The latest episode of The President’s Inbox is live! This week, Jim sat down with Nicholas Eberstadt, the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. They discussed how demographic trends shape great power competition.
Nicholas Eberstadt, the Henry Wendt Chair in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss how demographic trends in China, Russia, and the United States will shape and constrain global geopolitical competition.
Here are five highlights from their conversation:
1.) A country’s demographics can shape its position in global affairs. Nick argued that “population change slowly and gradually, but also quite unforgivingly, changes the realm of the possible in social, economic, and global affairs.” He cautioned that “human agency” complicates the commonly used phrase that “demography is destiny.” So, while changes in a country’s “population may change the goal posts gradually over time, things that happen are left up to decision-makers in the real world.”
2.) China’s demographics are troubling. Until last year, China held the title of the world’s most populous country. Now India does. China’s population is graying: the working population is shrinking, birth rates are plummeting, and the median age of the population is rising rapidly. A large elderly population on top of shrinking family size poses significant economic challenges. Other countries in Asia, most notably Japan, have gotten significantly older in recent decades. But, as Nick observed, “Japan got rich before it got old.” China is doing the opposite.
3.) Demography could constrain China’s future military, economic, and political policy options. Nick noted two trends that will put pressure on China’s government specifically and have potentially sweeping implications. First, more and more Chinese will be looking after aging parents. Nick estimated that by 2040 some three-quarters of Chinese in their sixties will have at least one parent or in-law requiring care. Having such a sizable portion of the population caring for elderly parents will mean a high demand for social welfare benefits. But large-scale programs aimed at helping care for the elderly could limit government spending on other things. Second, Nick observed that the People’s Liberation Army will soon be populated by service members who are their family’s only children. If they die in combat, their family lines will end. That fact could restrict “casualty tolerance” among the Chinese people. “Casualties in a family are always a catastrophe,” as Nick noted, but “how are people going to feel about mass causalities in an international engagement if this means the end of a family lineage?”
4.) Russia is experiencing its own demographic crisis. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s population has continued to shrink with deaths exceeding its births. While this problem isn’t unique to Russia, other countries like Germany have been “able to maintain prosperity” due to their continued advances in health, education, and technology. The way Nick put it, “Russia has this mystifying paradox—it’s a high educational attainment, low human capital society.”
5.) The United States enjoys some demographic advantages, but it shouldn’t get too comfortable. The United States is the world’s third most populous country. Its population continues to grow, in good part because of immigration. Beyond that, Nick argued that the United States has an “extraordinarily productive population due to [its] business climate, [its] political and legal institutions, and the quality of [its] legal economic system to the education of [its] population to the relative health of [the] population.” However, he acknowledged that none of these advantages should be “cause for complacency.” Nick pointed to a continued rise of “deaths of despair”—deaths attributed to suicide, overdose, and liver failure among white American men. He also attributed a “big driver of the U.S. life expectancy problem” to “cardiovascular deaths” like heart disease. Nick added, “for someone like me, who has followed the Soviet and now the Russian health crisis for decades, this looks a little bit too close to what we’ve seen in Russia for comfort.”
If you’re looking to read more of Nick’s work, check out what he has written for Foreign Affairs. In “With Great Demographics Comes Great Power,” he highlighted the correlation between a country’s demographics and its geopolitics. In “China’s Shrinking Families,” which he co-wrote with Ashton Verdery, he argued that atrophying extended kinship networks are creating substantial headwinds for Chinese innovation and economic growth. In “America Hasn’t Lost its Demographic Advantage,” he argued that a population slowdown in the United States still leaves the country in a better position than its rivals. And in a piece he wrote for the Milken Institute Review titled “Russian Power in Decline,” Nick explored the causes and consequences of Russia’s troubling demographics.