National Security and Population

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National security issues can be defined narrowly as immediate threats of violence to a society–terrorism, war, revolution, ethnic/religious/regional conflicts. National security issues can also be defined more broadly to include diffuse and non-violent threats to the well-being of a society, such as damage to the environment, problems of disease and public health, and reductions in present or future economic welfare. Demography is relevant to both kinds of national security. Under certain conditions, as Myron Weiner and Sharon Stanton Russell (2001) have shown, demographic changes can increase both the risks of violence, and the degree of diffuse and nonviolent threats to well-being.

Demographic Variables and National Security

Scholars such as Thomas Homer-Dixon and Jessica Blitt (1998) have pointed to a number of demographic variables as relevant to issues of national security. These include the size and density of a country's population and its rate of growth; the proportion of population that is urban and the urban growth rate; the age structure of the population; the rates of internal and international migration; the internal composition of the population with regard to ethnicity, regional identity, or religion; the rates of social mobility, literacy, and education; infant mortality and life expectancy; and the distribution of income.

However, few of these variables have simple, uniform effects on national security across time and space. To understand their impact requires careful examination of how they interact with, or exacerbate, other factors leading to violent conflict or diffuse harm.

Violent Environmental and Demographic Security Threats

Because populations must exist in a physical space, from which they draw the resources to survive and reproduce, the effects of demographic structure and change in any population are inextricably bound up with the conditions of the environment, particularly the flows and stocks of renewable and nonrenewable resources available either within the national boundaries of the population in question or through exchanges with other populations. Changes in population that affect the ratios of population (or population segments) to key resources generally have impacts on national security, as do changes in key resources on which the population (or population segments) depends. The term "environmental and demographic security threats" recognizes this intertwining.

Violent environmental and demographic security threats (VEDS) arise when the relationship between a population (or populations) and its environment increases the risks of war, revolution, terrorism, and ethnic or other violent conflicts. A number of demographic variables seem to be correlated with such conflicts. Countries with larger and denser populations appear to have more civil conflicts and greater involvement in international wars. In addition, the proportion of men aged 15 to 24 in the total population aged 15 and above correlates with the frequency and magnitude of war conflicts. Countries with higher rates of infant mortality also appear to have a higher rate of revolutions and ethnic/religious/regional conflicts.

However, many of these relationships are simple correlations–that is, there is a relationship between demographic conditions and violence, but that relationship could be due to other combinations of factors than simply population characteristics. For example, if some of the world's most populous countries (e.g., China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan) are also very poor, and poor countries have more conflict, then cross-national studies would show a correlation between population size and conflict, even though that relationship may actually be due to another causal relationship. To test such relationships, political scientists have subjected VEDS issues to multivariate analysis.

So far, multivariate studies such as those by Nils Petter Gleditsch (1998) and by Wenche Hauge and Tanja Ellingsen (1998) have tended to undermine most of the claims made for the importance of VEDS threats. Population pressure on resources does not, in general, lead to war or other violent conflicts. For example, one of the most obvious needs of populations is for fresh water, and there are many areas in the world where large populations in arid or semiarid regions seem poised to clash over control of river basins. Yet as Aaron Wolf (1999) has pointed out, examining numerous cases of potential water-related conflicts, wars over water have almost never occurred. Rather, countries find it preferable to negotiate water rights rather than engage in costly military strife, simply because the costs of water conservation and negotiated agreement are almost always far less than the costs of armed conflict.

In addition, population size, density, growth rates, and age-structure have been shown in some studies, such as that of Jack Goldstone and colleagues (2000), to have no effect on the risks of violent internal conflicts when one controls for such other factors as regime type, involvement in international trade, and the presence of conflicts in neighboring countries. Such studies have shown that whether or not conflicts have "pass[ed] the threshold of violence definitely depends on sociopolitical factors and not on the degree of environmental degradation as such" (Baechler 1998, p. 32; emphasis in original).

Thus, there are no simple and direct effects of population characteristics on violence. Nonetheless, under certain conditions, demographic considerations do affect violence. This depends on the degree to which political elites use demographic factors as a basis for mobilizing populations for conflict.

Political violence is rarely a simple response to poverty or religious or ethnic differences. Such violence is the result of the inability of government institutions to diffuse and channel conflicts into constructive efforts for change, and more specifically the result of a choice by elites to mobilize populations or particular groups for organized violence against others. Where demographic factors produce violence, it is through their impact on state capacity, and on elite interests and choices. The demographic and political characteristics and the related material interest of elites are important elements in conflict, as are conditions that affect the opportunities for elites to mobilize followers for violence.

