For better or worse, ours is a time of rapid and pronounced demographic change. For hundreds, if not thousands, of years before the Industrial Revolution, the pace of global population change was negligible. By some estimates population grew by roughly 14 percent per century between the years 1000 and 1750. At current rates the same proportionate growth is achieved in less than eight years.

Over the past few generations demographic change has not only radically altered human numbers but has profoundly affected their composition and global distribution. While the role of population in world affairs may seem self-evident, its relevance to state power and national security is often far from obvious.

Demographic change is but one factor limiting a state's ability to impose its will abroad or maintain itself at home. It might be—but need not be—a major consideration. Indeed, the impact of demographic change is often difficult to gauge. Demographic forces do not typically exert a single pressure on a society or state. Furthermore some demographic projections have proved famously wrong, and there is little reason to believe that new predictions will turn out much better.

Regardless of their exact calibrations, virtually all current population projections anticipate comparatively slow population growth in today's more developed regions (Europe, the Soviet Union, Japan, North America and Oceania) and comparatively rapid growth for the less developed regions (the rest of the world). With variations, these projections point to a continuation of trends evident since the end of World War II. If these trends continue for another generation or two, the implications for the international political order and the balance of world power could be enormous.


Perhaps no demographic trend in the postwar era has aroused as much public concern as the acceleration of population growth in low-income countries. Between 1950 and 1985, according to the most recent estimates of the United Nations' Population Division, the population of the more developed regions grew by about 41 percent. During that same period the population of the less developed regions increased by about 119 percent, or almost three times as fast. Although the tempo of growth varied by country and year, this "population explosion" has affected virtually every society in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The total population of these areas was thought to be growing by over 80 million annually in the late 1980s, and the rate of growth may have risen slightly in recent years.

Western policy circles often view rapid population growth in the Third World as a serious problem, sometimes a pressing one. Rapid growth of poor populations, by these arguments, can only speed the spread of poverty. Population growth, moreover, is envisioned as "eating away" at economic growth in poor countries, reducing or altogether canceling potential improvements in living standards and aggravating such conditions as poor health, malnutrition, illiteracy and unemployment.

The political implications of such trends are often described as ominous. By some assessments rapid population growth threatens to destabilize governments in low-income countries—through food shortages, for example, or by overwhelming the state with social service demands or by creating an unmanageable and volatile crush in urban areas. Some suggest rapid population growth increases the risks of a general confrontation between "haves" and "have nots" by contributing to a widening gap between rich and poor countries. Finally, it is sometimes said, by creating major new demands for global resources, rapid population growth in low-income countries pushes humanity toward an era of scarcity—perhaps toward an unsustainable overshoot of the environment's carrying capacity.

The vision of a population explosion consuming the world evokes powerful emotions. Because discussions of rapid population growth in less developed countries seem at times to be governed by fervor of faith, it is often difficult to persuade the convinced through reasoning or empirical evidence. Yet recent experience suggests the consequences of rapid population growth are significantly different from those commonly supposed.

Take the notion that rapid population growth has prevented economic progress in low-income countries. The Development Research Center at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has recently published estimates of economic growth rates for a sample of 32 countries, whose populations comprise about three-fourths of the current world total. This sample includes such countries as China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Mexico (although, for want of reliable data, it excludes all of sub-Saharan Africa).

Estimated per-capita output for this sample rose by a factor of more than four between 1900 and 1987. Though the populations of the nine Asian countries in the sample more than tripled during this period, and the population of the six Latin American countries rose by a factor of nearly seven, per-capita output is estimated to have risen dramatically as well—by a factor of more than three for the Asian group and by nearly five for the Latin American group. Moreover, despite Latin America's highly publicized economic problems, per-capita income in the sampled Latin American countries—nations accounting for roughly three-quarters of the total population for Central and South America and the Caribbean—more than doubled between 1950 and 1987. Evidently, rapid population growth has not prevented major improvements in productivity in many of the societies most directly transformed by it.

