Demographics Dictate Where Tomorrow’s Extremists Will Predominate

Authored by:  Daniel T. Murphy

Since 2001, the weight-of-effort of the Global War on Terror has been fought largely on faraway shores, specifically in Southwest Asia.  Is that where the fight will continue, or will it migrate elsewhere in the world?  Should we plan to fight long-term in the villages of Pakistan, or should we focus on the cities of the U.S., Europe and Asia?  How will the complexion of the Global War on Terror change in the coming decades?  Will it remain mostly Islamic?  Or, will it evolve to a clash of civilizations on a more worldwide scale?

Demographics will dictate where tomorrow’s extremists will predominate.  And, demographics must dictate where the U.S. and western nations should invest our finite intelligence resources to deter, detect and defeat emerging terrorist entities.  Demographics tell us that our problem will not only be with Islamic extremists and our problem will not only be limited to Southwest Asia and Europe.  Demographics tell us that we are likely to have challenges in some unexpected geographies.  As an example, let’s look at a part of the world that has thus far not been a significant battle space in the war on terror.  Let’s look at South America.

South America experienced significant population growth through the middle of the twentieth century due to two demographic trends: (a) Birth rates increased consistently until the early 1970s, and (b) The longevity rate has steadily increased.  As a result, Latin America’s population tripled between 1950 and 2000.  Today, while the longevity rate continues to increase, the birth rate is declining.  Children aged 15 and under comprised 40.2 percent of the population in 1950, 43.2 percent in 1965, and 29.9 percent in 2005.  The net result is that the South American populace is currently larger and younger than ever before.  However, in the coming years, population growth will slow and the populace will become older.[1]  There will be two net results of these trends.

The short term result for South America will be a boom in available economic resources.  In his Partnership for the Americas: Western Hemisphere Strategy and U.S. Southern Command, Admiral Stavridis calls this a “window of opportunity for countries to be able to invest in their future population by maximizing resources per capita on youth services such as education, pediatric health care, and vocational/technical training.”  Because South American countries will have a greater percent of the population working (and growing tax revenues), and a lesser percent of the population spending those revenues, there is a short-term opportunity to combat poverty, increase the level of education, and reform health systems.  In the long-term, the lower birth rates combined with the increased longevity rate will result in a growing percentage of South Americans joining the over-sixty-five age group.  Thus, there will be a lesser percentage of the population growing tax revenues, and a greater percentage of the population spending those revenues.

Let’s address the short-term trend first.  While South American economies in the last two decades have experienced significant growth, relatively low unemployment, and increased stability, it is important to remember that most of these countries share at least some demographic features with countries that are considered weak states.  Some countries, like Columbia, have very visible weaknesses.  Others have weaknesses that are more subtle.  For example, it was less than ten years ago that an economic recession drove Argentina’s unemployment rate above twenty percent and caused significant political instability in that country.  And crime and corruption continues to plague every South American country.  The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) estimates the loss of GDP due to crime in Central and South America at fifteen percent, compared to an average of five percent among industrialized countries.  IDB calls this “an economic drain that inhibits efforts to alleviate the underlying conditions of poverty and equality . . . that could erode governments into failed states.”  Crime erodes economic growth because foreign investors avoid the risk of investment in places that cannot guarantee the rule of law, and because skilled workers and managers will leave a region when the government cannot guarantee basic physical safety.[2]

South America also faces vast and growing disparities in wealth.  Today, the richest one tenth of the population in Latin America earns forty-eight percent of the total income.  In industrialized countries, the richest ten percent earn twenty-nine percent of the total income.[3]  The gap between the haves and the have-nots in Latin America countries resembles the gap between the haves and the have-nots in Middle Eastern countries.  Rather than joining the Islamic jihad and building road-side bombs, disenfranchised youths in South America join increasingly sophisticated gangs and terrorist organizations like the FARC, ELN and Sendero Luminoso.  In fact, the US Southern Command Strategy reads like it was written for CENTCOM: “Areas with lower levels of economic investment, development and growth, provide a breeding ground for terrorism and the full range of criminal activities.  Poverty, inequality, and corruption create permissive environments within our own Western Hemisphere that could become launching points for devastating attacks.

Today, the fifteen percent loss of South American GDP due to crime can be absorbed in an economy where the revenue generators far outweigh the revenue spenders, because the current cushion can absorb the loss.  When the aging South American population causes the equation to flip upside down, there will be no cushion.  South American governments will become significantly less able to combat poverty, fund education, and provide healthcare.  Unless these countries make smart policy decisions today to reduce crime and corruption, or significantly increase government revenues, an increasingly larger percentage of the populace will become disenfranchised.  Ultimately, they will increasingly affiliate with criminal gangs and terrorist organizations and further deteriorate wealth and stability.

