Stemming Fertility Rates and Migration Flows

THE CLINTON administration can ill-afford to ignore international population trends as it begins to formulate its key foreign policy initiatives. A decade ago the U.S. government performed an extraordinary about-face on this subject, and since then has paid insufficient heed to two increasingly salient sets of demographic issues: the need to forge a balanced and effective foreign assistance program aimed at moderating high fertility rates in the developing world; and the need for better monitoring of disturbingly large migration flows stemming from demographic/ethnic-based disputes.

During the 1980s the United States forfeited operational leadership on a major world issue that it had earlier pioneered. Just as most of the rest of the world was coming belatedly to embrace long-standing American urgings for concerted international attention to population issues, the U.S. government became conspicuous in downplaying the need for such attention.

Fortunately 1993 offers the opportunity for at least three important changes. With Bill Clinton as president, we can expect waning influence for the fringe groups that have been allowed to control population issues for the past decade. Moreover one may hope that the new administration will honor the promise in its campaign book, Putting People First, to "restore U.S. funding for the United Nations population stabilization efforts," in spite of calls by some for deep reductions in U.S. foreign assistance. Finally the disturbing mass migrations produced by recent crises in the Persian Gulf and in Yugoslavia have provided overwhelming evidence of the need for serious demographic foresight and assessment. Such efforts should include appropriate contingency planning aimed at moderating political and ethnic clashes (in the Middle East, in eastern Europe, in the former U.S.S.R.) that have the potential of producing disturbingly large migration flows of desperate people in very short order.

Unprecendented Population Growth

RECENT DEMOGRAPHIC trends can be described without exaggeration as revolutionary, a virtual discontinuity with all human history. Consider for example the astonishing fact that, although the human species emerged perhaps 150,000 years ago, most of its growth in numbers has occurred in the last 40 years. It took scores of millennia to reach the first billion humans, around 1800; over a century to reach the second billion, somewhere between 1918 and 1927; about 33 years to the third billion, around 1960; only 14 years to the fourth billion in 1974; and 13 years to the fifth in 1987.

What caused this discontinuity between the past two centuries and the preceding thousands of years of human history? Simply put, global population growth can result only from a surplus of births over deaths, and the principal engine of the modern demographic revolution was a rapid decline of deaths.

In 1800 life expectancy at birth averaged less than 40 years for the world as a whole; by 1990 it had risen to 65 years globally (to 62 years in developing countries and 74 years in the industrialized nations). The key declines in mortality rates were among infants and children in the developing countries of Asia, Latin America and Africa, principally in the period since World War II. At the same time, however, there was no contemporaneous drop on the fertility side; for decades after mortality had declined greatly, many nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America continued to sustain very high fertility.

This juxtaposition of rapid mortality declines with sustained fertility at very high levels produced a sharp acceleration in population growth. In the Third World as a whole, population growth rates more than doubled—from an annual rate of less than one percent during the first half of this century to well over two percent since 1950. With the power of compound growth it took only four decades after 1950 to add some 2.5 billion persons—to a population base of only 1.7 billion, a number that had taken the whole of previous human history to reach. Though the population of Europe expanded greatly as its mortality rates declined slowly during the nineteenth century it is not widely understood that recent rates of Third World demographic growth have exceeded by far the highest ever experienced during the era of European industrialization.

The global rate of demographic increase, already very high by the 1950s, continued to accelerate through the 1960s. By the end of that decade the world had experienced what will probably prove to be an all-time historical peak of annual percentage increase—just over two percent for the world as a whole. Since that peak the rate of global population growth has drifted slowly and modestly downward, with perhaps a small rise very recently, and is today about 1.7 percent.

This small decline in the percentage rate of global population growth was important; after all, it represented the reversal of a 200-year pattern of accelerating rates of increase. Fertility in much of the developing world declined substantially, but so too did mortality, and the number of young women reaching childbearing age increased sharply. The resulting small decline in the rate of population growth was not large enough to reverse the steady increase in the numbers added each year to the world’s population. By way of comparison, during the past year the human population increased by over 90 million persons—more than the current populations of Germany or Mexico—compared with 25 million annual increase during the 1940s and 70 million per year in the 1960s (when the growth rates peaked). The highest growth rates at present are in Africa, followed by South Asia and Latin America; the lowest are in Europe and Japan.