These figures indicate per-capita growth accelerated sharply in most of the poor countries in this sample in the period after 1950—in other words, after the advent of the population explosion. But correlation does not imply causation. Some observers will be surprised that these two trends broadly coincided in the Third World. Their surprise derives in part from a misperception of the causes of the recent rapid rates of population growth in low-income countries.

The population explosion in low-income countries has been driven by a revolution in health. Between the early 1950s and the early 1980s infant mortality rates in the less developed regions fell by half, and life expectancy at birth rose by more than 16 years. By this particular, hardly unimportant measure, the "gap" between rich and poor countries narrowed appreciably in recent decades. Even in perennially troubled Africa, health progress appears substantial.

In itself health progress constitutes an improvement in living standards and may speak as well to conditions bearing upon health, such as nutrition, education and housing. Improvements in health may also directly affect a population's economic potential. Human capital, to be sure, corresponds with economic potential, not actual achievement. Like other sorts of capital it need not be used; it might be depleted through injurious policies. Be that as it may, the same forces driving population growth in poor countries appear to have increased the potential for widespread and continual material advance.

Such a cautiously optimistic conclusion might seem to be challenged by the current example of sub-Saharan Africa, where troubles abound and population growth rates—already the world's highest—have been accelerating. Many observers attribute the social, economic and political ills of the region directly to its rapid population growth. They may fail to consider other obvious factors central to the region's misfortunes.

Sub-Saharan Africa is currently characterized by what might be described as pervasive misrule. Ethnic animosities are widespread and sometimes incorporated into government policy by the dominant group. State involvement in the local economy is often far-reaching, and more often than not mismanagement and misappropriation are the norm. Some governments have set about systematically uprooting their subjects and overturning their livelihoods, even when such groups are on the barest edge of subsistence. Under such circumstances societies would be expected to experience serious economic problems, irrespective of any contribution from population growth. A population problem that proves independent of a society's actual demographic conditions is a problem misdefined.

What of the concern that continued population growth will place a devastating burden on the global environment, endangering the well-being of all? When public opinions are as strong and popular emotions as inflamed as they seem to be over global environmental degradation, a few words will unlikely change many minds. Yet concerns about impending resource exhaustion and environmental catastrophe have been voiced for more than a century. While the inaccuracy of past predictions (e.g., the prophesied English coal shortage of the nineteenth century or the U.S. "timber famine" of the early twentieth) does not invalidate current concerns, it should raise questions about why such dire forecasts have been so recurringly amiss.

Perhaps such assessments have paid inadequate attention to the economic process, which generated demand for resources. Between 1900 and 1987, by U.N. estimates, the world's population more than tripled, and its level of economic output, to generalize from the OECD's sample, may have increased more than a dozen times. Despite such growth of demand the inflation-adjusted prices of many primary products—ore, farm goods and the like—are lower today than at the turn of the century. By the information that prices are meant to convey, many resources would appear to be less scarce today than they were at the turn of the century.

How could this be? Quite simply, because the economic process prompts responses to shortage and scarcity. To over-simplify, the price mechanism identifies scarcity through higher prices, thereby encouraging substitution and rewarding innovation within the limits of human preference. Previously worthless materials are brought into use (bauxite, petroleum); previously plentiful resources are more likely to be husbanded (German forests).

Much remains unknown about the workings of the global environment; considerably more may be understood about the general workings of the economic exchange process. Uncertainties about the environment may call for prudence—but it is not clear in which direction prudence points. Until we better understand our surroundings it may be unwise to ignore the possibility that forceful initiatives to "save the environment" could have a more adverse impact on human populations and existing political systems than would the trends they fear.


At the national level population change is propelled by three demographic forces: fertility, mortality and migration.

The mathematics of demography can easily demonstrate fertility's tendency to dominate other demographic forces in the shaping of "closed" populations. In a world where the scope for migration is limited, and where mortality levels are relatively stable, fertility can be expected to act as the decisive force: driving changes in the local composition and global distribution of population. Yet, under all but the most catastrophic circumstances, neither wartime losses nor mass movements of people will have as much impact on a population's size and structure as will ordinary shifts and fluctuations in fertility.