So, do aging populations cause economic conditions that drive instability?  Similar to the situation in South America, the Australian Government’s Intergenerational Report (IGR) projects that over the next forty years, the over-sixty-five population will almost double to around twenty five per cent, while the growth of the working population will slow to almost zero.  The IGR reports that the ageing of Australia’s population will result in a greater demand for government pensions and health care spending and spending on senior care. And the need to keep up with changing technology and community expectations for access to newly available diagnostic tests and medical treatments will result in even greater demands on health spending. The net result is that Australia will exceed the amount it raises in taxes by five per cent of GDP by 2041.  So, do we need to worry about Australia like we worry about South America?

The answer to the question is a resounding “completemente no”, for many reasons.  Here are just a few.  When evaluating Australian state performance using the World Bank’s “Governance Matters” data set, Australia exhibits exactly “zero” of the symptoms of a weak state.[4]  Australia has had effective governance and consistent economic prosperity for two centuries.  Australia has half the population of Argentina, half the population of Columbia, and eleven percent of the population of Brazil.  Since Australia has no neighbors, there is no opportunity for “spillage” of instability from a weak or failed neighbor.  While there is some growth trend toward economic inequality in Australia (the richest ten per cent of households in Australia receive 4.3 times the income of the poorest households), Australia has nowhere near the wealth disparity of South America.  In fact, like the U.S., Australia provides economic assistance, military assistance, training, etc., to many of the world’s weak and failed states.  Bottom line, while Australia does have a demographic challenge on the horizon, they are already dealing with that challenge with policies designed to grow and extend the economy.

Here is one additional important demographic trend to consider.  Analysts are learning that weak and failing states do not necessarily create havens for the development of terrorist organizations.  However, certain attributes of weak and failing states are appealing to terrorist organizations.  According to Brea, in recent years, the majority of population growth in South American countries has been in the urban areas (4.5 percent per year).  The flow of the population from rural areas to the cities has been fast and furious (unlike Australia, which has been relatively slow and regular).  South American government infrastructures have struggled to meet the demand, and the poorest of the population have become increasingly disenfranchised.  Today’s terrorist organizations increasingly seek to operate from such urban environments where they can blend in to the landscape, leverage modern communications architectures, exploit corrupt or overwhelmed governments, and recruit from a young disenfranchised populace.  In other words, the cities of South America, where political, social and economic systems are only “partially” broken, may be more permissive staging environments than Afghanistan and Somalia.

Understanding the demographic trend is a good start.  Now, the key question for U.S. policy makers is: How to leverage all dimensions of national power to help our southern neighbors achieve political, social and economic stability that enhances our own national security.  The good news is that our national security strategy documents are already focusing in on the right things.  For example, SOUTHCOM’s objective 3.1.1 reads “Assist (South American) militaries to develop additional capabilities that ensure effective governance of their territories, specifically in under-governed territory.” As a result of sound fact-based strategy, the U.S. military has been cooperating and interoperating with South American militaries and security agencies more than ever before.  And we have had some significant recent successes – For example, in Columbia, which is experiencing a surprising economic boom.

The war on terror is no longer being fought in the mountain ravines and caves of Tora Bora.  Where will the struggle go next?  U.S. and western militaries and intelligence and law enforcement agencies must reflect on how the war will evolve both geographically and ideologically.  The geography of the fight will continue to change.  The brand of the struggle may shift from Islamic to some other flavor.  And, it may evolve to a banding together of extremist groups that are culturally, ethnically and ideologically diverse, but see themselves as having a common struggle against the West.  Geographies that we believe are relatively immune to violent extremism could potentially become key battlegrounds.  There are many “what ifs” in the equation.  Demographics are the factors.

Copyright 2012:  Daniel T. Murphy


[1] James G. Stavridis, Partnership for the Americas: Western Hemisphere Strategy and U.S. Southern Command, National Defense University Press, Washington, DC, 2010, page 211.

[2] Stavridis, page 205.

[3] Jorge A. Brea, “Population Dynamics in Latin America,” Population Bulletin, Population Reference Bureau 58, no. 1, Washington DC, 2003, page 4.  Also, United States Southern Command Strategy 2018: Partnership for the Americas, 2008, page 8.

[4] Stewart Patrick, “Weak States and Global Threats: Fact or Fiction,” The Washington Quarterly, Washington DC, 2006, page 27.

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