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Do demographics still weigh in on geopolitics?

The weaponisation of demography in geopolitical relations

Richard Robert, Journalist and Author
On November 24th, 2021 |
3 mins reading time
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The weaponisation of demography in geopolitical relations
Key takeaways
  • For a long time, power was determined by population number; along with GDP per capita, it remains a major determinant.
  • But geopolitics is dynamic: more than absolute figures, there are trends should be followed.
  • Moreover, the power logic is now capital- and technology-intensive, rather than labour-intensive, so the capacity for innovation could weight in over demographic factors.
  • The theme of “climate migrants” has replaced the “demographic boom” of the 1960s, but so far disruptions have been local rather than geopolitical.
  • On the other hand, the “weaponisation” of migratory movements must be considered carefully because it renews the repertoire of hybrid conflicts.

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.

Population counts!

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.