Is Demography Destiny?
Image Credit: Joan Vila

Is Demography Destiny?


Last week, a conference on “Aging Asia: Demographic Decline in Asia and the Future of Regional Security” convened in the historic Mahan Reading Room at the Naval War College. As the conference title suggests, a group of demographers, historians, and security specialists pondered the interplay among aging populations, shrinking manpower, foreign policy, and military affairs. I gave a historical and theoretical overview derived from my chapter in a recent book on demographics and great power politics. The question I set for myself: does dwindling manpower make states gun-shy? My answer: it depends.

Most participants seemed to assume aging nations will avoid perilous foreign ventures, especially those involving the use of military force. This stands to reason, doesn’t it? If our sons (and daughters, in countries with integrated armed forces) are few in number, each one of them is increasingly precious – not only for sentimental reasons but because they represent the next generation of entrepreneurs, political leaders, and taxpayers. In economic terms, human capital is increasingly “lumpy” in aging societies. Why expose that capital to the vagaries of battle? Better to preserve the sinews of national strength.

Caution, conservatism, and risk aversion should be the watchwords for how aging societies conduct martial affairs. There seems to be ample theoretical backing for the assumption that demographic decline begets risk aversion. Look no further than the writings of strategic theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who maintains that the value of the political object determines the magnitude and duration of the effort a state puts into attaining that object. Or, in simpler words, how much importance political leaders assign a goal determines how much stuff and how many lives they are prepared to apply to the effort, and for how long. This is straightforward cost/benefit analysis.

But magnitude is a relative term. If a nation has less and less manpower to tap for military enterprises, the apparent magnitude of each effort grows. To keep Clausewitz’s calculus in balance, an endeavor must be of surpassing importance to justify incurring significant casualties. The range of potential military engagements narrows by his remorseless logic. Trouble is, it doesn’t always work out that way. It’s probably true that a bleak demographic outlook prods leaders toward caution, but the size of the manpower pool doesn’t trump the myriad other factors that human competition engages.

One of history’s greatest strategists, former New York Yankees manager Yogi Berra, reportedly declared that “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” And if he didn’t say it, he should have. We can’t draw a straight line from demographics – or any other single factor – to a society’s strategic behavior. As it turns out, Clausewitz agrees with the great Yogi. Competitive interactions, he says, take place shrouded in “fog,” or in a “twilight,” because so many variables are in play at any time, because of the strong passions warlike enterprises rouse, and because the other antagonist gets a say in the outcome.

As it happens, the Peloponnesian War that convulsed the Greek world two millennia ago (431-404 B.C.) pitted combatants with severe demographic travails against each other. Sparta was a military oligarchy that fielded Greece’s most fearsome army. The Spartans had adopted bizarre demographic practices. For instance, they discarded infants deemed imperfect shortly after birth. They also deliberately undercut their military manpower. The army depended on an impenetrable phalanx, an interlocking formation of infantrymen. Hosts crashed into each other on the battlefield, and the strongest and most disciplined usually prevailed.

“Spartiates,” the elite of the elite, anchored the front ranks of the phalanx. These were buff guys who spent all day, every day, working out at Gold’s Gym. Spartan society was designed to afford Spartiates the leisure to continuously hone their battle prowess. Perversely, though, the city’s leadership seemed to go out of its way to keep down their numbers. Only the first-born son of a Spartiate was eligible to become a Spartiate, for example. Their brothers were out of luck, whatever their gifts for warfare. City fathers assumed this military caste would replenish itself on a one-to-one basis – a suspect assumption considering the hazards and the omnipresence of warfare in antiquity. In short, the Spartans faced a demographic crisis of their own making even before the onset of the Peloponnesian War.

Fate exacerbated matters in 465-464 B.C., when an earthquake demolished the city – and collapsed the roof of Gold’s Gym on the rising generation of Spartiates. Some two-thirds of them perished. Imagine the effect on Spartan decision-making when natural disaster suddenly reduced the 300 Battle of Thermopylae fame to the “100.” The Spartans undertook some limited adjustments to their social system as the fifth century wore on, liberalizing requirements for military service. Still, lesser soldiers increasingly comprised the front ranks of the phalanx. Remedial measures weren’t nearly enough to keep pace with battle losses. Quality suffered.

