As American policymakers stand on the threshold of the 21st century, they tend to view weapons proliferation, hypernationalism, ethnic and tribal conflict, political repression, and protectionism as the principal threats to the open, liberal international order they are trying to create. All of these factors are indeed dangerous and worthy of attention, but the risks posed to U.S. security interests around the world by demographic factors must not be neglected either. The dynamics of population growth, settlement patterns, and movement across borders will have an effect on international security in the upcoming decades, and Washington can do much to solidify its geopolitical position in critical regions by anticipating demographic shifts that have security implications and by working with allies, friends, and international organizations to deal effectively with the causes and consequences of these shifts. While demographic phenomena per se are seldom a cause of conflict, they can--in particular environments--heighten existing tensions or exacerbate other factors that precipitate armed conflicts. Demographic factors are therefore to be viewed as one set of many factors potentially contributing to armed conflict, interacting with others in a complex series of linkages.

The principal aim of this report is to provide a framework for understanding the influence of demographic factors on international security issues. Specifically, three major questions are addressed:

  • What current demographic trends pose international security concerns?
  • What are the security implications of these trends?
  • What are the implications for U.S. foreign, defense, and intelligence policies?

Current Demographic Trends

Three current demographic trends appear most relevant for security considerations:

  • The increasing bifurcation of developing nations into those that are experiencing fertility rate reductions and those that are not.
  • Chronic low fertility in many developed nations.
  • Increasing urbanization of the world's population. Each of these is explored in more detail below.
Bifurcation of Developing Nation Fertility Patterns

Recent middle-range estimates predict that the Earth's population could increase from 6 billion in 1999 to 7.3 billion in 2025 and 9.4 billion in 2050. Ninety-five percent of this growth will take place in the developing world. Some developing countries, like Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have persistent high fertility rates (6.5 and 6.6 children per woman respectively). These countries are at least two generations away from reaching a low rate of long-term population growth. On the other hand, another group of developing states have lower fertility rates closer to replacement level (2.1), including Brazil (2.5), Mexico (3.1), Egypt (3.6), India (3.4), and Indonesia (2.7). These nations are probably one generation away from population stabilization. This bifurcation of developing world fertility patterns is noteworthy as it makes it easier for the analyst to highlight specific regions where demographic factors could increase instability.

Chronic Low Fertility in the Developing World

By contrast, in the wealthier, developed nations of Europe and East Asia, prevailing fertility rates are low and population size is static or declining and its profile is graying. Some of America's key NATO allies fall into this category. Italy and Spain share the lowest fertility rate in the world at 1.2 children per woman. Germany's population is actually declining, with a -0.1 percent annual growth rate. Britain and France are both experiencing very low growth, while Russia is facing long-term population decline. Japan and Singapore are the clearest examples of low growth in Asia. The United States is also a relatively low-growth state, but its circumstances are not as extreme as those seen in Europe because of the effects of larger immigration inflows as well as a somewhat higher national fertility rate.

Increasing Urbanization in the Developing World

In the year 2000, half of the world's population will be urban, compared to only 17 percent in 1950. The most rapid urban population growth is taking place in the developing world. In 2000, Africa will have 50 cities with a million or more residents, Asia will have 160, and Latin America will house 75 percent of its inhabitants in urban areas. Perhaps most revealing of all is the fact that, in 2015, there will be 23 megacities (cities with populations greater than 10 million) in the developing world. Such urban growth will present severe challenges to those regimes whose national urban infrastructure is already under strain.

Security Implications of Key Demographic Trends

The above mentioned trends have security implications in three areas. First, they are changing the nature of armed conflict. Second, they are affecting the nature of the sources of national power, and third, they are influencing the most likely sources of future conflict.

Changing Nature of Conflict

Current demographic trends imply potential changes in the nature of future conflicts. These changes are likely to follow from the increasingly urban character of the world's population and the new prominence of two strategic instruments of armed conflict, namely ethnic diasporas and the manipulation of natural resource availability.

First, increasing urbanization in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America has implications for both high- and low-intensity future conflict. Relatively more conflict may take place against an urban backdrop, creating challenges for U.S. ground forces operating in the developing world.