Of course the unpredictability of the emerging AIDS pandemic adds uncertainty to demographic projections for the future. This is especially true for those parts of sub-Saharan Africa where AIDS poses problems of truly disheartening magnitudes. Nonetheless the best available evidence indicates that even such a devastating pestilence is not likely to produce mortality increases of a magnitude that would dramatically reduce projected population increases.

Population growth rates are by no means the only demographic facts of foreign policy significance; at least four others deserve attention. First, populations with high fertility have a powerful and long-lived momentum for continued growth. Even if current high fertility levels declined overnight to the low levels prevailing in industrialized countries, such populations would continue to grow for another half century and would increase by 50 to 100 percent.

This momentum is a consequence of a second strategically significant characteristic of high fertility populations: a high percentage of children. Often nearly half the population consists of children, as compared to about one-fifth in low fertility settings.

Third, most high fertility societies have been experiencing exceptionally rapid urban growth rates, with large cities growing twice as fast as national populations and often doubling in size within only a decade. Mexico City, for example, is now the world’s largest urban area, having increased 11-fold in 50 years: from about 1.6 million in 1940, to 5.2 million in 1960, to at least 18 million at present.

Fourth, many (though not all) nations with rapidly growing populations and significant rural-to-urban migration are also producing large numbers of international migrants, whether as temporary workers, permanent immigrants or refugees.

Turnabout in American Policy

AS WORLD population growth accelerated with declining mortality during this century, there was a long, but wholly understandable, delay in the American public’s recognition of this unintended effect of successful efforts to reduce mortality.

Early in the 1950s a few knowledgeable observers, such as philanthropist John D. Rockefeller 3rd and the Princeton economist-demographer Frank Notestein, began to urge that ongoing efforts to reduce mortality be accompanied by attention to high fertility. By and large their proposals were either ignored or actively opposed. Rockefeller was unable to gain support for such parallel efforts even among his fellow directors at the Rockefeller Foundation. This led him in 1952 to establish a new organization, the Population Council, to deal with population issues in a focused manner. Efforts to convince the U.S. government to pay attention to high fertility in its foreign assistance programs were met with indifference, and later with active opposition from various political and religious groups. U.S. foreign policy on population issues remained cautiously neutral—or, more correctly, nonexistent.

By the early 1960s elite public opinion on population matters—Republican and Democratic, conservative and liberal alike—had shifted closer to that advanced by Rockefeller a decade earlier. Key figures in the Kennedy administration initiated the first U.S. foreign policy initiatives on population, in spite of opposition from the Catholic Church—thereby confounding those who had argued that the nation’s first Catholic president might impose the teachings of his church upon the nation as a whole.

President Lyndon Johnson and Congress gave strong and sustained political support to the newly created Population Office at the Agency for International Development (AID). In concert with several west European nations the United States also moved to engage the United Nations and its specialized agencies in population activities. These efforts were resisted by an odd coalition of governments, including some influenced by traditional teachings of Catholicism and Islam, yet led by the assertively atheistic governments of the U.S.S.R. and other Marxist-Leninist states. Thus stymied by its communist adversaries the United States led a successful 1969 initiative to establish a voluntary U.N. Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), to which it quickly became by far the largest contributor.

President Richard Nixon continued his predecessors’ energetic support for population initiatives and indeed lobbied strongly and successfully for a U.N. global conference on population. When this conference was scheduled for Bucharest in 1974 President Nixon appointed a substantial number of population activists as delegates, with his conservative H.E.W. secretary, Caspar Weinberger, as head of delegation. In Bucharest this centrist?to?conservative American delegation put forward a forceful policy agenda favoring urgent global action to reduce high fertility, including demographic targets against which progress could be measured over time.

This agenda was energetically rejected by most Third World governments, including many that were pursuing active domestic population policies. Among the most popular rhetorical themes of Third World critics was the slogan that "development is the best contraceptive," accompanied by the hoary Marxist line that "population will take care of itself," if only the West would agree to the large transfers of wealth and more favorable terms of trade embodied in demands for a "New International Economic Order."

American governmental support for international initiatives on population continued into the conservative Ford administration, but the advocacy became more muted. During the Carter administration concerns about perceived rhetorical and programmatic excesses of earlier foreign assistance programs degenerated into a morass of personal and bureaucratic politics, personnel actions and lawsuits; yet even in such unpleasant circumstances there continued to be unanimity as to the importance of sustained programmatic support for population activities.