On occasion a country's absolute level of fertility may motivate a government to adopt unexpected policies. Contemporary examples would include China's on-going campaign of population control and Japan's long-standing trade surpluses (which are indirectly related to the nation's low fertility level). For the most part, however, it is relative differences in fertility among groups within a country that give rise to events of political consequence. In some societies differential fertility may have contributed directly to the collapse of the state.

Consider the case of Lebanon. An unwritten 1943 agreement, later known as the National Pact, stipulated that political authority be shared among the country's "confessional" or religious groups in accordance with their strength in the national population. Top ministers were to be divided in a six-to-five ratio between Christians and Muslims (including the Druze sect), corresponding to the breakdown reported in the country's 1932 population census. Subsequent surveys, however, underscored a pronounced difference between Christian and Muslim fertility.

In the early 1970s the Christian community was estimated to have a total fertility rate of less than four children per woman, as compared with an estimated fertility rate of nearly six children per woman for the Muslim community. By 1975 Lebanon is widely believed to have become a Muslim-majority country.

The permanent refugee Palestinian population in the south of the country, great-power ambitions evidenced by its Syrian neighbor and evolving Israeli security measures all posed threats to the integrity of the Lebanese state. Nevertheless the Lebanese government's chances of persevering might have been greater if a changing population balance had not simultaneously undermined the rationale for the existing order.

Israel is another Middle Eastern country facing fertility-driven security pressures. Though vastly outnumbered by its Arab neighbor states Israel has succeeded in preserving, even enhancing, its security since its establishment over four decades ago. Israel occupied the territories of Gaza and the West Bank during the Six Day War of 1967 and has maintained administrative control of these areas ever since—a policy still viewed as essential to Israel's security prospects by both major blocs in Israel's Knesset, or parliament.

Though above replacement, and indeed higher than rates for almost all other contemporary Western populations, the fertility level of Israel's Jews has been distinctly lower than that of Israel's Arabs. Fertility rates for Palestinians in the occupied or administered territories are higher still. Even with stepped-up Jewish immigration from abroad and rapid fertility decline among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Jews could become a minority population in "Greater Israel" within a few decades.

Lebanon was, and Israel remains, a mass democracy. But even under governments that do not accord each adult a vote, the weight of numbers can affect the state's ability to augment and deploy power. The Republic of South Africa offers a case in point.

In 1951, as the laws and practices of "Grand Apartheid" were being formalized, South Africa's whites accounted for slightly more than one-fifth of the country's enumerated population. By the early 1980s whites accounted for less than a seventh of the population within the country's 1951 boundaries. By 2020, according to official government projections, the white population would amount to no more than a ninth of the total population, barring massive net migration of whites from abroad. Adjusting the projections to 1951 borders, whites might comprise less than one-eleventh of the country's total. South Africa's current liberalizations may not have been motivated by these trends, but they are surely informed by them.

Even more than South Africa, the Soviet Union can be viewed as a tangle of demographic problems. There, perhaps more than any other large country, trends in differential fertility bear directly on the government's prospects for projecting power and even maintaining authority.

Ethnic Russians accounted for barely half (50.8 percent) of the enumerated population in the U.S.S.R.'s 1989 census. Like South Africa, the Soviet Union assigns each citizen a state-determined race or ethnicity (in Soviet parlance, "nationality"). More than one hundred nationalities were recognized in the country's 1989 census. By that same census less than half of the U.S.S.R.'s non-Russian population reported itself to have a command of the Russian language; the proportion was somewhat lower than in the previous census. The Russian population is separated by language from the life of other Soviet nationalities, but not by language alone. Fertility differences are also evident, for example, between the U.S.S.R.'s Russian population and its populations of Muslim heritage.

Between 1959 and 1989 the U.S.S.R.'s Russian population rose by about 27 percent, but its nominal Muslim population grew by about 125 percent. This reduced the ratio of Russians to Muslims to 2.6-to-1. By early 1989 the U.S.S.R.'s population of persons of Muslim heritage may have exceeded 55 million. If these people are to be counted as Muslims (there is some debate about this), the Soviet Union would today contain the world's fifth largest Muslim population—outnumbering the populations of Egypt, Turkey or Iran.