At the high-intensity end of the conflict spectrum, urban conflict presents particular challenges to U.S. conventional warfare capability and doctrine. The U.S. military's technological advantages in long-range precision fires and information processing will be largely nullified in cities by restrictions on movement and line of sight as well as by the likely presence of large numbers of civilians, some of whom may even be used as human shields by the adversary. An example of the severe challenges posed to modern armies by skilled opponents taking advantage of urban terrain appears in the 1994-95 Battle of Grozny. There, numerically and technologically inferior Chechens inflicted heavy casualties on the attacking Russian forces. Indeed, the clumsy and ruthless manner in which the Russians finally captured the city helped to turn Russian public opinion against the Chechen War and thus paved the way for Russia's ultimate military defeat in that conflict.

In the realm of low-intensity conflict, there are also reasons to expect more urban conflict in the future. The increased proportion of national populations in the developing world residing in cities means that urban areas will likely become even more important political centers of gravity than in the past. A greater fraction of the core economic and political activities of developing states will be taking place in cities. Furthermore, the ongoing process of urbanization is accompanied by a discrediting of the Maoist insurgency doctrine that favored rural over urban insurgent activities. Finally, the squalid living conditions that exist in the rings of slums that now surround many large Third World cities are becoming a fairly permanent condition. These areas are where many of the recent migrants live, and their desperate straits could prove to be fertile ground for radical and revolutionary groups that seek new recruits in their battle against the existing regime.

Second, demographic patterns are increasing the strategic importance of two instruments of conflict: ethnic diasporas and the manipulation of renewable resources availability.

Ethnic diasporas are not new. However, advances in transportation and communications over the past 30 years have increased their size, visibility, and impact. Within ethnic diasporas there are activist groups that could become a strategic asset their home countries and territories can draw upon to help them achieve regional politico-military objectives. The growing web of information, communications, and mass media links, including the Internet, international TV news networks, and global banking nets, increases opportunities for globally distributed ethnic diasporas to play a key role in military campaigns involving their home state or territory. As time goes on, some diasporas may acquire more influence upon the military balance in their home regions. There might even be cases where rival diasporas themselves engage in violent conflict in their host countries in order to advance the causes of their respective home states.

Renewable resources, like water, have a growing potential as instruments of coercion in wartime. Demographic change is a key part of this emergence because an increasing number of pivotal developing countries in arid regions like the Middle East are experiencing high population growth, which is straining water supplies. Such states thus become especially susceptible to wartime coercive pressure from neighboring adversaries who are better endowed with water. In the 21st century, more and more armed conflicts in geopolitically important regions may feature the "water weapon" being used as a strategic instrument of wartime coercion, thus fostering new types of military tactics, targets, and operational concepts.

When surveying the globe's high-population-growth flashpoints, one can quickly find several where the geography of regional water supplies creates opportunities for a local military power to use water supply constriction as an instrument of military coercion. One of the most notable is the Euphrates River region in southern Turkey, Syria, and northern Iraq. Turkey's Grand Anatolia project to increase hydroelectricity production with the construction of new dams will restrict the flow of Euphrates water to Syria by 40 percent and to Iraq by 80 percent; this project will also grant the Turkish government the latent ability to cut off all Euphrates water to Syria and Iraq if it so desires.

While this option has not yet been exercised, it is a potent card that Ankara could someday play in the event of war with either Syria or Iraq over the thorny Kurdish question, since population increases in these states are creating a looming condition of water scarcity. The seriousness of any river water cutoff for these two Arab states is demonstrated by data indicating that 79 percent of Syria's surface water and 66 percent of Iraq's surface water is imported from outside their borders. Another zone of relative water scarcity with major security issues is the Nile River region in northeastern Africa. Egypt is almost totally dependent on the Nile for its water supplies, and Egypt's burgeoning population is already placing pressure on the existing yearly flows of river water. The problem for the Egyptians is that the Nile's runoff originates in several Central African nations located to the south of Egypt, not all of which have had placid relations with Cairo in the past. Of special concern to the Egyptian leadership are the future actions of Sudan on the water issue. Sudan is an Islamic fundamentalist state that may have ambitions to constrain Egyptian power and influence in Africa. In any Egyptian-Sudanese conflict, Sudan's control over at least a portion of the Nile "spigot" would cause headaches for Egypt's military leaders. Egypt's position as a major American ally in the Middle East makes this scenario worthy of some scrutiny in Washington.