As U.S. foreign policy proceeded in this sustained manner the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States was stimulating a divisive domestic debate that later would engulf U.S. foreign policy discussions on population issues. The "pro-life" (originally "right-to-life") groups that formed in opposition to the Supreme Court decision focused initially on abortion issues per se, seeking a constitutional amendment essentially banning pregnancy termination. Gradually, however, some of these groups extended their opposition to contraceptive methods that affect the implantation of fertilized eggs, then to other contraceptives and ultimately to government?funded programs intended to assist poor people who wished to regulate their fertility.

In 1980 many of these groups supported the election of Ronald Reagan, who ran on a strongly pro-life platform. With a newly elected supporter in the White House the pro-life movement deferred its goal of a constitutional amendment and concentrated its lobbying efforts on incremental limitation of domestic funding for abortion and contraceptive services. These initiatives achieved only limited successes, due to strong opposition from other groups.

The foreign policy arena proved more malleable; there was, after all, a long-standing ambivalence about U.S. foreign assistance in general, and no substantial domestic constituency was affected by the cutoff of any particular form of such assistance. For a brief period in 1981-82 the strongly pro-life former Senator James Buckley (R-N.Y.) served as undersecretary of state for security assistance. In this capacity Buckley promptly attempted to eliminate all U.S. funds for population assistance, but was thwarted by Secretary of State Alexander Haig on the advice of his regional assistant secretaries. In 1984, in an advocacy crescendo prior to the presidential election, pro-life groups and their supporters within the White House succeeded in appointing Buckley as chairman of the U.S. delegation to the 1984 U.N. International Conference on Population in Mexico City, and in mobilizing a review of U.S. foreign policy on population within the ideologically congenial domestic policy staff of the Reagan White House. The latter review produced a revisionist "Policy Statement on Population" that pronounced rapid population growth to be a "neutral" force—ironically a position long held by Marxist-Leninists.

Though most promoters of this strongly ideological pronouncement left office many years ago there was no high-level re-articulation of a balanced perspective during the subsequent Reagan and Bush years. In the resulting policy vacuum the confident but ill?founded assertions of the Mexico City policy statement gradually became entrenched as official dogma. This sent clear signals to U.S. foreign-policy makers that real career risks were attached to efforts at serious analysis of demographic trends and their implications.

A distinct trend of declining attention to population matters ensued among U.S. diplomats and foreign assistance professionals. The coordinator for population affairs within the State Department became a notably low profile position. AID withdrew its long-standing financial support for two of the largest and most effective multilateral agencies dealing with population matters—UNFPA and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF).

Forces other than ideology were at work. Demographic trends are quintessentially matters of the very long term, a time horizon that has increasingly come to be discounted in American politics. Very little of demographic significance can take place over the term of a president or a Congress. Rapid demographic change—even very rapid natural increase at its theoretical maximum of about four percent per year—is relatively slow and steady compared with the far more dramatic changes that prevail in the economy, in diplomacy and in the professional fortunes of political parties and politicians. Adverse consequences are delayed many decades into the future; no immediate "crises" emerge. As the American political system has shifted its focus sharply toward the short term, the exceptionally long time scale of population issues has rendered them of declining political interest.

Finally, the domestic American debates about demographic patterns are closely tied with other issues that are apparently irreconcilable. Inevitably matters of human fertility, mortality and migration touch on many of the most emotional and contentious issues of belief and opinion. These include millennia-old theological debates about sexuality and the legitimacy of different forms of voluntary fertility regulation; the divisive domestic issue of abortion; strongly held views on the proper roles and status of women and men; ethical questions concerning one generation’s obligations to its successors; emotional opinions on ethnic solidarity and the sovereignty of national borders; and passionate, centuries-old disputes as to the proper role of the "enlightened state" versus the "unfettered market" in social and economic policy.

Trading Places with Marxists

IT IS AN ASTONISHING fact that during the 1980s the Reagan administration traded ideological places on population issues with its communist adversaries. These mutual reversals are reflections of over 200 years of ideological argument about population issues—a fascinating and contorted history, full of outright mistakes and wild assertions, that can only be touched on briefly here.

Early commentators such as the mercantilists and utopians saw no limits to population size, equating larger populations with greater wealth and military power. The classical economists, led by Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Thomas Robert Malthus, retorted that population growth could not increase prosperity and should be limited to a level sustainable without widespread poverty. Malthus gloomily concluded that deaths ultimately would rise to restrain population increase, unless "moral restraints" of deferred marriage and celibacy outside marriage were widely adopted. He forcefully rejected as "vice" alternatives such as contraceptives and abortion, as did most of his fellow Anglican clergymen.