Within the U.S.S.R.'s multiethnic configuration Russians have been the dominant element. As in the imperial order that preceded it, Russians have provided the Soviet Union with its official language and have supplied the overwhelming majority of political personalities within the country's ruling circle. Fertility change will directly challenge prevailing assumptions about the administration of Soviet power. Russians no longer constitute a majority of Soviet men of military age (18-25). Within a decade they will no longer form the majority of the working-age population, and by then may account for less than two-fifths of the country's children. Such changes have implications for Soviet military, labor and language policies. If the Russian Republic substantially underwrites living standards in Central Asian republics, as some analysts in the Soviet Union and the West believe, these changes will have major budgetary implications as well.

Fertility differentials in the Soviet Union do not consign the country to domestic disorder or reduced international stature. The impending shift in Soviet population composition will be gradual and therefore unlikely to set immediate constraints on the day-to-day options for the Soviet leadership. Over time, however, it may just as surely alter the boundaries of the possible. Today, when central authority in the Soviet Union seems to be relatively weak, centrifugal ethnic passions have come to the fore. Such forces are likely to be accelerated by the current momentum of differential fertility.


The twentieth century has witnessed a revolution in health. Very possibly, three-quarters of the improvement in life expectancy has occurred since 1900. So powerful have been the forces promoting improved health that even the advent of total war has been incapable of counterbalancing them. Despite terrible loss of life and attendant devastation, life expectancy was higher in post-World War I France than in the prewar period; higher in Spain after the Spanish Civil War than before; and higher in Japan and West Germany in 1950 than before World War II.

The recent histories of West Germany, Japan and South Korea, among others, demonstrate that the loss of significant portions of the working-age population—and the debilitation or episodic starvation of some considerable fraction of surviving cohorts—does not preclude rapid restoration of prewar levels of output or a rapid subsequent pace for material advance. Moreover, despite the severe privations its people suffered during and immediately after World War II, Japan currently has the longest life expectancy rates (and generally the lowest age-specific mortality rates) of any country—arguably suggesting that the Japanese are today the world's healthiest people.

In the future health progress might be halted by some cataclysm. Imaginably a plague or pestilence against which human populations could not develop immunity might strike. (Some current commentators believe the AIDS epidemic to be just such an affliction.) One need not look to a hypothetical future, however, for instances of interruption and even reversals of health progress in national populations. The Soviet Union and eastern Europe provide contemporary examples.

In the 1950s the Soviet Union enjoyed a rapid drop in overall mortality and a corresponding increase in life expectancy. So dramatic was this health progress that the United Nations Population Fund estimated life expectancy to be slightly higher in the Soviet Union than in the United States in the early 1960s; before World War II the American level is thought to have been about a decade and a half higher. In the mid-1960s, however, Soviet mortality reductions came to an abrupt halt, and death rates for men in certain age groups began to rise. As the 1960s and 1970s progressed, death rates registered a rise for virtually all adults, male and female. Mortality rates apparently also began to rise for Soviet infants.

Though the immediate official reaction was to withhold data on these trends, glasnost has provided evidence on their scope. Between 1969-70 and 1984-85, for example, Soviet death rates for persons in their late forties are now reported to have risen by over a fifth; for those in their late fifties, by over a fourth. Between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s Soviet life expectancy at birth is now reported to have fallen by almost three years and to have declined for both adult women and men.

Although the Soviet Union was apparently the first industrial society to suffer a general and prolonged deterioration of public health during peacetime, it is no longer unique. Similar, though less extreme, tendencies have been reported in eastern Europe over the past generation. Between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s life expectancy at one year of age fell by an average of slightly less than a year for the European members of the Warsaw Pact; for men at 30 years of age, life expectancy dropped by an average of over two years during the same period. According to the most recent estimates of the World Health Organization, by the late 1980s total age-standardized death rates (adjusted to the WHO's "European Model" population) were higher for the Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact than for such nations as Argentina, Chile, Mexico or Venezuela.

