement of the government’s family planning policy. The trend in the US differs from much of the rest of the developed world, thanks to higher fertility and immigration rates.


In addition to the population explosion in the developing world, there will also be increased migration to cities. Since conflict will occur where people are, from a military standpoint, “it is almost inevitable that forces will find themselves involved in combat or relief operations in cities,” said the JFCOM report.

“These urban settings are not going to be Manhattan,” said Richardson. “They are going to be sprawling structures where instability can easily brew. Growing populations put pressures on such basic resources as water and food. Where you see youth bulges is also where you see resource challenges.” Richardson sees future US forces increasingly being called upon by partner governments for urban crisis management.

Although US forces now have experience in urban warfare, thanks to operations in Iraq, cities are not the favoured battlegrounds. “Operations in urban terrain will confront joint force commanders with a number of conundrums,” said the JFCOM report. “The very density of building and population will inhibit the use of kinetic means, given the potential for collateral damage as well as large numbers of civilian casualties.” Such inhibitions could also increase US casualties, the report noted.

Demographic transformation response

Population trends in Russia are an emblematic although exaggerated example of what is occurring in much of the developed world. “Russia will be experiencing a population decline not seen since the plague of the Middle Ages,” said Jackson. “This is a cause for concern because an extreme misalignment of geopolitical aspirations and demographic fundamentals can lead countries to behave unpredictably.”

Will Russia meekly accept the fate of its demographic decline, or will this trend feed extremism and provoke aggression?

“Russia has window of opportunity that is closing soon,” said Joe Purser, director of the JFCOM Futures Group. “It may face a situation in 20 or 30 years when it will be unable to see to its own security.” Purser speculated that one possible Russian reaction will be to “establish a frontier of instability around the old Soviet states in order to maintain influence” in those areas.

Rapid demographic transition in Russia, and also in China, Iran and Pakistan, “could push them toward

civil collapse, or toward ‘neo-authoritarianism,’” said the CSIS report.

Youth and violence

These demographic trends will also make it less likely that nations in the developed world will sacrifice their youth in military adventures, according to the CSIS report, while “regions such as the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, where the youth bulge will reach over 50 per cent of the population, will possess fewer inhibitions about engaging in conflict.”

The CSIS report also identified a “correlation between extreme youth and violence”. The likelihood of violence “grows explosive” when the youth bulge exceeds 35 per cent, according to JFCOM. The youth bulges in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, as well in Iraq, Syria, the Palestinian territories, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan, already exceed that level, the JFCOM report noted.

Contrary to popular opinion, the violence engendered by a youth bulge does not necessary correlate with the failure of the local society to keep up an adequate rate of economic development.

“Some of the East Asian tigers are cases in point,” noted Jackson. “A rapidly transitioning developing world is likely to be a riskier world,” the CSIS report concluded, without regard to rates of economic growth.

“There is a paradox of development,” Jackson explained, “in which rising per capital income can be destabilising in the short and medium run” even as it promotes stability in the long run. Among the reasons for this phenomenon are: Massive internal migrations, which loosen extended family ties and exacerbate ethnic tensions.

Demographics and development

The United States faces a different scenario than much of the rest of the developed world, by both the JFCOM and CSIS accounts, with its population increasing by 50 million to a total of 355 million by 2030.

“This growth will result not only from births in current American families,” said the JFCOM report, “but also from continued immigration, especially from Mexico and the Caribbean, which will lead to major increases in America’s Hispanic population.”

The US has a current fertility rate of 2.6, 2.0 being the replacement rate, the highest in the developed world, and 1.9 when the Hispanic population is subtracted out, still high for a developed country. “This means that the US will have a growing workforce whereas elsewhere in the developed world it will be stagnating or declining,” said Jackson.

The major implications of these dual population trends are that “the population and GDP of the developed world will steadily shrink as a share of the world’s total,” said the CSIS report. “In tandem, the global influence of the developed world will likely decline.”

On the other hand, “The population and GDP of the United States will steadily expand as a share of the developed world’s total. The influence of the United States in the developed world will likely rise.”

This means the US must be prepared for an even larger role than it now has in maintaining global security, said CSIS, and that “leaders in the United States, Europe, and Japan need to acknowledge and prepare for this reality, while seeking ways to strengthen multilateralism”.

The CSIS monograph recommends enhanced investments from the developed world in development assistance and soft power in order to prevent the stresses in the developing world from rapid demographic, economic and social change from erupting into security threats. The developed world must also be perceived as the champions of the young and the aspiring. “If they are unwilling to commit substantial resources to helping young nations, the global appeal of their values and ideals will diminish,” said the CSIS report.

One major obstacle to allocating the kinds of resources contemplated by CSIS is the increasing burden of aging populations on the resources of developed countries. But what hangs in the balance is not only the security and economic well-being of developing world populations, but what JFCOM’s Joint Operating Environment terms the “battle of the narrative”. (ISN)

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