Malthus later became a target of vitriolic criticism by Karl Marx. The founder of communism provided no theory of his own about population size and growth, which for him were essentially neutral phenomena. For Marx the fact that people were producers as well as consumers meant that the resource limits emphasized by the classical economists could arise under capitalism, but not under socialism. In 1921 such inchoate views were embraced by Lenin’s new Soviet state, which, while legalizing abortion as a woman’s right, rejected contraception as "Malthusian."

These three population orthodoxies of Marxism?Leninism—population growth as a neutral phenomenon, abortion as a women’s right unrelated to "population," and contraception as shabby "Malthusianism"—persisted for well over 100 years. Early Maoist leaders of revolutionary China echoed these ideas, then vacillated, but as late as 1974 Beijing was asserting that rapid population growth was a "very good thing" and that population problems were produced by "imperialism and hegemonism."

By the late 1970s the Chinese leadership had done a complete about-face. Suddenly the very future of socialism in China depended upon limiting fertility within marriage to only one or two births. All the "moral restraints" urged by Malthus, plus the contraception and abortion he opposed, were embraced at the highest political levels and implemented via energetic propaganda, economic incentives, social pressures and sometimes overzealous cadres.

As this was taking place among Chinese Marxist-Leninists, right-wing thinking in the United States was moving dramatically toward the old-line Marxist tradition. New right and libertarian think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, began to argue that rapid population growth was, at worst, a neutral factor in economic development—and indeed might be a positive force so long as the "correct" economic system were in place. These arguments were energetically promoted in "backgrounders" aimed at a receptive Reagan White House.

It was these revisionist views that dominated the Reagan administration’s 1984 policy statement on population at the International Population Conference in Mexico City. This remarkable document forcefully declared population growth "a neutral phenomenon . . . not necessarily good or ill." The population boom, it said, "was a challenge; it need not have been a crisis." The alleged crises of too-rapid population growth actually resulted from two other coinciding negative factors: "economic statism," i.e., "too much government control and planning," accompanied by "an outbreak of anti-intellectualism which attacked science, technology and the very concept of material progress."

Thus did the revisionist American new right come to embrace the neutralist population arguments long promoted by old-line Marxists and Maoists. For both strains of ideologues, excessive population increase simply cannot occur under "correct" economic policies. Of course passionate disputes continued as to what economic policies are "correct," but on population issues the new right and the old Marxist-Leninist ideologies converged, while the American government and its now revisionist communist adversaries traded places.

De-Funding Population Programs

WHAT ARE the repercussions today of U.S. policy decisions of the 1980s? While weakly based in factual evidence, the 1984 Mexico City policy statement laid the groundwork for a policy that was by no means wholly ineffectual, with an especially ironic twist involving the by then revisionist Marxists in China. One year after the Mexico City statement the administrator of AID suddenly announced that its contributions to UNFPA would be withheld. This decision was especially noteworthy since the United States, under President Nixon, had led the 1969 international initiative to establish UNFPA, and had long been its most generous financial supporter.

The reason given for the withdrawal of American support for UNFPA was the fact that it provided modest financial assistance to China’s population programs. In parts of China high-level encouragement apparently produced abusive implementation at lower levels, including reported coercion with respect to abortion and sterilization. While such coercive measures were strongly criticized by proponents of voluntary family-planning programs and received no UNFPA support, they nonetheless became the putative basis for the withdrawal of American funding for the principal international agency in the population field.

A second casualty of the de-funding initiative was the International Planned Parenthood Federation, a London-based confederation of nongovernmental family-planning programs around the world. IPPF agreed to provide the U.S. government with assurances that its funding would not be used to support legal abortion information or services, but was unable to certify that its independent national affiliates would not use their own, non-U.S. funds for such purposes. Citing the Mexico City policy, AID terminated its support for IPPF in 1985.

Although Reagan administration officials initially honored their assurances that the funds withdrawn from UNFPA and IPPF would continue to be allocated to other population assistance programs, budget requests eventually turned downward. Congressional proponents of population activities were able to prevent the actual reductions requested, but the numbers of countries and people seeking assistance grew rapidly to exceed the funds available. In addition the AID population program was obliged to provide support for a variety of "natural family planning" theories and approaches, some of which were of highly questionable scientific validity. As a result there are now serious shortfalls in the resources available to both USAID and UNFPA to respond to population assistance requests being received from developing countries.