Changing Sources of Military Power

Stagnant population growth in the developed nations and high growth in the developing nations have distinct consequences for the sources of military power on which both kinds of nations are able to draw.

Low-growth states. Low growth has two great military implications for those states that face it. First, shrinking youth cohorts mean that the military forces they can put into the field will become progressively smaller in terms of personnel. This is probably not critically dangerous because the growing prominence of technology suggests that numbers may matter somewhat less on future battlefields. Second, increasing numbers of elderly citizens at the top of the age pyramid will demand increasing amounts of government funding for pensions, medical care, etc., which could "crowd out" significant amounts of defense investment. Fiscal challenges such as these will undoubtedly reduce the funds available for defense over the long run in the major European NATO nations and in Japan.

As a consequence, military forces in low-growth states are likely to shift from manpower-intensive forces to capital-intensive forces. Many European states are already moving away from large conscript armies oriented to territorial defense and toward smaller, professional forces focused more on expeditionary operations on the European periphery. These forces will be kept at a higher state of readiness than the old territorial defense forces. Smaller force structures will also free up funds for investment in new weapon systems. Germany is the one major exception in this area, as Berlin continues to hold on to the notion of a conscript army. However, both Britain and France are moving clearly in the direction of smaller, more capable, and more deployable military force structures. Britain's recently completed Strategic Defense Review mandated a leaner, more technologically advanced force that is better able to operate in multinational coalitions. France, under the Jospin government, is moving forward with efforts to end conscription and cut back the number of its uniformed military personnel from 502,000 to 352,000.

Also, investments in human capital will become relatively more important to low-growth militaries. With fewer soldiers available, the levels of training and experience in the force will become critical to battlefield performance. The value of each individual soldier, sailor, and airman to these militaries will increase as long as national youth cohorts remain relatively small.

The skyrocketing costs of advanced military procurement projects make it likely that low-growth countries will seek to leverage multinational cooperation to maintain military power. In Europe, there will have to be an acceleration of current trends toward multinational procurement and multinational force structures if the West Europeans are to retain great military power. This is because the demands of supporting increasingly elderly populations will crowd out much of the funding individual European nations would need in order to purchase and support advanced new weapon systems on a national basis. If the West Europeans are unable to successfully substitute capital for manpower in their force structures, invest wisely in the human capital that remains, and solidify multinational defense linkages, then their military capability may decline in the next 10-20 years.

High-growth states. High-growth states in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East face a different set of problems. They have a surplus of youth for their armed forces; their concerns are with the quality, not the quantity, of the forces. The need to train a large cohort of 18- to 20-year-olds each year for military service can dilute these organizations' ability to make use of the types of advanced, integrated weapon systems often necessary for success in modern conventional warfare.

There are three imperatives driving various high-population-growth nations to maintain large standing armies.

  • There is an economic need to draft large numbers of youth each year in order to keep the unemployment rate at an acceptable level and preserve social stability.
  • Many developing nations see the military as a vehicle for imbuing young people with a spirit of pride and faith in their nation; armies can be a tool for increasing social cohesion, especially in states with multiethnic populaces.
  • There is the internal security function. Some developing states need large armed forces and paramilitary auxiliaries to preserve order and protect the regime from insurrection.
Many developing states deal with the conflicting demands of domestic politics and military quality by creating bifurcated force structures in which perhaps one-half to three-quarters of the force is made up of low-quality infantry units designed mainly for the purpose of internal policing and/or static defensive duties in wartime. The top one-quarter to one-half of the force structure will consist of elite units designed for conventional warfare or complicated counterinsurgency operations. Thus, although many developing states will maintain large armies on paper, their real combat power in conventional wars will be contained in a relatively small number of elite formations.

