Multipolarity and Demography
No. 1 2008 January/March
Anatoly Vishnevsky


Director of the Institute of Demography of the State University- Higher School of Economics. He holds a Doctorate in Economics.

The world’s
population grew at unprecedented rates in the 20th century due to
asynchronous changes in mortality and birth in the course of a
global demographic transition. World population growth rates peaked
in the 1960s, then gradually declined over the next three decades
and this tendency is continuing. Nevertheless, there will be five
to seven times more people in the world by the middle of the 21st
century than at the beginning of the 20th century. The planet’s
population has never been evenly distributed, but the global
demographic explosion has sharply increased this

The main global
challenge of the population explosion, which in turn gives rise to
other challenges, is economics. This challenge stems from an
enormous increase in needs due to the emergence of billions of new
consumers and the growth in the average level of needs for each
consumer. As a result of this rapid growth in global needs and
attempts to respond to this growth with an adequate intensification
of production in all its forms, including traditional ones, the
imbalance between people’s activity and the natural resources they
use has acquired global dimensions.


Economic and
environmental problems can easily change into political or even
military-political challenges in the modern world. Inasmuch as
these challenges stem from the demographic situation, they may be
caused by international or domestic reasons.

The international
reasons are obvious. The world’s demographic asymmetry dramatically
exacerbates economic disparities, the conflict between poor and
rich countries, and competition for resources amidst a growing
shortage. At the same time, this course of events encourages
modernization in developing countries, which drastically changes
the correlation of forces in the world. The idea of redistributing
global resources is in the air.

The domestic
reasons stem from modernization, which destroys traditional social
structures and institutions and the way of life of hundreds of
millions of people. Modernization also creates a multitude of
formerly unknown channels for economic and social mobility. People
then embrace a new way of life and a new system of rules,
institutions and values. However, many economic, social and
demographic factors impede and slow down modernization. The
throughput capacity of social mobility channels is increasing very
slowly and does not meet the needs of new social groups. Discontent
builds up in society, which increases in the face of an imminent
conflict between the old, half-destroyed and the new, half-mature
forms of life.

(usually anti-Western) ideologies and political movements arise the
world over. In idealizing the past, they look for support in
traditional values, religious fanaticism, nationalist extremism,
etc. The paradox of history is that the growth of traditionalism is
usually caused by modernist aspirations.

Not even
scientists realize how extremely complex this situation is and an
analysis is often replaced with superficial reasoning. For example,
we can take the ‘clash of civilizations’ concept put forth by
Samuel Huntington, which emphasizes the impenetrability of borders
between civilizations.

In reality,
however, the achievements (and controversies) of an
industrial-urban civilization are rapidly mastered by rural
communities, which have to move from one historical era to another
in a very short period of time. It is the difficulties of this
rapid transition that bring about intermediate social states. These
states are politically highly unstable and might bring about
outbreaks of disorders and violence, coups, bloody ethnic
conflicts, reckless military schemes, and the growth of domestic
and international terrorism.

The situation is
aggravated by an important demographic factor that is often
underestimated. Remarkably, the term ‘Third World’ – as opposed to
the First (Capitalist) and the Second (Communist) Worlds – was
coined by French demographer Alfred Sauvy on the basis of an
analysis of the demographic situation in the world.

As a result of
the demographic explosion, developing countries have a very young
population. One half of the Russian population is younger than 37
years old; the figure for Europe is 39 years, while in such
countries as Germany and Italy it is 42, and 43 years in Japan.
Children and teenagers under 16 years of age account for half of
the population in Afghanistan, and half of the population is under
15 years old in the Congo, which will overtake Russia in population
over time. The average age of the entire African population is 19
years, while in Asia it is 28 years. By 2017, the median age of the
Russian population will increase to 39 years, in Europe to 42 years
and in North America to 37 years. At the same time, the median age
in Africa will reach a mere 20 years and 31 years in Asia. So now
and in the foreseeable future, teenagers and young people, the
socially immature and largely uneducated, will make up a huge part
of the population in developing countries. They do not have clear
prospects, are easily manipulated and are inclined toward religious
or political fanaticism.