End Ideological Suppression

IT IS NOW TIME for a truce to be declared in rhetorical salvos. If constructive U.S. leadership is to be reestablished in this sphere, a few modest steps are required.

First, attention to population change needs to be liberated from the ranks of the "ideologically suspect," to which it was consigned during the Reagan administration. The subject deserves serious and balanced consideration by American policymakers, unconstrained by the fear that they may be treading upon dangerous turf. Such a recalibration of official pronouncements on demographic matters should recognize the two-way mutually reinforcing relationship between economic development and responsible fertility behavior, in which each promotes the other.

Second, there is a need to reinvigorate U.S. assistance for voluntary family-planning programs. Any fair-minded observer reviewing the ample evidence of the past two decades will conclude that such programs can be surprisingly effective both in moderating high fertility and in promoting public health. This generalization, while not everywhere true, applies to a wide variety of economic and cultural settings—even to exceptionally unfavorable circumstances, such as those found in Bangladesh and Kenya. There is strong grass-roots demand, much of it still unmet: an estimated 100 million additional women worldwide report that they would like to use contraceptives if they had access to the necessary information and supplies. Interest among Third World governments has risen dramatically. In an unprecedented action the 1992 summit meeting of nonaligned states emphasized the importance and urgency of the population question. Official requests for American financial support have grown rapidly, now far exceeding a supply that declined in real terms during the 1980s. In fact the sums involved are not very large—a shift of only two percent of the foreign aid budget would double the level of population assistance—but they are not being provided.

As forcibly stated by President Bush in 1973, when he was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, assistance for voluntary family planning can have decisive impacts on the "great questions of peace, prosperity and individual rights that face the world." It can reduce the damaging effects of high fertility on the health of both women and children, allow millions to realize their desired family size, moderate the difficulties poor countries usually face in expanding basic health and educational facilities, and minimize the economic and political stresses caused by imbalances between the rates of labor force growth and job creation. The countries that would benefit most from such assistance are concentrated in Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and parts of Latin America.

A rebalanced U.S. posture on population issues would recognize that sustained high fertility is not the principal or only cause of the endemic poverty and high unemployment that prevail in much of the Third World, that lowering fertility will not automatically lead to prosperity and health, and that economic conditions may under some circumstances improve even if high fertility continues. At the same time it would emphasize one key point: that economic advances and individual welfare both are likely to be greater in most Third World settings if moderate instead of high fertility rates prevail.

Third, foreign population assistance is not an appropriate target for the heavy artillery of American abortion politics. The temptations are obvious for politically active groups on both sides of this continuing domestic fray. Yet thoughtful adherents in opposing camps agree that abortion—whether or not it is supported as a basic human right—is not a desirable method of family planning, and that improved knowledge of (and access to) effective contraception reduces the numbers of abortions, legal or illegal. Moreover both groups are well aware that U.S. law has—since the 1970s—prohibited the use of foreign assistance funds for abortion services.

Fourth, one of the most effective contributions the United States could make would be to deploy its impressive research capacities toward improving the safety and effectiveness of contraceptive methods. Both basic and applied research in human reproduction has long been sparsely funded, especially research directed toward methods that fit the diverse human values and circumstances of the Third World. Most existing contraceptive technologies were developed by pharmaceutical companies, but their interest has declined due to difficulties with U.S. regulatory approval for new methods and the vagaries of the civil justice system in apportioning responsibility for contraceptive failure and side effects. The development of improved methods would serve many goals at once: enable millions of couples to realize their desired family size; improve the health of women and children; contribute to the effectiveness of national population policies; and reduce the volume of abortions, numbering in the tens of millions annually, that follow many unwanted pregnancies in developing countries, often with mortal consequences for the woman.

Fifth, the new administration should look again at the Reagan administration’s ban on U.S. contributions to UNFPA and IPPF, two of the most effective multilateral actors in the population sphere. The American about?face on UNFPA, an agency created through American initiative, was premised initially upon the assertion, later abandoned, that it supported an abusive population program in China. The United States has received firm UNFPA assurances that none of its funds would be provided to China, and has officially acknowledged that UNFPA does not itself fund or support abortion services.

