"Demographic trends by themselves are neither inherently good nor bad. It's really a state's ability to address these issues that can determine the outcome," said Jennifer Dabbs Sciubba, the Mellon Environmental Fellow with the Department of International Studies at Rhodes College. Sciubba, along with Deputy Under Secretary Kathleen Hicks of the Department of Defense, discussed the national security implications of demography and its important role in understanding and managing conflicts around the world.
Demography as an Indicator, Multiplier, and Resource
Demography can be thought of in three ways, explained Sciubba: as "an indicator of challenge and opportunity; a multiplier of conflict and progress; and a resource for power and prosperity."
A country's age structure can pose a challenge, said Sciubba, because countries with a large percentage of their population under the age of 30 "are about two and a half times more likely to experience civil conflict than states with more mature age structures." Tunisia's recent revolution, she said, could be understood as a "story about demography."
The 26-year-old fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire on December 17 after being hassled by police, was part of one of the largest age cohorts in Tunisia, those aged 25-29. There are some 64 million young men across the Middle East-North Africa region between the ages of 15 and 30, according to UN estimates. "If his death was the spark" for the unrest in the region, Sciubba said, "it's the underlying demographic trends that were the fodder."
Yet, Sciubba sees opportunity within this challenge. Citing the work of Richard Cincotta, she said that "states have half a chance – literally 50 percent – of becoming a democracy once their proportion of youth declines to less than 40 percent." Tunisia has the best chance in the region of becoming a free democracy based on its demography, followed by Libya, where youth aged 15-29 are 43 percent of the adult population.
At the other end of the age structure, some of the world's most powerful countries, such as Japan, Germany, Italy, France, Russia, and China, are rapidly aging. This aging will "somewhat decrease the ability of these states to project political, economic, and military power" due to a shortage of labor and a smaller pool of funding, said Sciubba.
Countries with transitional age structures, such as India, Brazil, and South Africa, face different security challenges. With a majority of their populations between 15 and 60 years old, there are more people contributing to the economy than are taking away, which could bolster these countries economically and politically (the "demographic dividend"). Global institutions will have to reform and include these countries, she advised, "or else become irrelevant."
But the defining trend of the 21st century, said Sciubba, is urbanization. While great sources of economic growth, cities are also quite vulnerable to natural disasters and terrorism because of their concentrations of people, wealth, infrastructure, and bureaucracy.
In looking to the future, Sciubba called for continued support for family planning initiatives. "At least 90 percent of future world population growth will take place in less developed countries," which are least equipped to handle the demands of that growth, she said. In addition, Sciubba recommended that the United States seek out partnerships with countries that have transitional age structures, particularly India, which could be a stabilizing force in a tumultuous region. She also called on the United States to partner with states in the Western Hemisphere and remain open to migration.
Defense and Demography
"Understanding population is critical to our success in being able to prevent conflict, and also managing conflict and crises once we're involved," said Hicks, describing the Department of Defense's (DOD) interest in demography. However, the DOD does not "treat demographics as destiny," she said, but instead as "one of several key trends, the complex interplay of which may spark or exacerbate future conflicts."
Recent world events, such as those in the Middle East and North Africa, "have demonstrated how critical our understanding of population is for security practitioners," said Hicks. Similarly, the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan dramatically illustrate the vulnerability of large urban areas. Echoing Sciubba's comments on population aging, she cited "incredible divestments in defense" in Europe, which, she said, "puts us, as a key partner in NATO, at a thinking stage."
Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy is "deeply interested" in demographic issues, said Hicks. She identified other demographic areas of great interest for her office: the youth bulge in Pakistan, urbanization in Afghanistan, the role of highly educated women in Saudi Arabia, the Chinese diaspora in the Americas, Russia's shrinking population, and various trends in China, including aging, gender imbalance, urbanization, and migration.
Drafted by Christina Daggett and edited by Schuyler Null and Meaghan Parker
Geoff Dabelko, Environmental Change & Security Program, 202-691-4178