NEW YORK, December 23, 2011 (C-FAM )- For decades, a basic tenet of the international population-control lobby has been that declining fertility rates will generate a more stable international order. But according to an impressive panel of scholars who have contributed to a new book, this scenario of “geriatric peace” is untenably optimistic.
Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics is a collection of nine research essays, published by Potomac Books and edited by C-FAM senior vice president Susan Yoshihara and C-FAM senior fellow Douglas Sylva. In the book’s foreword, demographer and political economist Nicholas Eberstadt applauds its contributors for tackling the “profound and as-yet unanswered questions” associated with population decline and international politics.
The prevailing assumption that relatively old countries are predisposed automatically to peace is not historically defensible, as Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics points out. In the last century relatively aged regimes like Nazi Germany and Serbia in the 1990s were notable for their aggression against younger neighbors, and in classical history democratic Athens reacted to the demographic shock of a devastating plague by initiating a series of costly and ill-judged military actions.
Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics begins with three chapters, written by Phillip Longman, James R. Holmes and Francis Sempa, that set forth an analytical framework for assessing the interaction between geopolitics and demographic decline. The rest of the book is devoted to case studies of six key global actors: Russia, Europe and Japan, which are all wrestling with below-replacement fertility rates; the rising Asian powers of China and Japan, whose futures will be differentiated by strikingly different demographic profiles; and the United States, whose “demographic exceptionalism” makes it the only major developed power to resist depopulation.
In Russia, births declined by a stunning 50% during the period 1987–1999. Murray Feshbach analyzes the effects of this baby blight in the context of military recruitment. Exacerbated by the widespread incidence of HIV and tuberculosis, the country’s severe shortage of fit young males “will lead to a more tenuous situation in Russian society, including the military, than the economic dimension would portend,” Feshbach predicts.
Japan has sought to ameliorate its own demographic challenge by substituting high-tech weaponry for soldiers. In the process, “the minimal defense capabilities that Japan should retain as an independent nation have already been forfeited,” according to one Japanese general. These limitations might also restrict Japan from contributing effectively to regional military alliances. If so, Toshi Yoshihara warns in his strategic analysis, this “could add tremendous volatility to alliance politics and trigger competitive great power dynamics at the regional level that could nevertheless have global reverberations.”
Faced with similar demographic constraints, Europe is seeking to exercise “soft power” (as opposed to military and economic “hard power”) through its domination of multilateral institutions, and also on continued high immigration. Whether the multilateralist approach will be effective is entirely unknown, Douglas Sylva notes, while Europe’s fertility rates are now so low it would require an immigration influx far beyond what the continent can accommodate.
Sylva suggests European policymakers instead consider a radically different approach of trying to advantage their own native-born “family-oriented women” to increase birth rates. Writes Sylva, “Doing so, of course, would force Europe to abandon some of its most cherished tenets of feminism and multiculturalism, a step for which there is little evidence to suggest any European governments are prepared to take, despite the geopolitical consequences.”