A significant and pervasive rise in the number of deaths attributed to cardiovascular deaths figures prominently in these overall trends. Smoking patterns, drinking patterns and health care policies all played their part. Recent evidence suggests that severe environmental problems played a greater role than previously appreciated. Intangible and intrinsically immeasurable factors, such as attitude and outlook, may also have been involved.

Whatever the etiological origins of these trends, their implications for state power are unmistakably adverse. Rising adult mortality rates reduce the potential size of a country's work force. Between 1977 and 1988 the U.S. Census Bureau reduced its projection for turn-of-the-century population aged 25-64 in eastern Europe by about two million persons, or three percent. Insofar as the cohort had been born by 1977, and migration was negligible, the revision basically reflected a reassessment of the impact of health trends. With deteriorating health, moreover, the economic potential of surviving groups might be constrained. To the extent that attitude and outlook factor in the decline, far-reaching problems of popular morale may be indicated.

There is nothing immutable about the U.S.S.R. and eastern Europe's unfavorable mortality trends. To the contrary: at a time of generally improving health potential, it would almost seem to require special effort to prevent health progress. Evidently, these states were up to the task. At the very least, they have proved to be unwilling or incapable of embracing the sorts of policies that would have forestalled such declines. One may wonder whether acquiescence in such long-term attrition does not in itself speak to a brittleness or decay in presiding polities, and thus directly to political prospects for the states in question.


Paradoxically, even as economic development has been increasing the scope for, and role of, human mobility in material advance, the demographic significance of international migration has decidedly diminished. The Age of Exploration is finished; the territories of the globe are now divided among standing governments, virtually all of which limit the absorption of new citizens from abroad in some fashion. Many presume to regulate even the right to travel.

At the turn of the century gross emigration from continental Europe was averaging over eight million persons per decade, or a rate equal to roughly two percent of the area's population. In absolute terms the flow is much smaller today; in proportional terms, all the more so.

Opportunities for voluntary migration for most Third World inhabitants remain limited, given the reluctance of most foreign governments to welcome them as citizens. Increasingly, therefore, twentieth-century emigration has become a response to catastrophe—the Aussiedlung of millions of ethnic German refugees during and after 1946 into what became West Germany, or the movement of Jewish refugees into what became the state of Israel. Upheavals and turmoil have also given rise to a distinctly new form of "migration"—the long-term refugee, housed for decades in a country not his own. Millions of such people are found today in such places as Lebanon (Palestinians), Pakistan (Afghans) and Thailand (Cambodians). Modern waves of migration have often served as an unhappy barometer of instability and tensions in the emigrant's native land.

Though overall flows of migration have been small by comparison with world population, or even with global births and deaths, they have nevertheless been significant in particular areas. In the 1880s, for example, about 670,000 Scandinavian immigrants entered the United States; that relatively small figure accounted for roughly seven percent of the total population for the countries of origin and perhaps an even greater portion of the working-age population. The political consequences of even seemingly modest streams of migration can be profound. Between 1948 and 1967 net Jewish migration into Israel averaged under 50,000 persons per year. That inflow, however, was consonant with the emergence of Israel as the region's major military power.

For a country accepting migrants national security may be affected greatly by the manner in which the state encourages newcomers to involve themselves in local economic and political life. Saudi Arabia and other gulf states have inducted a total of several million foreigners to man and operate their oil-based economies; in some of these places, mercenaries from abroad hold important positions in the security forces. Showing little interest in bringing guest workers of Palestinian, Pakistani or Korean extraction into the social fabric, the governments of these countries must engage in a complex balancing game to assure national power is augmented more by the foreign workers' presence than domestic stability is compromised.