Demographic Factors and the Sources of Conflict

Demographic factors can also help cause conflicts that threaten American interests. The most likely mechanisms through which this could happen would be mass migrations or refugee flows in politically tense regions (e.g., the forced outflow of large numbers of Kosovar refugees into Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro in the spring of 1999), the creation of ideological revolutions in large states, or the outbreak of ethnic conflict in states with an intermixed pattern of ethnic settlements.

Refugee (and sometimes migrant) flows can result in security problems for either the home or the host country. The home country faces the risks that the departed refugees will use the host nation as a springboard to mount political or military actions aimed at weakening or overthrowing the government of the home nation. Host countries probably face even greater security risks as a result of refugee flows. Two types of risk that can be faced by host countries are the chance that the national infrastructure will be severely overburdened (causing political instability) and that significant refugee/migrant inflows could rapidly change the ethnic composition of the affected area.

Some high-fertility developing states contain radical political movements on the fringes of their political spectra. In these states, the emergence of high structural unemployment at a time when the national age pyramid is highly skewed in favor of 18- to 24-year-olds may result in many of the youthful unemployed coming to support the radical political alternatives. If the elites in these radical political movements can effectively mobilize these youths, then a full-scale revolution may occur. Successful ideological revolutions in turn tend to produce states that serve as lightning rods for armed conflict, either because of conscious effort to spread messianic political messages by force to their neighbors or because of the threat their neighbors perceive them to pose.

In states with ethnically intermixed patterns of population settlement, any significant loss of central government legitimacy or control, when coupled with the existence of nationalist history among one or more of the ethnic groups involved, can provide the spark needed to ignite a violent conflagration. Intermixed patterns of settlement contain within them an inherently greater risk of conflict than do situations in which a minority ethnic group is clearly concentrated within a well-defined geographical area. The situation can become especially volatile if there are diverging fertility rates between two resident ethnic groups.

Implications for U.S. Policy

There are three types of responses the United States could make to better handle demographically driven challenges to its security interests in the future: research/analytical, development assistance, and focused military preparedness.

Research and Analytic Capabilities. The United States could improve its long-run geopolitical position in the world by paying more attention to demographically oriented I&W (indicators and warning) measures. More emphasis could be placed upon understanding how demographic pressures might be constraining the actions of key allies, increasing frictions among key regional powers, and/or laying the foundations for ethnic conflict.

Development Assistance. A better understanding of the potential impacts of demographic pressures could allow the United States to target foreign aid more precisely to help achieve foreign policy objectives. Targeting foreign aid may help some key friends and allies to better manage the effects of rapid population growth, allowing them to better conserve resources and have time to reform their political systems to take into account emerging demographic realities.

In certain circumstances, U.S. foreign aid could help governments that wish to take the direct approach of reducing their fertility rates outright in order to improve economic development. This could be done either by funding family-planning efforts or by funding programs to improve literacy among women (which usually result in lowered fertility rates). Recent RAND research indicates that a number of developing countries, such as Egypt, Malawi, Bolivia, and the Philippines, have an interest in reducing fertility rates and would be receptive to more American aid in this area.

Focused Military Preparedness. From the Pentagon's standpoint, the most important consequence of demographic trends is the increasing urbanization of conflict. This trend is well recognized by senior military leaders, and much thought is currently being given to appropriate tactics, training, and technologies for urban warfare.

In the short term, training is where U.S. forces can gain the greatest improvement in urban fighting capabilities. Over the longer term, new technologies offer opportunities for improving the ability of U.S. ground forces to operate in urban areas during both high- and low-intensity conflicts. Better intelligence-gathering platforms will be critical here. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with improved sensor suites and microsensors that are based on the emerging field of nanotechnology are two options for enhancing intelligence gathering in urban operations. Better protection for personnel, such as body armor, is another appropriate area for research. Finally, the likely presence of large numbers of civilians in contested urban areas, especially during "operations other than war," makes the pursuit of a new generation of nonlethal weaponry a worthy endeavor as well.