A nation’s power arises ultimately from its people. Since, all else being equal, more populous nations do not generally fear less populous nations and more productive peoples do not generally fear less productive peoples, systems of international relations, both ancient and modern, have generally favored nations that are simultaneously populous and productive. At present, the most populous and productive of Europe’s offshoots watches warily as the most populous nations of Asia grow increasingly productive. It is against this backdrop that demography, the scientific study of populations, has come to figure prominently in estimations of national power.
A number of pressing economic problems stem from the structure of national populations. Industrial and post-industrial societies, for instance, devote an increasingly greater amount of resources to both the development of “human capital” via education and the prolongation of life itself. As a result, an individual born in an economically advanced country today can expect to pass nearly half of his or her life in dependency. But as the number of dependents exceeds the number of workers, the challenge of providing for them becomes increasingly daunting, particularly in the face of an economic downturn.
Demographic challenges are as much political as economic, however. As populations age democracy shades into gerontocracy, since in nearly all nations the elderly participate in elections at far higher rates than the young. Electorates weighted towards the old find it difficult to reform state entitlement programs. Demographic “bulges” of politically active and economically disadvantaged youth, by contrast, destabilize many developing, democratizing countries. Populations balanced in terms of age, but divided into conflicting cultural, ethnic, and religious groups raise challenges of their own, particularly when one group attempts to employ the state to alter the nation’s demographic profile. Politics often influence populations as much as populations influence politics
Navigating cultural and religious conflict, ensuring democratic representation of a nation’s young as well as its old, and providing for growing numbers of dependents – these are only some of the demographic challenges facing policymakers in the United States and other nations. Delegates of SCUSA 65 are charged to address these and other vexing questions that arise at the intersection of populations, power, and policy: What are the most important demographic flows? What are the magnitude and direction of each? And how might U.S. policy reflect the world’s demographic development and perhaps direct it more favorably towards its interests?