The case of China was only a rationalization for the Reagan administration’s decision to de?fund UNFPA, a prominent but inappropriate target of domestic abortion politics. The prohibition of U.S. support for IPPF was equally inappropriate, given its assurances that U.S. funds would not be used to support abortion services or information. For those opposed to abortion, the effect was most probably counterproductive: to the extent that IPPF?supported family?planning services have been constrained by funding shortages, unwanted pregnancies and subsequent resort to abortion have in all likelihood increased.

Sixth, there is a serious need for the U.S. government to develop capacities for better foresight on international demographic patterns, and in general to "make the connections" between many elements of its foreign policy and powerful underlying demographic trends. Candidate topics include:

—demographic changes internal to other countries, especially where shifting demography among competing ethnic, racial, national or religious groups are important destabilizing forces (as in the tragic cases of Lebanon and Yugoslavia)

—the impact of dramatic growth in the labor forces of developing countries and of the emergence of "megacities" (such as Mexico City, Bombay and São Paulo), especially when these trends lead political leaders to adopt unwise economic policies. (During the 1970s many governments imposed price controls or subsidies for urban food supplies, while seeking rapid job creation via heavy economic stimulus. Such policies were often financed by foreign borrowing that later contributed to the crushing burdens of international debt these countries still face.)

—the implications of already large and ever?increasing human movements across international borders, often in abuse or violation of sovereign laws and international agreements.

During the early years of the Reagan administration the CIA undertook serious studies of such matters, but those efforts were terminated during the late 1980s. While a low level of such analytic activity apparently continues to produce occasional background reports, the more concerted attention of past years is clearly in order.

Seventh, there is a need for balanced yet serious attention to the linkages between demographic and environmental change. Pragmatic diplomacy must deal intelligently with sensitive world regions where environmental constraints interact forcefully with demographic trends in potentially destabilizing ways. Such regions include the volatile Middle East, where population growth and migration trends are exacerbating looming bilateral conflicts over scarce basic resources such as water: tensions simmer between Syria and Turkey over Turkish plans for the Great Anatolia Project for the Euphrates River basin, and among Israel, Jordan and Lebanon over access to the scarce waters of the Yarmuk River.

It does not require exaggerated visions of global apocalypse to conclude that, for many poor countries, sustained high rates of fertility and urban growth both contribute to environmental degradation and limit the capacities of these societies to respond to such problems. Population issues were highly visible during the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, and are sure to continue on the international agenda.

Needed: A Central Nervous System

IT IS NOW apparent, to all who care to see, that thoughtful U.S. government attention to the powerful forces of demographic change has been ideologically suppressed for over a decade. Continuation of this self?inflicted blindness to demographic insights is increasingly dangerous for U.S. foreign policy interests in many strategically sensitive world regions, and in arenas as diverse as health promotion, economic development, political stability and environmental preservation.

Should 1993 see such a rebalancing of political perspectives on matters demographic, the executive branch would find itself ill?configured to undertake the needed steps, however modest. In the present governmental structure there is no locus of attention that can contemplate the kind of broad and balanced perspective on population issues that is needed. Meanwhile analyses of the causes and consequences of large?scale human migrations are still in their infancy within the U.S. government, and hence the nation is ill?prepared to respond sensibly to these predictably growing problems.

What is required is some kind of central nervous system for activities and responsibilities that are now widely scattered. In France assessments of international demographic issues are coordinated within the office of the president; in Canada within the foreign ministry. U.S. offices such as the National Security Council or the Department of State are good candidates for dealing with population concerns. During the 1960s and 1970s the former played a forceful and constructive role in international population issues, and could do so again. The State Department currently has a low-profile office to coordinate population affairs and two offices responsible for refugee issues, yet none of these is charged with assessing the forces that drive international migration trends and prospects.

The United States could learn greatly from the past demographic blunders of others. In countries as diverse as China, India, Lebanon, Brazil and Mexico unrealistic views on population matters, driven by ill-informed ideologies, succeeded only in deferring pragmatic attention to realities that became notably harsher with time. Such delays in turn contributed to destructive economic and political developments that no one could control, or to excesses in implementation once action in the population sphere was belatedly adopted.

"Hell," wrote the poet Tryon Edwards, "is truth, seen too late—duty neglected in its season."

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  • Michael S. Teitelbaum is with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York City. This article draws on contributions by members of the Council on Foreign Relations Study Group on Population and U.S. Foreign Policy.
  • More By Michael S. Teitelbaum