The ability of the state to manage growing populations is a key factor. Where a country's population grows faster than the government's revenues, administration and welfare provision become increasingly difficult. Criticism of the state is likely to mount along with state debts, and elites are more prone to oppose a decaying government. Among elites, if their numbers are growing rapidly relative to the growth of the economy, and hence of jobs suitable for elites, they are more likely to become polarized and initiate violent conflicts over control of the government and resources. In addition, where elites are drawn from all major ethnic or religious groups in a society, there seems to be less violence. However, where elites are concentrated in one dominant ethnic or religious grouping that excludes and discriminates against other groups, violent conflict is a greater risk. Finally, countries with greater material deprivation (as indicated by higher rates of infant mortality, or scarcity of land or jobs for peasants and workers) often have large populations that can readily be tempted by elite promises of better material conditions in return for enlisting in campaigns of violence. This is especially true in societies with larger proportions of urban population, and of young men, as such societies have potentially more people who are concentrated and easily mobilized for group violence. Goldstone (1991) has shown how these effects contributed to numerous rebellions and revolutions throughout history, including the English and French Revolutions, and the Taiping Rebellion in China.

Because certain demographic conditions can create opportunities favorable for elites to mobilize populations for violence, researchers examining particular cases of conflict often find demographic preconditions such as rapid population increase, high rates of urban growth, and large youth cohorts. However, this does not mean that in general such conditions conduce to violence. Rather, population growth can lead to violence where state revenues, economic growth, and the expansion of elite positions fall behind the demands created by population increase. Countries with fiscally sound governments, strong economic growth, and stable elites can avoid violent conflicts regardless of demographic conditions.

It is also notable that several of the demographic conditions often associated with violence–mass migrations, poverty, and religious/ethnic concentrations–are more often the result of violent conflicts than their cause.

Non-violent Environmental and Demographic Security Threats

In contrast to violence, the range of non-violent environmental and demographic security (NEDS) threats is widespread; but doubts about the severity of these problems remains high. Damage to the atmosphere–mainly in regard to ozone destruction and global warming–has led to extensive international negotiations and treaties, although thus far these have only been effective with regard to controlling ozone depletion. Debates on the magnitude of the threat to global well-being from climate changes due to human activity continue to hamper political agreements. Other areas of international conflict and negotiations over environmental and demographic threats noted by Goldstone (2001) include concerns over the extinction of species; loss of tropical and temperate forests; the generation of acid rain or particulates; over-fishing of oceans or estuaries that depletes fish stocks; the spread of harmful biological agents, such as pathogens or perhaps undesirable genetic elements from genetically-modified biota; and environmental damage to agrarian regions or other population/resource imbalances that lead to large and unexpected international migrations.

All of these NEDS threats are affected by changes in the size, density and geographic distribution of populations. In particular, larger populations, dispersed over larger areas, generally increase their use of energy for production and transportation, and destroy habitat and spread pathogens. Population changes thus tend to increase NEDS threats if their consequences are not appropriately controlled.

However, control of such threats is often difficult because actions and events in one country can create NEDS threats in others. Acid rain and particulates are carried thousands of kilometers by high altitude winds; over-fishing affects all countries that exploit a given fishery; carbon emissions or forest destruction affect global and not just local atmospheric and weather conditions. Efforts to deal with NEDS threats often stumble on the need to build complex international agreements that meet the needs of countries at vastly different levels of economic development and with very different degrees of responsibility for the creation of such threats.

In sum, the relationships between demographic variables and national security are varied and complex. Simple and direct relationships are absent; rather, contingent and indirect relationships dominate. In the area of VEDS threats, demographic conditions generally facilitate, rather than cause, political violence, creating more or less fertile ground for elites to mobilize groups for violent action. Yet elite conditions and motivations, and the political institutions that regulate elite interaction, are the key factors that determine whether violence will arise. For the more diffuse NEDS threats, dealing with the impact of population growth and dispersion seems critical. However, political factors again are key, for the international agreements that seem necessary to regulate NEDS threats have been difficult to achieve, given the varied goals and prospects of different countries.

See also: Ethnic Cleansing; Forced Migration; Geopolitics; Lebensraum; Refugees, Demography of; War, Demographic Consequences of.


Baechler, Günther. 1998. "Why Environmental Transformation Causes Violence: A Synthesis." Environmental Change and Security Project Report of the Woodrow Wilson Center 4: 24–44.

Gleditsch, Nils Petter. 1998. "Armed Conflict and the Environment." Journal of Peace Research 35:381–400.

Goldstone, Jack A. 1991. Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World. Berkeley: University of California Press.

——. 2001. "Demography, Environment, and Security." In Environmental Security, ed. Paul Diehl and Nils Petter Gleditsch. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Goldstone, Jack A., Ted Robert Gurr, Barbara Harff, Monty Marshall, Robert Bates, Tom Parris, Colin Kahl, and Marc Levy. 2000. State Failure Task Force Report: Phase III Findings. McLean, VA: Science Applications International Corporation.

Hauge, Wenche, and Tanja Ellingsen. 1998. "Causal Pathways to Conflict." Journal of Peace Research 35: 299–317.

Homer-Dixon, Thomas, and Jessica Blitt. 1998. Ecoviolence: Links Among Environment, Population, and Security. Lanham, MD: Rowman &Littlefield.

Weiner, Myron, and Sharon Stanton Russell. 2001. Demography and Security. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Wolf, Aaron T. 1999. "'Water Wars' and Water Reality." In Environmental Change, Adaptation, and Human Security, ed. Steve Lonergan. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer.

Jack A. Goldstone

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National Security and Population

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National Security and Population