The latest issue of Joint Force Quarterly
, a publication by the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, features an article
by Jennifer Dabbs Sciubba
entitled “The Defense Implications of Demographic Trends.” Sciubba, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Maryland and a consultant to the Office of Policy Planning at the Department of Defense, analyzes the ways in which understanding demographic trends can enhance our understanding of potential national security threats. She contends, “Demography is a useful lens for understanding national security because population is intimately linked to resources, and resources are related to both capabilities and conflict.” Her article peers into the future to hypothesize how three key demographic trends—the north-south divide in age structure; international migration; and urbanization—are likely to impact global security conditions.
Touching on issues that have been discussed at events sponsored by the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program, Sciubba first examines the contrast between the young, growing populations of the Global South and the aging, stagnant populations of the Global North. Ninety-nine percent of the additional three billion people projected to be living on Earth by 2050 will be born in developing countries. Meanwhile, developed countries’ populations are largely stable, and in some cases are declining. Europe’s elderly population will rely on a shrinking pool of working-age citizens to fund their health care and pension systems. In order to continue financing these programs, nations will be forced either to permit massively increased immigration (a possibly that Sciubba discounts because of increasingly prominent xenophobicattitudes in Europe) or to cut back on defense spending. This economic crunch could make European participation in humanitarian or combat operations abroad less likely.
Sciubba explains that “population can be a threat rather than an asset” if a state cannot provide educational and economic opportunities for its younger citizens. The Middle East and North Africa will face grave security risks if economic opportunities do not keep pace with population growth, she argues: “As many observers of international trends note, the sad prospects for these [young] individuals can make them susceptible to radical ideologies and even incite them to full-blown violence.” An examination of Iraq’s male youths helps illustrate this problem. The Iraqi military was the main source of employment for young men before its disbandment in 2003, and the disappearance of that crucial economic prospect makes young men more susceptible to insurgent recruitment.
A second key demographic trend is international migration. The causal link between mass migration and conflict can flow both ways, as Sciubba explains: “The ability of mass migration to change a country’s status quo means that it has the potential to instigate conflict, or at least create divisions. This conflict, in turn, drives migration.” The Middle East illustrates the complex relationships between migration and other demographic issues. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are approximately two million Iraqi refugees, and about 2,000 Iraqis a day seek refuge in Syria. As a result, there has been a substantial increase in competition for resources between Syrians and Iraqi refugees. Moreover, the virtual end of migration to Israel and the far lower fertility rate among Israeli Jews than Israeli Arabs has set the foundation for an Israel that could be majority-Arab in the future, which would likely fan the flames of conflict there.
Finally, Sciubba discusses urbanization as a key demographic trend that will “likely define the next 30 years.” Population growth will speed up urbanization as working-age young adults seek employment in urban areas. Developing states in the Global South undergoing rapid urbanization face security dangers because of their “proclivity for violence and rebellion [which] can be exacerbated by unmet expectations in overcrowded cities.” Sciubba warns of a potentially catastrophic increase in slums around mega-cities (cities with populations larger than 10 million people, of which there may be 22 by 2015). The squalor in these contemporary urban slums is staggering, she notes: Hygiene and sanitation problems cause 1.6 million deaths annually, which is five times the death toll of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Additionally, rural-urban tensions are likely to be highlighted in coming years. In China, the income of the average urban household is now three times as high as the income of its average rural counterpart, and this income gap is partly responsible for China’s internal unrest.
Sciubba encourages U.S. defense planners to use demographic tools for three main purposes. First, demography can identify security hotspots, such as those outlined above. Second, it can increase awareness of demographic trends in the United States in order to more effectively plan our security policies and strategies. Finally, foreign assistance should take these demographic trends into consideration in order to reduce the risk of related security threats. In only a few pages, Sciubba’s article illuminates several complex demographic trends that will affect future global security.