- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2008


As the West looks with great concern at a resurgent Russia and seeks ways of coping with its power projection, it is worth looking at the medium- and long-term perspective as well as the immediate and definitely sizable challenges we are facing.

It is true Russia is indeed flush with oil wealth, and in Vladimir Putin it found an ambitious and ruthless leader who is highly creative in finding new ways to hold on to power. Russia’s military seems to be on the way back from its nadir of the 1990s, judging by its performance in Georgia (though the sheer size of the Russian military vs. that of Georgia must be factored in).

Still, Russia is a giant on feet of clay, demographically speaking. Russia is a country in such steep decline that it is estimated by demographers to decline to 99 million by 2050. Some even predict the figure as low as 77 million. By then the United States, whose population growth continues unparalleled among developed nations, will have an estimated 419 million people. Which nation do you think will be more powerful in shaping the 21st century? The reasons for this rather hopeful state of affairs - looked at from an American point of view, of course are explored in a new study, recently published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and authored by Richard Jackson and Neil Howe, “The Graying of the Great Powers: Demography and Geopolitics in the 21st Century.” Russia’s demographic decline has been the subject of demographers like Nicholas Eberstadt at American Enterprise Institute for some time, but predictions of this kind have only far more recently been a subject more broadly of interest in the political debate. Neo-Malthuseans of the 1970s and 1980s used to persuade politicians and scholars in the West that human beings themselves were the problem. Adding more therefore was far from desirable.

But this deeply destructive trend in thinking has now been reversed as populations in the West, particularly Russia, are very likely to plummet irreversibly in the coming decades. “Russia must cope with a rate of population decline that has no historical precedent in the absence of pandemic,” the authors write.

Russia is currently losing population at a spectacular rate of 700,000 people per year, which will amount to 31 percent between 2005 and 2050. It is a decline that has started earlier than elsewhere in the developed world. Unlike Western Europe, where you can truly talk about graying populations as life-expectancy has grown in tandem with collapsing birthrates, Russians are experiencing declining birthrates as well as falling life expectancy. Birth rates are now around 1.2 to 1.3, while life expectancy for Russian men is now back to what it used to be in the 1950s - 59 years of age, a full 20 years less than Japanese men and three years less than Bangladeshi men. The causes are not far to seek - a dismal health-care system and vast alcohol consumption.

Oil wealth might make Russia look strong today, but its human capital is being inexorably eroded with consequences for economic growth as well as social and family cohesion. Mr. Putin has called population decline “the most acute problem facing our country today.” Attending population decline, write the authors of the study, are political trends that we already see playing themselves out. Ethnic composition will change, for instance, as Russia’s Muslim population will grow proportionately to its Slav population. Muslims may be in the majority by 2050. Tendencies towards illiberal political solutions may well be the choice of the threatened ethnic group, as we are indeed seeing in Russia today with Mr. Putin’s authoritarian grab for perpetual power. And it may lash out against other nations in a diversion from internal problems - just ask the Georgians.

Meanwhile, the rather distinct silver lining in all of this for the United States is that while Russia collapses and Western Europe declines, the United States will experience healthy population growth due to sound fertility rates and immigration - and with it growing international influence among developed nations. In 1820, the United States held 6 percent of the population of the developed world; today it is 34 percent, and in 2050 it will be 43 percent. “In tandem,” write the authors, “the influence of the United States within the developed world will likely rise.”

All of this, of course, depends on preserving and protecting an American society where freedom, prosperity, opportunity and civil society flourish. If other countries have forgotten this, let us not do the same.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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