By contrast, the United States has taken a markedly different approach to immigrants. Exceptions noted (most significantly, the years of slavery), it may be fair to describe the traditional American attitude toward immigrants as universalist: predicated on the assumption that one can "become American" by developing a particular set of political, social and economic values. Without ignoring the problems of assimilation, the American experience appears to have been remarkably successful. Since its founding, more than 50 million persons have voluntarily emigrated to the United States. Though initially a product of an English-speaking population and Anglo-Saxon political theory, the American system proved capable of absorbing large numbers of persons from Ireland, Germanic cultures and successively more remote south and east European cultures.

More recently, non-European groups have figured prominently in the flow of persons adopting a new American identity. The ability to absorb and assimilate immigrants from diverse cultures has been at the core of American strength at home. And to no small degree, the United States' international power and security can be traced to its approach to immigration.

Inability to solve problems of migration or mobility, for its part, can constrain power and limit security of standing governments. Once again the Soviet Union can be used to make the point. For decades Soviet planners have attempted to move labor into western Siberia and the Soviet Far East, areas rich in exploitable natural resources. Today, however, Soviet planners can no longer take "surplus laborers" for granted. Soviet rates of labor force participation are unusually high (regardless of how well employees actually work). Moreover growth in the Soviet "European" population of working age is negligible today. The fastest-growing working-age population, found among predominantly Muslim Central Asian nationalities, has proved remarkably unwilling to leave rural communities, even in the face of considerable financial incentive. So pronounced is this aversion that two Central Asian republics, Tadzhikistan and Turkmenia, registered lower levels of urbanization in 1986 than in 1970. As long as Muslim populations are unwilling to move and work according to state plan, state power in the Soviet Union will suffer.


Demography is the study of human numbers, but it is the human characteristics of those numbers that define world events. What is called a demographic problem may better be described as a moral and intellectual problem that takes demographic form. Indeed, divorced from an understanding of the people behind the data, population studies can provide little insight for statesmen, diplomats or generals contemplating an uncertain future.

Current population trends are redistributing global population and moving it away from today's industrial democracies. In 1950 two of the top five, and seven of the top 20, countries by population could be described as industrial democracies. Their combined populations accounted for nearly a quarter of this big-country total. By 1985 industrial democracies accounted for only one of the top five, and six of the top 20; they comprised less than a sixth of the group's total population. In the year 2025 only one of today's industrial democracies—the United States—is projected to rank among the top five, and only two—Japan and the United States—among the top 20.

In this future world today's industrial democracies would account for less than one-fourteenth of the total population of the big countries. Yet they would rank among the top in the world's population of geriatrics. By one recent U.S. Census Bureau projection, for example, today's industrial democracies would account for eight of the top 18 national populations of persons aged 80 and older by the year 2025.

Whatever their ultimate accuracy, current U.N. projections for the year 2025 depict an American population slightly smaller than Nigeria's, an Iranian population almost as large as Japan's and an Ethiopian population nearly twice that of France. Today's industrial democracies would almost all be "little countries." Canada, one of the Big Seven industrial democracies today (alongside the United States, Germany, Japan, Britain, France and Italy), would have a smaller population than such countries as Madagascar, Nepal and Syria.

In aggregate the population of today's industrial democracies would account for a progressively diminishing share of the world population. Whereas they comprised more than a fifth in 1950, they were only a sixth by 1985 and prospectively stand to be less than a tenth some thirty years hence. By U.N. projections the total population of today's Western countries would be considerably smaller than those of either India or sub-Saharan Africa in 2025 and would not be much greater than those of the Latin American and Caribbean grouping.

Projected shifts in birth totals are perhaps even more striking. Though these projections posit a slight rise in fertility in more developed regions, and a steady drop in less developed regions to near net-replacement levels, women in today's Western countries are projected to bear fewer children in total than mothers in the expanse from Casablanca to Tehran by the year 2020. They are projected to be bearing a third fewer children than mothers in Latin America and the Caribbean; less than half as many as mothers in India and less than a third as many as those from sub-Saharan Africa.