These factors
increase political instability, which is pronounced in many densely
populated countries. Amidst the globalization processes, it may
destabilize the situation in the world and bring about large-scale
military conflicts. If conflicting parties possess weapons of mass
destruction, such conflicts may pose a threat to all of


It is obvious
that the international community must take special efforts to
reduce pressure in the global “boiler.” One way is to influence the
global situation in order to stop the demographic explosion and
gradually reduce the world’s population. The only acceptable way to
achieve this is by reducing birth rates in developing

A great deal of
success has already been achieved in this field. From the middle to
the end of the 20th century, birth rates in less developed regions
decreased by half. However, birth rates are still much higher than
necessary (given the present mortality rates) even for stabilizing
the population. Thus, the world’s population is continuing to grow
rapidly, although at a slower rate than in the

According to a
2006 long-term UN forecast, there are three ways that the world’s
population could grow. It would be the high road to disaster if the
situation develops according to the high scenario. Yet, even the
medium scenario does not inspire much optimism (Graph

A “stable” nine
billion people, coupled with the growing needs of the average
resident of the Earth, add up to total requirements that can hardly
be met. The only optimistic way is to develop according to the low
scenario, where the population will gradually decrease. In the
distant past (more than 200 years ago), the world’s population was
nearly the same as in the middle of the 20th century, i.e. before
the population explosion (Graph 3). Therefore it is necessary to
bring birth rates in the world below the simple reproduction

The strategy of
slowing down demographic growth is, perhaps, the only way to
successfully respond to global challenges without creating
additional problems. At the same time, this strategy has not always
been effective and sometimes involved tough measures


Throughout human
history, the migration of people from densely populated regions to
lesser populated ones was an important mechanism to regulate global
demography. In the 19th and 20th centuries, an accelerated growth
in the number of Europeans started this mechanism once again. Until
the middle of the last century, people usually moved from
economically developed countries of the Old World to colonized
regions, mainly to undeveloped or poorly developed territories in
the New World and Oceania. More than 60 million people left Europe
from 1820-1940.

However, in the
second half of the 20th century, the demographic asymmetry and
economic polarization of the North and the South changed the
direction of intercontinental migration and its scope. Over 30
years alone (1960-1990), about 60 million people moved from
southern regions to northern ones, and this flow still continues
unabated. Moreover, annual growth rates in the number of migrants
increased from 1.4 percent (in 1990-1995) to 1.9 percent
(2000-2004). From 1990 to 2005, the number of migrants in the world
increased by 36 million, of whom 92 percent (33 million) moved to
industrialized countries. The average balance of migration between
developed and developing countries in 2000-2005 stood at 2.6
million people a year, or 2.2 percent, in favor of developed
nations. These figures were cited by the UN Secretary General at a
May 2006 session of the UN General Assembly.

According to the
UN medium scenario (which seems to be overly optimistic as it
presupposes a drop in the flow of immigrants to developed countries
after 2010), another 120 million people will move to these
countries in the first half of the 21st century.

Migration from
the South to the North has become a new global reality, bringing
about essential changes in the ethnic composition of developed
countries. Already by the middle of the century, the white
non-Hispanic population may cease to be a majority in the United
States. In many European countries, the share of immigrants and
their descendants will approach 30 percent of the local population
and will continue to increase.

