The Graying of the Great Powers – Demography and Geopolitics in the 21st Century

2.2 The Population and GDP of the United States Will Expand Steadily as a Share of the Developed-World Totals. In Tandem, the Influence of the United States within the Developed World Will Likely Rise

Over the last two centuries, the U.S. share of the developed world’s population has risen almost continuously, from a mere 6% in 1820 to 34% today. With its higher rates of fertility and immigration, the U.S. share will continue to grow in the future — to 43% by 2050. By then, 58% of the developed world’s population will live in English-speaking countries, up from 42% in 1950. The relative U.S. economic position will improve even more dramatically. As recently as the early 1980s, the GDPs of Western Europe and the United States (again, in purchasing power parity dollars) were about the same, each at 37% of total developed-world GDP. By 2050, the U.S. share will rise to 54% and the Western European share will shrink to 23%. The Japanese share will meanwhile decline from 14% to 8%. By the middle of the twenty-first century, the dominant strength of the U.S. economy in the developed world will have only one historical parallel: the immediate aftermath of World War II, exactly 100 years earlier at the birth of the ‘Pax Americana’ (see Figure 5).

Figure 3: Developed-World Population, as a Percent of World Total, 1950-2050


Source: World Population Prospect (UN, 2007). For demographic scenario, see The Graying of the Great Powers, appendix 1, section 3.

Figure 4: Developed-World GDP (in 2005 PPP Dollars), as a Percent of World Total, 1950-2050


Source: For historical data, authors’ calculations based on Angus Maddison, World Population, GDP and Per Capita GDP, 1-2003 A.D., August 2007,; and World Development Indicators 2007, The World Bank, 2007, http:/// For GDP scenario, see The Graying of the Great Powers, appendix 1, section 5.

Figure 5: U.S. Population and GDP (in 2005 PPP Dollars), as a Percent of Developed-World Totals, 1950-2050


Source: See Figure 3 and 4.

Implications: Many of today’s multilateral theorists look forward to a global order in which the U.S. influence diminishes. In fact, any reasonable demographic projection points to a growing U.S. dominance among the developed nations that preside over this global order. As Ben Wattenberg puts it, “The New Demography may well intensify the cry that America is ‘going it alone’— not because we want to, but rather because we have to”.4 The United States is the only developed nation whose population ranking among all nations — third — will remain unchanged from 1950 to 2050. Every other developed nation will drop off the radar screen (see Figure 6). The United States is also the only developed economy whose aggregate economic size will nearly keep pace with that of the entire world’s economy.

2.3 Most Nations in Sub-Saharan Africa and Some Nations in the Muslim World Will Possess Large Ongoing Youth Bulges That Could Render Them Chronically Unstable until at Least the 2030s.

Political demographers generally define a youth bulge as the ratio of youth aged 15 to 24 to all adults aged 15 and over. As the youth bulge rises, so does the likelihood of civil unrest, revolution, and war. In today’s sub-Saharan Africa, burdened by the world’s highest fertility rates and ravaged by AIDS (which decimates the ranks of older adults), the average youth bulge is 36%. Several Muslim-majority nations (both Arab and non-Arab) have youth bulges of similar size. These include Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian Territories, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. In recent years, most of these nations have amply demonstrated the correlation between extreme youth and violence. If the correlation endures, chronic unrest could persist in much of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Muslim world through the 2030s — or even longer if fertility rates do not fall as quickly as projected.

Figure 6: 12 Largest Countries Ranked by Population Size*


* Developed countries are in boldface; future rankings for developed countries projected to fall beneath 12th place are indicated in parentheses.

Source: World Population Prospect (UN, 2007). For demographic scenario, see The Graying of the Great Powers, appendix 1, section 3.

Implications:While many of these nations will likely remain ‘trouble spots’ for decades to come, most of the trouble will not have geopolitical repercussions — except when it involves terrorism or interferes with the flow of important natural resources. Upon occasion developed countries will intervene, either for humanitarian purposes (for instance, stopping genocide or alleviating natural disasters) or to prevent violence from spreading across national borders. Even modest development assistance may help some of these nations break the cycle of high fertility and high poverty.

2.4 Many Nations in North Africa, the Middle East, South and East Asia, and the Former Soviet Bloc — including China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan — Are Now Experiencing Rapid or Extreme Demographic Change that Could Push them Either Toward Civil Collapse or (in reaction) Neo-authoritarianism.

Some of these nations have buoyantly growing economies, while others do not. Some have a recent history of political upheaval, while others do not. Yet all are rapidly modernizing — and all are encountering mounting social stress from some combination of globalization, urbanization, rising inequality, family breakdown, environmental degradation, ethnic conflict, and religious radicalism. China faces the extra challenge of handling a vast tide of elderly dependents come the 2020s, when it will just be becoming a middle-income country. Russia must cope with a rate of population decline that has no historical precedent in the absence of pandemic. Any of these nations could, at some point, suffer upheaval and collapse — with serious regional (and perhaps even global) repercussions. In response to the threat of disorder, many will be tempted to opt for neo-authoritarian regimes (following the current lead of China or Russia).
Implications: Although these fast-transitioning countries may experience less chronic violence than the large youth-bulge countries, the crises they do experience will tend to be more serious. Their economies are more productive, their governments are better financed, their militaries are better armed, and their rival factions are better organized. Several have nuclear weapons. Many stand on the knife-edge between civil chaos and one-party autocracy. In their demographic and economic development, most are entering the phase of maximum danger and must therefore be watched closely.

4 Ben J. Wattenberg, Fewer: How the New Demography of Population Will Shape Our Future (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004), 7.

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