The Evolving View of Population as a National Security Variable

Between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, social scientists saw the national security effect of population principally as a function of how aggregate population size affected the power potential of a given nation-state.[1] This "static" intellectual approach saw population size and density as being one independent variable in an aggregate "bucket of capabilities" that determined a country's level of power and influence in the international system. Perhaps this approach is best typified by the realist scholar Hans Morgenthau in his seminal 1948 book Politics Among Nations.[2] Morgenthau opined that the elements of national power include geography, natural resources, industrial capacity, military preparedness, population, national character, national morale, and the quality of government.[3] He does not seem to have explicitly considered how the interactions between, say, population size and natural resources might affect a nation's ability to exercise power. Others, like Klaus Knorr, Kenneth Waltz, and Clifford German, followed more or less in Morgenthau's footsteps, with varying levels of quantitative sophistication.[4]

In the 1980s and 1990s, portions of the national security community in North America have embraced two other visions of how demographic factors might affect international security. The first can be loosely termed the "dynamic" paradigm of population and national security. This new, more "dynamic" paradigm emphasizes not population size as a component of national power calculations, but rather the interactions between population pressures and environmental degradation, mass migrations, resource depletion, forced refugee flows, ethnic conflict, hypernationalism, and urbanization in order to understand the roles that population factors play as both independent and dependent variables in the occurrence of armed conflict.[5] Scholars like Homer-Dixon and Gleick do not see demographic factors as just a determinant of national power potential, but instead have come to identify changes in population sizes and patterns as both catalysts and shapers of political instability and armed conflict.

Why has this dynamic view attracted more interest in the recent past? One can posit two logical reasons: the end of the Cold War's bipolar U.S.-USSR competition, and increasing globalization. As the Cold War wound down, conflict became more regionalized and the previous narrow focus of most American security analysts upon the Central European conventional military balance and strategic nuclear arms control suddenly broadened to include other important regions of the world--regions where population pressures were thought to be driving some of the security problems that local elites worried about. Second, the increasing globalization of Western economic and security interests is making the spillover effects of demographic pressures, even in regions remote from Europe, North America, or Northeast Asia, hard to ignore.[6] There are many in the U.S. foreign and security policymaking community who argue that the continued stability of the current liberal international order is dependent upon the ability of the Western industrialized nations to prevent regions of anarchy from developing in which basic human rights cannot be even partially respected. Demographic factors such as differential fertility rates between ethnic groups and the existence of large refugee populations are, in turn, helping to drive the political problems that many of these particular regions face. Although one should be careful not to overstate the importance of economic interdependence, it is clear that these linkages and feedback loops between demographic shifts in developing regions and America's interests as the world's sole superpower need to be better understood by intelligence analysts, diplomats, and national security planners.

Overall, the emergence of the new dynamic school of thought concerning demographics and national security is a positive development for three reasons. First, it provides American policymakers with a new set of indicators and warning (I&W) measures with which to pinpoint "zones of danger" where conflict may be looming. If such a zone were to coincide with a region of vital interest for Washington, these measures could afford ample time for policymakers to formulate political intervention strategies that might head off impending conflict and allow the United States to avoid the need for a potentially costly military intervention. Second, the dynamic school serves the longer-term purpose of allowing the United States to better target its modest foreign aid resources, focusing them on regions where they might prevent some of the negative strategic consequences of intense population pressures. Third, it will help defense decisionmakers to make some educated predictions about the nature of future warfare in the developing world and to propose new operational concepts, tactics, and technologies the U.S. military may wish to consider as it tries to better prepare itself to meet the challenges posed by the next generation of armed conflicts.

A second alternative to the classical static approach that has emerged can be called the "human capital" paradigm of population and national power. Originally generated in the academic economist community in the 1960s, this view holds that the quality and skill level of a labor force is the most important demographic variable contributing to overall national power and thus, by definition, national security.[7] The human capital approach sees the overall skill and flexibility level of a nation's labor force (especially in technology-intensive areas such as engineering) to be the primary guarantor of prosperity and leverage in the international arena.[8] Many of the exponents of this paradigm in the 1970s and 1980s were analysts of the rise of the East Asian "miracle economies" of that period, and they often argued that traditional politico-military notions of security were being rendered obsolescent by the growing preeminence of economic and technological innovation capabilities in the new global power equation.

Despite the fact that this report looks at the effect of demographic factors upon national security primarily through the lens of the dynamic paradigm, one should certainly not disregard either the classical or the human capital approach to the problem. Indeed, the majority of national security analysts can still be said to be adherents of the classical static view of the issue.[9] Total population size is not irrelevant to assessments of national power nor to nations' choices as to how they can best meet their security needs. By the same token, there is also continued value in the human capital paradigm in that this way of looking at demographic factors offers intelligence analysts a set of tools for predicting which nation(s) could eventually become a peer or near-peer competitor to the United States. Any country seeking to actively compete with the United States outside of its immediate home region will almost certainly have to develop a capacity for the type of military-technical innovation that can best be assessed by the human capital paradigm.


[1]My understanding of how population was viewed as an element of national power in the traditional realist school of political science has been enhanced by the ongoing work of RAND colleague Ashley Tellis.

[2]See Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations, 4th ed., New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1967.

[3]Ibid., pp. 106-158.

[4]See Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics, Reading, MA, Addison-Wesley, 1979; Klaus Knorr, The War Potential of Nations, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1956; and F. Clifford German, "A Tentative Evaluation of World Power," Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 4, 1960.

[5]Some of the major works coming from this school of thought are Thomas F. Homer-Dixon, "On the Threshold: Environmental Changes as Causes of Acute Conflict," International Security, Vol. 16, No. 2, Fall 1991, pp. 76-116; Nazli Choucri (ed.), Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Population and Conflict, Syracuse, NY, Syracuse University Press, 1984; Janet Welsh Brown (ed.), In the U.S. Interest: Resources, Growth, and Security in the Developing World, Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1990; Jessica Tuchman Mathews, "Redefining Security," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 68, No. 2, Spring 1989; and Arthur Westing (ed.), Global Resources and International Conflict: Environmental Factors in Strategic Policy and Action, New York, Oxford Press, 1986.

[6]The ripple effects of the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis show the impact of increasing globalization. For perspectives on the continuing Asian economic crisis, see Martin Feldstein, "Refocusing the IMF," Foreign Affairs, March/April 1998, pp. 20-33; Paul Dibb, David D. Hale, and Peter Prince, "The Strategic Implications of Asia's Economic Crisis," Survival, Vol. 40, No. 2, Summer 1998, pp. 5-26; and Shalendra D. Sharma, "Asia's Economic Crisis and the IMF," Survival, Vol. 40, No. 2, Summer 1998, pp. 27-52.

[7]Two works in particular mark the birth of the human capital approach. See Theodore Schultz, "Investment in Human Capital," American Economic Review, March 1961, pp. 1-17; and Edward Denison, The Sources of Economic Growth in the United States and the Alternatives Before Us, New York, Committee for Economic Development, 1962.

[8]See C. Freeman, The Economics of Industrial Innovation, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1982; and R. H. Rothwell and W. Zegveld, Industrial Innovation and Public Policy, London, Frances Pinter, 1981.

[9]For a generally skeptical view of what I have called the "dynamic" model, see Daniel Deudney, "The Case Against Linking Environmental Degradation and National Security," Millenium, Vol. 19, No. 3, Winter 1990, pp. 461-476.


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