Having created an
effective mechanism for redistributing financial resources between
the South and the North, migration has become an important economic
component of modern international relations. According to World
Bank estimates, money transfers by migrants to their relatives in
the late 1980s totaled $65 billion a year. (This amount was second
only to overall revenue from crude oil sales at the time.) In the
early 1990s, the share of migrants’ incomes sent to Third World
countries stood at 31 percent of profits from the foreign-economic
activities of Egypt, 26 percent of Bangladesh and Jordan, 25
percent of Sudan, and 23 percent of Morocco and Mali. Since then,
the role of international money transfers by migrant workers has
increased significantly. Between 1995 and 2005, the total amount of
money transfers to developing countries increased from $58 billion
to $167 billion (these figures may be understated), by far
exceeding all international aid to the Third World. According to UN
estimates, money transfers to developing countries in 2004 made up
1.7 percent of their GDP. China, India and Mexico were the largest
recipients of those incomes. But of the 20 countries where money
transfers account for at least 10 percent of GDP, small developing
countries make up a majority.

Although much of
this money is used for consumption, it is not spent on food alone.
Money transfers by migrants are often the main source for covering
spending on education and health services, thus contributing to the
accumulation of human capital.

However, the
significance of migrant workers is not only measured in money
terms. The professional knowledge and social experience gained by
these workers turn them into agents of modernization, carriers of
new technological and institutional ideas, and conductors of new
social and political thinking.


The migration
from the poor South to the rich North seems quite logical. It is
only natural that the migration flows, established in the second
half of the 20th century, are not slowing down, but are continuing
to grow. However, migrants are facing serious obstacles more and
more often as the capacity of developed nations to absorb migration
flows is limited.

These countries
began to encourage immigration in the postwar years when they were
experiencing a shortage of manpower, especially unskilled labor.
Immigration contributed to their economic growth. The Third World
also gained economically as well as culturally. Initially, the
parties’ interests coincided (at least partially), but conflicts
have now arisen.

First of all,
there is a numerical disproportion. The need of developed nations
for imported labor, especially if it serves as a structural
supplement to the existing workforce, is limited, while the
potential labor supply for developing countries is virtually

According to the
latest estimates, the developed world will need 513 million jobs in
2050 – 84 million fewer jobs than in 1995. At the same time, the
developing world will need 3,928 million jobs – 1,806 million jobs
more than in 1995. Even if we consider that these estimates are
approximate, the dramatic discrepancy in these figures, which
attests to the North’s inability to meet the developing world’s
demand, is evident.

But the capacity
of the labor market is not the only problem. Serious problems arise
from the limited ability of immigrants to adapt to a new
environment both socially and culturally. When the number of
immigrants with different social, cultural, legal and political
traditions and stereotypes is relatively small, they manage to
assimilate fairly quickly in their new country. But when the
absolute and relative number of immigrants becomes significant and
keeps increasing rapidly, they form more or less compact enclaves.
Integration processes slow down and cross-cultural tensions emerge,
increased by economic and social inequality between the local and
immigrant population. These factors inevitably bring about the
marginalization of immigrants (at least temporarily) and a crisis
of their cultural identity. As a result, broad masses become
receptive to simplified “fundamentalist” ideas which they believe
help them to overcome their cultural duality and “find themselves”
once again. The integration process thus becomes blocked and many
(although certainly not all) immigrants find themselves in
opposition to their host societies. This confrontation can
sometimes take very aggressive forms.

The situation is
aggravated further by the simultaneous exacerbation of the cultural
identity crisis in an immigrant’s country of origin. As they
gradually move toward modernization, Third World countries enter an
extremely painful period of internal conflict and rigid
confrontation between the values of traditional and modern

At the same time,
states that use foreign labor start realizing the limited nature of
their immigration capacity. Heated debates are held over the
immigration problem that becomes a political card. Anti-immigrant
sentiments then arise and tough measures are taken to curb the
inflow of foreigners. Yet a real drop in the exodus of people from
developing to developed countries is unlikely, and the migration
pressure of the South on the North is turning into another global


Russia belongs to
the world’s demographic minority and the Golden Billion club of
countries. This factor brings it closer to other countries of the
North and, at the same time, requires a rethinking of the situation
inside the Golden Billion and its attitude toward the rest of the

developments have put the idea of a bipolar world, which allegedly
existed until recently, to a serious test. Actually, it was the
bipolarity not of the world, but of the North, where most of the
population of the Golden Billion countries lives. This idea came
into doubt through changes in the correlation of forces within the
North and by the gradual loss of the role of the world’s only
decision-making center. For the first time in its history, Europe,
enlarged to the “Atlantic North” and even farther if we count
Japan, has ceased being the only center of global

The development
of the international situation prompts a search for an optimal
inner configuration of the Golden Billion countries. Will it be
monocentric, bicentric or polycentric? What better meets the
interests of the “world demographic minority”?