By these projections a very different world would seem to be emerging. Such trends speak to pressures for a systematically diminished role and status for today's industrial democracies. Even with relatively unfavorable assumptions about Third World economic growth, the share of global economic output of today's industrial democracies could decline. With a generalized and progressive industrialization of current low-income areas, the Western diminution would be all the more rapid. Thus, one can easily envision a world more unreceptive, and ultimately more threatening, to the interests of the United States and its allies.

The population and economic-growth trends described could create an international environment even more menacing to the security prospects of the Western alliance than was the Cold War for the past generation. Even without the rise of new blocs or alignments, one can envision a fractious, contentious and inhumane international order: liberal precepts could have steadily less impact on international action and belief in human rights could prove a progressively weaker constraint on the exercise of force.

Imagine a world, indeed, very much like the United Nations today, but with rhetoric in the General Assembly informing policy on a global scale, directing actions affecting the lives of millions of people on a daily basis. Even without an aggressive or hostile Soviet bloc, or the invention of new weapons, this world could be a very dangerous and confused place.

In our day the proximate guarantor of global security has been American force of arms, around which various security alliances have been forged. Security, however, is a matter not only of power but of the ends for which—and means by which—power is exercised. American power has been guided by a distinctive set of principles, broadly shared by all the governments and populations in today's Western countries. They include respect for individual rights and private property; adherence to genuine rule of law; affirmation of the propriety of limited government and a belief in the universal relevance of these principles.

These values and precepts are not necessarily shared, or are only intermittently acknowledged, by the states presiding over the great majority of the world's population. The distinction, in large part, defines our security problem today—and points to our security problems tomorrow.

How to increase the share of the world's population living under such "Western" values? Some writers have endorsed the notion of pronatalist policies for the United States and other industrial countries. Imaginative as such proposals may be, their results are likely to be of little consequence. To date pronatal efforts in Europe and elsewhere have proven expensive (as might be expected when the state gets into the business of "buying" children for their parents), punitive or both, and have had only a marginal long-term impact on fertility. (Under communism, Romania's Ceausescu regime implemented forceful and harsh pronatalist policies, but these were unable to keep the country's fertility rates from dropping below replacement by the 1980s.) A government reflecting the will of the people, moreover, is unlikely to implement measures that would actually transform popular behavior in such an intimate and important realm as family formation.

A narrow focus on pronatalism also neglects and perhaps even undercuts the greatest strength of Western values—their universal relevance and potential benefit for humanity. Rather than devise means to raise birth rates in societies already subscribing to these values, the leading democracies might better contemplate how such precepts can spread in societies where they are still fundamentally alien.

It is often argued that these values—the notion of a liberal and open order—are culturally specific and therefore cannot or should not be promoted among non-European populations. Such a view, of course, is widely endorsed by governments hostile to these notions in principle, or unwilling to be constrained by them in practice. However these political values are not decisively limited to populations of European culture and heritage. Postwar Japan demonstrates this (although, to be sure, some specialists challenge the degree to which Japan is an open and liberal society).

Will future security prospects depend on the West's success in seeing two, three or many Japans emerge from the present-day Third World? The security of the United States and its allies need not be diminished by the economic and demographic rise of countries sharing, and defending, common political principles. To contemplate the Japanese example, however, is to appreciate the enormity of the task. Japan's present order emerged from highly specific and arguably unique conditions. Modern Japan's political system, after all, was erected under American bayonets in an occupied country after unconditional surrender. Whatever else may be said about the contemporary international scene, no world wars seem to beckon.

Even within Europe the transition to a liberal order remains far from complete. The diverse soundings from eastern Europe suggest that prospects for such a transition for the region as a whole are not imminent.

How to effect such a transition in current low-income regions of Latin America, Asia and Africa? Demographers are unlikely to provide penetrating answers to the question. To contemplate the question, however, is to consider the nature of the West's ultimate security challenge—a challenge that will be all the more pressing by current and prospective demographic trends.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • NICHOLAS EBERSTADT is a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard University Center for Population Studies and a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This article is adapted from a paper presented at the U.S. Army Conference on Long Range Planning. Copyright (c) 1991 by Nicholas Eberstadt.
  • More By Nicholas Eberstadt