International relations play out between policymakers. But behind this chess game marked by personalities, tactics, and strategies of a small number of players, powerful human dynamics are at work. Study of geopolitics describes these dynamics, linked to human and physical geography. Among them, demography has long been identified as a key factor in the rise or fall of a country on the international scene.
For a long time, power was a direct function of population. Napoleonic France was the most populous country in Europe. Germany in the 19th century also experienced population growth, which helped explain its expansionism between 1848 and 1945. During the first two decades of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were demographic champions: in addition to their population size, they had a strong capacity to develop their ‘human capital’.
China’s rapid rise to global superpower status is explained by spectacular growth in GDP per capita, but also by sustained population growth, from 590 million in 1953 (including Taiwan) to 1.4 billion today. India and China experienced a demographic transition later than the European countries, which helps to explain the movement of world power towards Asia –emerging powers are Asian, and since Obama American power has been turning towards Asia (from 2011 onwards we speak of a ‘pivot’).
Absolute figures or trends?
Over the course of the 20th century, the relationship between mass and power became more complex, and instead more discrete demographic trends can explain or reflect power dynamics. Nevertheless, the question remains central. In 1976, when the West was entangled in the economic crisis and the USSR seemed to be gaining ground, it was a demographer, Emmanuel Todd, who predicted the ‘final fall’ of the Soviet empire, based on indicators such as the suicide rate and the rise in infant mortality.
In the same way, by observing trends and dynamics, demography can be a good way to predict shifts in power. China has already joined Europe in its declining population and geopolitical influence and America could soon follow.
Power without numbers?
In our interview with Nicholas Eberstadt he notes that countries with declining populations may try to counterbalance their decline by reasserting their international role all the more vigorously. Today, we see this in Russia and also, in a different way, North Korea.
As Pierre Buhler writes in La Puissance au XXIe siècle, “the relationship between demography and power, while it may seem obvious, does not necessarily allow us to identify a clear causal relationship.” This is all the more true when, like in advanced economies, the logic of power is both capital- and technology-intensive. The capacity for innovation, Buhler explains, is now central and can outweigh the demographic factor: as will be the case in the future as military means will be less labour-intensive: a robotic and technology-intensive war can do without men.
The weaponisation of demography
In the 1960s, some experts promoted the idea that population growth was in itself a factor in geopolitical upheaval. Paul Ehrlich, for example, published The Population Bomb in 1968, a best-selling book in which he warned of the likelihood of deadly famines that would provoke wars.
Today, this fear can be found in concerns over ‘climate migrants’, even though, as Hervé Le Bras reminds us in his interview, the phenomena observed up to now are mainly played out on a local scale. It is true that this could change in the event of more widespread upheaval due to climate change. But we have not yet reached this stage, even if we know the role the price of certain commodities (including wheat, whose prices are very sensitive to the global weather) played in triggering the “Arab spring” in 2011.
More significant is the destabilising potential of waves of refugees seeking to flee wars in Africa and the Middle East to find asylum in other African countries and Europe. The sensitivity to the issue of migration in many European countries can make these “waves” – however small – a political factor that can lead to regional destabilisation.
During the Syrian crisis in the 2010s, Turkey played on these waves as part of the complex relations that they maintain with the European Union, which alternates between latent conflict and negotiation; something we see today with Belarus using the same tactics. This weaponisation of migration is a geopolitical novelty, which is part of the constantly evolving repertoire of asymmetric strategies and hybrid warfare.