The End of Russia and What it Means for America – My review and other thoughts on the iron lsws of demographics

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Last year I reviewed Ilan Berman’s terrific Implosion: The End of Russia and What it Means for America in The Middle East Quarterly. Demographics has long fascinated me and I’ll have some additional comments at the end. But first, here’s the review:

With Russian president Vladimir Putin playing an outsized role on the world-stage, any book discussing “the end of Russia” is quite the intellectual outlier. But Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council and an experienced Russia hand, looks to the field of demographics (too often ignored by students of international affairs) to observe that Russia’s population is on the precipice of a rapid decline and that its current economic strength rests on weak foundations. Berman has done an enormous service in pointing out this deep trend in international affairs. 

Russian birthrates are well below replacement levels; life expectancy has declined, and Russians are rapidly fleeing the corruption and lack of opportunity in their homeland by emigrating to the West. Russia’s depopulation is particularly problematic in the Far East where a resurgent China covets the vast resources of this enormous region. As Russians leave Asia, Moscow will be hard-pressed to enforce its authority in the face of China’s growing presence. 

Meanwhile, in European Russia, Muslims are the fastest growing segment of the population and, thanks in great part to Russia’s heavy-handed counterterror policies, are isolated from broader Russian society and turning towards radical Islam. Berman suggests some nightmare scenarios were these trends to continue, but more importantly, he raises the fundamental question of what will become of Russia when Russians are a minority in their own country.

While the Russians have proven adept at exploiting their Soviet-era arms, nuclear, and space industries as well as the country’s vast energy reserves to woo and pressure other states, the author also shows how other Soviet legacies, such as a decayed social and physical infrastructure, are rapidly hollowing Russian power.

After sketching out these trends, Berman prudently avoids making predictions, but a more in-depth analysis would be welcome. Are there no opportunities for the United States and the West in Russia’s coming implosion? And how can Washington best position itself to take advantage of them? Finally, Russia is not the only Eurasian country facing a demographic collapse: How will aging Europe and Japan factor into Russia’s future?

First, it is worth noting some key stuff that Berman got dead on – most notably the fundamental ricketiness of the Russia economy. With oil prices low, their economy is in free fall. The increased aggression of a Russia seeking to hold on to its place on the world stage is another key point.

But beyond that, I’ve been interested in demographics since reading Ben Wattenberg’s The Birth Dearth I’ve been fascinated by demographics. Not the short-term growth and decline of towns and cities (although that is interesting) or the changing ethnic make-up of a region – no, I’m interested in the big stuff. Where is a nation – or all of humanity – going?

Most of the developed world is heading into population decline (Japan is already there) and birth-rates across the world have slowed dramatically. On the whole, this is for the good. For centuries population growth was slow because disease took such a heavy toll. The number of people who served childhood was small and then there were innumerable opportunities to die. Infections and injuries were easy to acquire and tough to survive. Even modest improvements in health care and sanitation lead to explosive and unsustainable population growth.

But leveling off is one thing, what about outright decline. Does youth provide a certain energy and push for innovation that might be lacking in an older society? Intuitively, this seems right, although it may not be true. The U.S. with modest population growth is a world center for innovation. Japan is the world leader in population decline, and their economy is in the doldrums, but that hasn’t prevented them from inventing and creating. On the other hand, population growth leaders like Pakistan and Nigeria are hardly centers of innovation and creativity.

If there is a happy medium, it is probably the United States which maintains a just below-replacement level birthrate augmented by relatively generous immigration policies. Through immigration the United States regularly welcomes the most capable and resourceful people from the rest of the world. This may not be a planned strategy to maintain American strategic advantages, but it sure works out that way.

With Europe heading towards decline will that lead to the slow end of Western Civilization – that amazing thing that started with the Greeks and has been an engine of liberty and wisdom for thousands of years? Or do these ideas have a power and resonance that extends beyond any ethnic group? I loved my time at St. John’s College in Annapolis and hate to think that these profound ideas will fall into the dustbin, ancient texts of little relevance.

In the short-term, population contines to grow. But the trends are slowing. I grew up reading science fiction in which a sprawling, brawling humanity spread across space. I imagine we’ll still explore, but with low population growth will there be a real incentive to colonize? (In fairness, colonization here on Earth was a mixed bag for many, particularly the original inhabitants.)

Maybe we’ll keep out own planet tidy, visit around as tourists, and focus on self-acualization. It is a vision of humanity growing up.

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