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Flash Points and Tipping Points: Security Implications of Global Population Changes, 2005-2025

February 27, 2007 // 2:00pm4:00pm
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Current demographic trends could pose significant security challenges for Europe and other developed countries, argued Jack Goldstone, George Mason University Hazel Professor of Public Policy, at a conference hosted by the Environmental Change and Security Program on February 27, 2007. He was joined by Eric Kaufmann, senior lecturer at Birkbeck College, to discuss the potential security implications of rapid urbanization, global epidemics, potential shifts in economic power, declining populations in many developed countries, and increased immigration from poor to rich nations.

Twenty years from now, the structure of the world's population will be vastly different from what it is today. Several of the largest developing countries are currently on track to add millions to their populations by 2025. China, India, and Indonesia are projected to have the greatest increases—each country is expected to grow by 100 million people over the next two decades. In contrast, Europe, Russia, and Japan's populations are projected to stagnate or decline over the same period of time. In fact, if current trends continue, Germany, Russia, Italy, and Ukraine are expected to lose between one-third and one-half of their populations by 2050. But Goldstone said that governments that adopt immigration policies reflecting demographic realities can overcome the challenges of global population changes: "[There is] the possibility of turning these trends to your advantage."

Forecasting the Future

Goldstone identified six major trends that may present significant security challenges over the coming decades:

  • Disproportionate growth in large Muslim countries;
  • Declining populations in the European Union and Eastern European countries;
  • Increased immigration from poor to rich nations;
  • Aging populations in industrialized countries in tandem with growing, more youthful populations in the developing world;
  • The growing threat of epidemics; and
  • Rapid urbanization of the developing world.

These trends, he argued, are likely to continue and cannot be altered by "reasonable, practical means." Consequently, governments that fail to adopt immigration and integration policies to address these trends run the risk of increased conflict along political, cross-regional, or class/ethnic lines—as illustrated by the French riots of 2005.

Tension between Western and Muslim nations is a particularly alarming trend, according to Goldstone, especially given that several of the largest and fastest growing countries in the world are Muslim. The West and Muslim countries are headed toward a "polarized" relationship that could prove detrimental to Western economies, he added. India, Turkey, and Iran—all of which have rapidly expanding Muslim populations—are poised to become global or regional economic powers; while future economic growth in Europe and Japan will depend on improved relations and access to fast-growing markets in the developing—particularly the Muslim—world. "How can you invest in a world in which you do not have good relationships?" he asked.

Kaufmann echoed Goldstone's thoughts on the security implications of current demographic trends, but stressed the potential impacts of rapid urbanization in Africa. The historical record of Europe and North America reveals instances of mass rural-to-urban migration that resulted in economic instability and cultural upheavals. For example, the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century was partly spurred by an influx of white Protestants from rural to urban America, at the same time that non-Protestant immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe arrived in great numbers in the nation's cities. Rural migrants, he argued, have historically failed to adjust to the diversity and economic differences in urban centers, causing migrants to feel more "alienated…and susceptible to fundamentalist, religious, and ethnic appeals." With this historical example in mind, he thinks it is possible that the rapid urban migration occurring in some African and Asian countries could contribute to economic instability and increased conflict: "[This] is definitely one to watch."

Finding the Right Balance

Policymakers must approach demographic policies from a global perspective, said Goldstone. High-income countries with declining populations can provide investment capital and technological expertise to low-income countries with growing populations, whose labor supply can fuel economic growth. However, achieving this mutually beneficial relationship requires developed economies to look beyond policies that focus solely on "national growth and national goals," he said, urging political officials to think of the world as a "system of integrated countries," where developed and developing nations work together to address projected demographic shifts.

Developed countries will also have to contend with the burden of aging populations. By 2050, nearly 40 percent of the population in most European countries will be over the age of 60, as will 44.9 percent of Japan. As a result, these countries must consider ways in which to address the costs of health care costs and the loss of labor, argued Goldstone. One potential solution, he said, is to encourage the elderly in the developed world to move to developing countries, where the cost of providing labor-intensive health care and medical treatment is less expensive. For this plan to work, however, developing countries must prove to high-income retirees that they can provide quality health services. If Western countries could be persuaded to construct high-quality facilities for retirees in the developing world, argued Goldstone, it could help low-income countries retain their health professionals, while encouraging high-income retirees to relocate. The result would be a mutually beneficial to high- and low-income countries: "There's a win-win there for everybody."

Reflections on U.S. Immigration Policy

Restricting U.S. immigration to increase security is an economically counterproductive policy and promotes an unbalanced age structure, said Goldstone: "We have begun to choke off a vital stream of engineers and scientific talent from developing countries." The United States, he said, has benefited from an open immigration policy, which has provided the country with a steady flow of talented professionals from abroad, as well as stable population growth. Fears of being "over-run" by non-Americans, in addition to the threat of terrorism, continue to fuel calls for closing U.S. borders. Most terrorists, however, have entered the United States on legal visas—revealing a "major misfit" among policies intended to provide greater security, he said. Ensuring continued U.S. prosperity requires a policy approach that balances security concerns while recognizing the vital role immigrants play in the U.S. economy. To Goldstone, this balance has not been achieved, a fact that could be detrimental to the country: "We may have closed the door too far."

Drafted by Ken Crist.

 
Event Speakers List: 
  • Hazel Professor of Public Policy, George Mason University
  • Professor of Politics, Birkbeck College, University of London
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