When Demographic Early Warning Is Missing or Ignored

Blog | February 01, 2017


Although demography is a vital pillar of national security—alongside water, food, health, energy, natural resources and cyber, not to speak of military power—it somehow does not receive the attention it requires and deserves.

In most cases, countries lack adequate systems of monitoring, regulation, planning and legislation in sharp contradiction to the other pillars of national security. While there is a general understanding that states need early warning systems to alert against wars, natural disasters and food shortages—and indeed, in most cases, the required mechanisms are in place—demography does not fare that well.

Suffice to look at the aging and decreasing population in Japan or at the impact of "one child" policy in China to get an idea about the consequences of the absence of an effective early warning apparatus in this domain. Another good example is continental Europe, whose native population is shrinking as the influx of refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers increases uncontrollably. Arguably, the damage sometimes is equitable to the results of a serious military setback or a natural disaster (or worse), but whose impact may only be felt in a decade or two.

The European Union opened its doors, quite hastily, to a massive wave of refugees without serious consideration of the demographic implications and ramifications, and without a coordinated mechanism in place to handle the inflow. Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are major recipients of refugees to such a degree, it might upset their delicate demographic balance. Also, the recent upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa brought to the surface another set of demographic issues such as ethnic cleansing, mass migration and vast areas that have become depopulated because of the havoc and chaos caused by civil wars or ISIS.

An interesting twist came to light recently when satellite imaging determined that because of the civil war in Southern Syria, many farmers deserted their lands and stopped irrigating their fields and orchards. This resulted in neighboring Jordan—one of the most arid states on the globe—getting extra water through the Yarmouk River.

One man's disaster is another's good fortune or opportunity.

At present, the priority of all involved—either in the West or Russia—is to stabilize the situation and to deal with the impact of ISIS-inspired terrorism at home. It seems that very few, if any, in the intelligence community, the halls of government or even academia are closely examining the demographic aspects of realities around the world, nor are they providing authorities a worthy forecast or an alert on the impact that demographics currently has and will continue to have on national and regional security, economics and stability.

Even a notable establishment such as the U.S. National Intelligence Council, which runs the Long Range Analysis Unit, seems to focus its attention on forecasting democratic transition in the Middle East and North Africa based on future median age rather than on more urgent demographic issues.

Only Australia stands as an exception with a clearly defined demographic policy; drafted in 2010, it quickly adjusted its refugee and immigration policy following the upheaval in the Middle East and the emergence of ISIS. But Australia benefits from being an island continent and can buffer itself against undesired flows of immigrants.

The ongoing tragedy associated with migrants indicates it is high time to upgrade demographic early warning systems on the scale of national security priorities—to avoid catastrophic results in the years and generations to come. Forecasting the coming age of democracy is important, but assessing the impact of sudden mass migration into new terrains is more urgent. Mass migration, from urban and rural areas alike, has its effects in economic, ecological and human terms.

In addition, consideration should be given also to those elements which fill the vacuum created by the mass migrations. In the case of Southern Syria, some areas were partially taken or infiltrated by ISIS (Daesh) thus posing a real danger to neighboring Jordan. In the Iraqi case, the presence of pro-Iranian Shia militias causes concern, as well. The Jordanian Chief of Staff was very clear about that in a recent interview with the BBC (in Arabic). Here, an early warning or alert is more than crucial.

These realities, in turn, raise several fundamental questions for policymakers: which organization or body is most suitably charged with monitoring demographic changes and providing alerts in a timely manner? Should it be the responsibility of intelligence agencies or national security councils or should this be addressed by government-sponsored think thanks? Perhaps an international organization might be able to take the lead in this important work.

Even when policymakers decide on the framework, what is the timeframe for an early warning system? Military intelligence is expected to issue an alert about outbreak of hostilities or a war in a matter of hours or days. What is the time period for an alert about a ticking "demographic bomb?” Are democratic leaders who are facing elections every four or five years able or geared to cope with such a task, which in many cases necessitates unpopular and sometimes tough measures? The answers to these questions are not simple, but inaction today might prove to be calamitous tomorrow.

Ambassador (ret.) Jacob Rosen served as Israel's ambassador in Jordan (2006-2009). He is currently an independent consultant on demographic mapping and collects books about "Lawrence of Arabia." 

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and not that of the EastWest Institute.​