Spartiate numbers trended inexorably downward. The Spartans sued for peace at one point in the Peloponnesian War because a small contingent of Spartiates – fewer than 200 – had been captured in battle. That’s a measure of the demographic stress under which the city was waging war. A mere 700 of these elite warriors took the field against Thebes at the Battle of Leuktra in 371 B.C. – the defeat that sealed Sparta’s downfall. In a real sense, Sparta was a victim of self-defeating demographic policies, despite the famous caution and conservatism with which leaders comported themselves – and for which more venturesome allies like Corinth castigated them.

The Spartans’ foemen, the Athenians, were diametrically opposed to them in most respects. A freewheeling, democratic, maritime empire, Athens gave free vent to citizens’ energy and innovation. Its navy was unmatched in the Mediterranean world. Yet Athens suffered a demographic trauma of its own. Pericles, the city’s “first citizen,” convinced the Athenian assembly to bring the entire population of the surrounding countryside within the city walls. That let the Athenian army avoid a land battle it stood little chance of winning, and it freed the Athenian navy to run wild around Greek coasts.

Thus confined, though, the Athenian populace was neatly packaged for disease and death. A plague ravaged the city for several years in the early stages of the war, costing it an estimated 25 percent to 30 percent of the populace. That’s on the order of the Thirty Years’ War that depopulated Germany in the seventeenth century. Far from instilling prudence, however, this demographic shock released all manner of schemes for conquest and glory. With few checks on rash policies – Athenian democracy essentially entrusted decision-making to whichever citizens showed up for the assembly on a given day – the city ran amok. Pericles fell to the pestilence, removing the chief stabilizing influence.

Ultimately adventurers like Alcibiades – think Charlie Sheen with military acumen – cajoled the assembly into a disastrous invasion of Sicily. The city also doubled down on failure, dispatching reinforcements when the going got tough against Syracuse, the island’s dominant city-state. Athens ended up losing its entire expeditionary fleet – one of the pillars of Athenian power – and the entire army that fleet had transported. Only then did the Athenians start playing defense, and showing signs of risk aversion. Neither demographics nor cost/benefit logic compelled Athenians to exercise self-restraint. They did so when destruction stared them in the face.

Athens and Sparta, then, supply two different models for how states respond to demographic stress. China came up repeatedly during the Newport conference, both because of its intrinsic importance and because – like Sparta – it has distorted the makeup of the population through conscious policy. How the results of the one-child policy will affect Beijing’s strategic behavior in the coming decades remains to be seen. Will it act more like Sparta as the populace ages, conserving increasingly scarce human capital? Will it act more like Athens, and cast off restraint? Or could it embrace the Athenian model in the immediate future, locking in its status as Asia’s central power before population numbers crest and start falling – then become more Spartan to conserve its gains?

Such questions are worth asking not just for China but for India, the United States, Europe, and any other consequential actor on the world stage. Demographics specialists are right. Population figures are an important element in how nations conduct themselves. But let’s not surrender to the notion that demographics is destiny.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics(2011). The views voiced here are his alone.

November 25, 2012 at 00:34

Great article ! Very interesting insight.

May I also add on a point. Populations tend to explode whenever there is an ongoing conflict, the perilous situation of their child prompted more people to have birth to multiple kids.

This happened after major warfares in China and also particularly the baby boomers in post WWII.

MJK Shervani
May 29, 2012 at 22:00

Yr comment is ahead of the Sub. article; I feel now INDIA and CHINA are becoming very glared- Countries with billions,1.5+ 1.3 =2.8 billion digital value/FMCG-consumers…Do not flatter and remember that if any Nation ( say: INDIA)engages people who are smaller than the LEADERS, we shall become a country of dwarfs.
But if we engage and educate people who are bigger than us and our LEADERS, we shall soon become a NATION of giants!!
MJK Shervani

Oro Invictus
May 29, 2012 at 16:29

Anyone who has read my previous posts on topics concerning demographics (or, more generally, populations) probably knows what issue I’m going to bring up, such that I apologize for this retread of past positions; still, I feel it an extraordinarily important subject, one that far outweighs issues of international relations and other such geopolitical concerns (in part, because such things derive heavily from the following, but also because the following determines the very survivability of our species almost as much as our instincts [aggression, greed, self-interest, etc.]). The issue I speak of is, of course, population density; indeed, when concerning the course of populations, perhaps the most important determinant of any species’ future after accounting for their physical and natural social properties in tandem with their environment.