A monocentric
North, which presupposes certain inequality and the existence of
one decision-making center seeking to assume full responsibility,
is hardly feasible.

Countries with a
European culture, which have a more or less common historical past
and a common values system, are richer and, most importantly, are
at the stage of industrial-urban civilization, are countered by the
densely populated, but poor, developing world. To protect their
common interests, the Golden Billion countries need to pool their
efforts and resources. However, it is difficult to imagine
developed countries, formerly separated by the ideologies of
Capitalism and Communism, as something completely homogeneous. The
nature of complex systems requires their inner differentiation and
the structuring of the growing internal diversity.

The search for a
new structure that would meet the conditions of a changing world
has been underway for decades. Northern countries are increasingly
aware of being economic, political and military entities that are
not large enough to act on the international stage separately. This
consideration was taken into account, for example, in creating,
strengthening and enlarging the European Union. Not one European
country can act as a center of economic or political power that
would be commensurate with the United States, whereas the EU can.
(Germany, the largest EU country, had a population of 82 million
people in 2007, while the EU’s total population stood at 497
million.) At the same time, relations between the European Union
and the United States are not changing from competition to
confrontation, which is largely due to an understanding of their
common vital interests in the face of global challenges.

Has Russia fully
realized the requirements of the new global structuring? Most
likely not. Moscow has expressed its ambitions weakly and vaguely
to create a “third Northern center of power” (in addition to the
United States and the EU) and has made no serious practical steps
in this direction. But when Russia tries to play the role of such a
center in global dimensions, this attests to an obvious
overestimation by Moscow of its economic and demographic

Even if we remain
within the logic of demography, Moscow’s present policy cannot but
cause concern. Russia is the most populated country in Europe, but
its demographic ranking in the global demographic hierarchy is
steadily decreasing. Russia’s population reached a record high of
148 million people in 1993; since then it has dropped by more than
six million and is still falling. But even the 148 million people
of today is not the same as the 130 million citizens of the Russian
empire at the end of the 19th century, when they accounted for
eight percent of the world’s population. For comparison, the
population of the United States now stands at 306 million and that
of the EU at 497 million.

In the middle of
the 20th century, Russia – within its present borders – had the
world’s fourth largest population after China, India and the United
States. It had dropped two places, putting it behind Indonesia and
Brazil by 2000. After 2000, Russia fell behind Pakistan, Bangladesh
and Nigeria and moved to ninth place. According to the UN medium
scenario (revised in 2006), Russia will retain ninth place in 2017
and even in 2025, but by the middle of the century it will drop to
15th place. (When the UN revises its forecasts every two years,
they change somewhat. For example, the 2000 forecast put Russia
17th in population in 2050; the 2002 forecast changed this figure
to 18th; and the 2004 forecast put it at 17th again; see Table

Whatever the
economic or military capabilities of the “third Northern center”
might be, it cannot be viable and competitive without boosting its
demographic weight.

If Russia is
interested in the emergence of a “third Northern center,” it must
try to establish a larger supranational interstate community,
something like the European Union. The only way to do this now is
to restore, at least partially, the geopolitical unity of the
former Soviet territory, but on an entirely different, non-imperial
basis, without any attempts to restore the Soviet Union.

