2 May 2018

The Geopolitical Importance of Demographic Power

ISA (International Strategic Analysis) is continuing with its work analyzing the global balance of power, measuring as accurately as possible the relative power of all of the world’s countries and political entities.  Last year, ISA published its Country Power Rankings, something that will be updated and released again later this year.  In the meantime, ISA will also be publishing new reports and forecasts covering the global balance of power in the months ahead.

One factor that has always played a major role in determining a state’s overall level of power is its demographic situation.  Once upon a time, it could be argued the size and composition of a country’s population was the most important aspect of that country’s power, as in the days before machinery and automation, the sheer number of people in a particular country played a dominant role in determining that country’s level of power.  As automation has progressed, demography’s role in determining a country’s power has been reduced somewhat.  Nevertheless, both the size and the composition of a state’s population remains of vital importance, helping to raise some countries to greater levels of power, while reducing the power of countries that have fallen behind their rivals demographically.

As with economic power, demographic power is heavily influenced by the other aspects of a country’s power.  These other aspects of a country’s power that are influenced by demography include the following categories of power:

  • Economy: A country with an economy that can generate growth, wealth and jobs will be better able to sustain a growing working-age and dependency-age population than a country with an economy that is producing little or no economic growth, wealth or jobs.
  • Military: A country that has a strong military is better able to protect and support a growing population, while often being able to help to promote the unity and cohesiveness of a country’s population.
  • Political: Confidence in a country’s political power and stability is another factor that can help to boost population growth and improve the demographic situation and the level of social stability within that country.
  • Environmental and Natural Resources: No other factor plays a greater role in influencing a country’s demographic power than its environmental and natural resource situation.  A country with abundant land, water and other natural resources is in a much better position to sustain a large and growing population than one without these environmental and resource advantages.
  • Technological: Countries that possess more advanced technologies are often in a better position to manage population growth and are able to improve the living standards for dependent segments of the population, such as a country’s youth and elderly population segments.
  • Cultural: A country’s cultural norms, most notably religion, play a major role in the demographic development of that country, sometimes for the good of that country, and sometimes to the detriment of its demographic power.

While each of these six other aspects of a country’s power has an impact on a country’s demographic power, it is also true that a country’s demographic situation plays a very important role on determining its level of power within these six other factors.  These factors include: 

  • Economic: A young and expanding working-age population can increase a country’s capacity for economic output and growth, whereas a shrinking and aging population reduces a country’s ability to generate growth and places great strains on its public finances.
  • Military: A country that has a large and growing young adult population will be able to find the personnel to maintain a large military (at least until automation takes over warfare in the future), while countries with declining young-adult populations will find it difficult to maintain manpower levels within their armed forces.
  • Political: Demographic changes will have a major impact on the direction of a country’s political situation and could lead to higher or lower levels of political stability in the future.  For countries undergoing profound demographic changes, their political power could be enhanced or weakened, depending upon the nature of these changes.
  • Environmental and Natural Resources: Demographics will play a major role in determining the direction of a country’s environmental and natural resources power, particularly with regards to the impact of growing populations on a country’s environment and natural resources.
  • Technological: A country that develops young and skilled workers will be in a better position to develop and benefit from technological changes that will add their country’s level of technological power.
  • Cultural: Demographic changes will continue to have a profound impact on a country’s culture, as well as on a country’s relative level of cultural power and influence, particularly among younger segments of the world’s population.

Throughout history, we can see how demographic changes have had a major impact on a state’s overall level of power.  For example, the soaring population growth in China’s main river valleys in ancient times allowed China to develop and sustain a population that was far larger than any of its rivals, and, when China managed to be a unified state, this demographic power enabled China to dwarf any of its potential rivals in Asia.  In Europe, the Industrial Revolution and the dramatic increases in living standards that eventually followed it allowed many states in that region to undergo population booms that helped contribute to Europe achieving its peak power in the 19th century.  Likewise, the vast amount of habitable land in the United States allowed it to experience a surge in both birth rates and immigration that resulted in the US overtaking its European rivals in the 20th century. 

In contrast, demographic decline often has doomed a great power to overall decline and collapse.  For example, plagues in the 2nd and 3rd centuries dramatically reduced Rome’s demographic power, something that the Roman Empire was never able to overcome.  Likewise, bubonic plague outbreaks devastated the Byzantine and Persian empires in the 6th century, paving the way for the following century’s Arab conquests.  In modern times, it is not plagues, but rather declining birth rates, that have reduced the demographic power of many countries.  For example, countries such as Japan, Germany and Italy have seen their share of the global population shrink dramatically as they have had some of the world’s lowest birth rates.  Moreover, this has shrunken those countries’ relative working-age populations, leaving a much larger share of their populations (most notably the elderly) dependent upon the state for their well-being. 

Altogether, the idea that demography is destiny still holds true, although the development of automation and artificial intelligence may one day render that idea obsolete.  For now, demographic power remains essential for any country aspiring to great power status.