While total population directly affects both resource consumption of a society as well as the capacity for productivity, population density determines how efficiently such resources and production capabilities are utilized. Similarly, population density has a direct impact on the ability of a demographic group to readjust to any sort of skew or shift such as to restore equilibrium, both in terms of extent and rate. As populations go beyond the bounds of their ideal density, we see a greater risk of skewing in demographic groups and a more delayed response/inability to readjust itself to achieve a new balance without being overly detrimental to the group as a whole (i.e. the aging crisis in the PRC). At the same time, as populations go above a certain density, the productivity of the average individual drops while the number of “support” personnel required to sustain a population (farmers, construction workers, maintenance workers, etc.) increases exponentially in respect to “advancement” personnel (essentially those who devise new/improve technologies, theories, and philosophies); one way to look at it would be to regard “advancement” personnel as the brain/nervous system of an organism while the “support” personnel is the body, but I dislike this as it impugns on the latter group and implies a set role for each person (it is, rather, a requirement of roles to sustain a society, with each person able to choose and reassign needed/available, though this flexibility also decreases once density goes beyond a certain size). As such, resource utilization is inefficient, with the amount of resources required to sustain momentum of equal magnitude to that of a less dense population much greater for a high density population (another way to look at it is to consider the maximum limits on the size of cells and multi-cellular organisms and their metabolic efficiencies as size increases).

While high populations (and, thus, higher population densities) have short-term benefits as highlighted by the simple maxim that “quantity has a quality all its own”, they will never achieve the same level of per capita development, social satisfaction, nor efficiency (and thus, longevity [primarily social, but individual as well]) of lower density populations. Thus, even if (for example) the PRC were to throw off the constraints set by its (far) less-than-ideal governance and certain social systems as well as become as nationally developed as the US or such (things which are also hampered by high population densities, even made impossible in some respects as we simply lack the resources to allow every person in the PRC to consume like those in developed nations [even if the average person in developed nations weren't a tenth as wasteful as they are now]), it will never achieve the same individual productivity (which can be crudely likened to per capita GDP and rate of innovation) as the US nor any of the other “traditional” developed nations as long as its population density remains as it is. It is no fault of the people of the PRC, rather, it is simply due to a population density which is too high to be efficient, to be sustainable.

So, what can be done? Unfortunately, this is something that many academics ponder but none have a widely-agreed upon solution for; for most nations, I imagine the logical solution would be institution of population control mechanisms designed to discourage large families, such as the implementation of “birth credits” or even full-stop limiting of children in high-density areas (with careful monitoring to ensure no gender imbalances, exclusion of adopted children from limit, and state-wide support for aging populations to lessen the burden of the individuals in said high-density regions). Sadly, such things are not options for nations like India and the PRC, whose population density could not be limited in such a way without causing massive societal stress (as we see now in the PRC with just the stabilizing measures occurring, nevermind the reduction of their population to a tenth of its current size [the maximum limit for sustainable and productive for the given nation's available habitable areas]). The only solution I can think of, barring something catastrophic and utterly reprehensible like societal collapse and/or population culling (or nature’s “favoured” mechanisms for population control, pandemic and/or starvation), would be for the global community to shoulder the economic burdens of the aging populations of India and the PRC as they initiate the aforementioned “full-stop” population control; sadly, though it would be of benefit for the whole world to do so, the self-interest of individual nations will never allow it.

May 29, 2012 at 10:46

Population is a problem if it is uneducated and unproductive, otherwise it is a boom and population has direct impact of the strength of the nation.

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