The potential of
the Commonwealth of Independent States, which has been steadily
weakening, could be used to help move along this path. Considering
the demographic and economic situation, the most natural and
advantageous way would be to start with the creation of a common
labor market in the CIS. This would remove the threat of a manpower
shortage, which is looming large over Russia, and help create an
interim mechanism for preparing part of the migrants for
naturalization in Russia. Thanks to its current economic
advantages, Moscow would then automatically take the place of the
universally recognized non-confrontational leader of the

In the future, a
unified labor market could play the role of the European Coal and
Steel Community (an organization founded in 1951 with the active
participation of recent mortal enemies – Germany and France, and
later reorganized into the European Economic Community). Today,
however, things are developing in the opposite

Yet even the
total demographic potential of all CIS countries is not large
enough. The population of many of them will keep decreasing – apart
from Russia, these countries include Armenia, Belarus, Georgia,
Moldova and Ukraine. The overall number of people in the region
will decrease and the gap in population between the CIS, on the one
hand, and the European Union and the United States, on the other,
will increase (see Table 2).

Therefore, even
if the rapprochement of the former Soviet republics does result in
the establishment of a “third Northern center,” Russia will have to
take measures in three major fields to build up its demographic
potential: increase birth rates, reduce death rates and attract

We should not
entertain utopian hopes that success in the first two fields would
eliminate the need for Russia to seek large-scale immigration. All
available forecasts show that this is not so and that a strong
demographic growth is possible only through immigration, largely
from outside the CIS. This is why Russia should vigorously build up
possibilities to integrate immigrants into Russian society, but
this is not going to be a likely probability in the near future, at
least not until 2020.

Russia is not
ready today to receive large numbers of foreigners. Public opinion
in the country is very negative toward immigration, which has an
impact on the position of the authorities as well. This situation
does not meet the imperatives of the global demographic evolution,
nor Russia’s interests, but it will hardly change any time

In building its
relations with the Golden Billion countries, Russia should also
address issues of its cooperation with the rest of the world, above
all with its Asian neighbors.

In Asia, internal
economic, social, political and cultural tensions will be stronger
and will continue longer than in other parts of the world (perhaps
with the exception of Africa, but this is a case of a more distant
future) – largely because of an unprecedented population growth.
This is why Asia will continue to be a troubled region. Building
stable relations with Asian powers is one of Russia’s
foreign-policy priorities. Yet the logic of demography requires a
carefully weighed approach to interaction with these

Despite all the
above reservations, Russia’s current positions in the “Northern
Club” can still largely rely on its demographic weight and on the
fact that in terms of population it is the world’s second largest
country after the U.S. and the first country in Europe. However,
this factor loses its importance if Russia is compared with China
or India. The population of these two countries will reach 1.4
billion and 1.3 billion people respectively in 2017, and by the
middle of the century their total population will exceed 3 billion.
Too close alliances with such giants can fully deny Russia an
independent role or, at best, can turn it into an appendage

especially its scarcely populated Asian part, has enormous natural
wealth. This does not only include hydrocarbons, but also its
invaluable freshwater resources, as well as boundless expanses of
land. By 2050, the per capita area of arable land in the world will
decrease to 0.08 hectares, whereas Russia by that time will have
1.14 hectares of arable land per capita. An excessive rapprochement
with, say, a growing China, which lacks resources of its own, may
impose “allied obligations” on Russia, which can ultimately result
in the limitation of its rights to its own resources and to
territories where they are located. Moscow will be able to
successfully defend its interests only by relying on the solidarity
of countries of the North, which are in the same demographic boat
with it.

Russia, like the
Soviet Union in the past, has taken an equivocal position on the
issue of the drop in birth rates in developing countries. The
“anti-Malthusianism” of the Soviet era is popular again in Russia.
Criticism is leveled at international organizations advocating
family planning and at the decisions made at the United Nations
International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 in
Cairo, Egypt, which were aimed at slowing down growth rates in the
world’s population. These developments are in line with
traditionalist sentiments widespread in developing countries, but
which are different from Russia’s interests. Like other states of
the North, Russia is objectively interested in an early end to the
demographic explosion in the Third World. The reduction of birth
rates in developing countries is probably the only
non-contradictory response to many global challenges.