The Long View 2007-10-07: War, Demography, & Belgium

That big gap between the trend lines in the nineteenth century was important

That big gap between the trend lines in the nineteenth century was important

While demography does have interesting things to tell us about the shape of history, it is of not much use in isolation. For example, Europe having gone through a population explosion in the nineteenth century certainly enabled the mass conscript armies of that era, but it didn’t determine them.

Parts of the world currently going through similar population explosions show no sign whatsoever of this kind of warfare. It was related to European nationalism and technological development, and seems to not occur in other contexts.

War, Demography, & Belgium

A Demographic Theory of War is the title of an article in the Weekly Standard by Clark Whelton, a former chief speechwriter to New York City mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani, that would surely gladden the hard hearts of Mark Steyn and Asia Times Spengler. Whelton, it seems, attended the recent Jane's Cityforum conference in London on "Defense to 2020 and Beyond," and was there much impressed by Gunnar Heinsohn, director of the Raphael-Lemkin Institute at the University of Bremen and author of Sons and World Power: Terror in the Rise and Fall of Nations, an academic best-seller in Germany. Here are some excerpts from Heinsohn's ideas, plus my comments:

The real reason Europeans decided to stop killing each other is that they were no longer having big families. They had no more superfluous sons to burn on the battlefield.

This is not a novel point, but it's worth repeating, as are the obvious qualifications. The great age of Western demographic expansion was the 19th century, which was actually rather peaceful. Conversely, the conflict-ridden 14th century was a time of demographic contraction. No doubt Heinsohn deals with these issues in his book.

[T]he strength of a nation's military is affected by the size of a nation's families. Falling birth rates in Western countries mean that even light casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan bring cries of pain in Europe and America. But Iraq and Afghanistan are growing rapidly. ....The real quagmire in Iraq is not military, Heinsohn said. It's demographic..."If we fail to understand the implications of Iraq's demographic armament, the real cause of future insurgencies will remain enigmatic."...Islamic youth bulges have given the terror contingent an "asymmetric" advantage, a tactical edge that can't be matched by countries in demographic capitulation. The Islamists can take heavy casualties and replenish their forces quickly because Islam's demographic arsenals are filled to overflowing with irregular warriors who will fight to the death.

It is certainly the case that the Four Wars of the modern Western era (the US Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, and the two World Wars) presupposed a plentiful supply of superfluous younger sons. They were wars of mass armies and, for the most part, wars of attrition. The Iran-Iraq War was a war of that sort. The current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, are not. Neither side is inflicting mass casualties on the combatants of the other, even by the most casualty-averse measure. The 10,000 to 20,000 Iraqi civilians who have been murdered every year since the 2003 invasion have been the victims of Baathist or Islamist terror campaigns.

Except for its white population, which is falling, America is in demographic neutrality. Europe, however, is in demographic capitulation.

The point about America is generally true. However, there is a question: "which white population?" As many observers have noted, there is a significant disconnect between the regions that are supplying the manpower and the regions that are most opposed to the war. When considering America's military potential, it might be useful to consider the former regions in isolation.

As to Europe, we should consider the possibility that one of the features of a low-birth society is emancipation from family obligations. Mark Steyn insists at great and not invariably persuasive length that a cause of low fertility is the government assumption of family welfare functions: children are not expected to care for their parents, and vice versa. If that is the case, though, such children as do appear will be relatively free agents, available for adventures. Even with Darwin Award demographics, the absolute numbers of European young people is still very large.

More generally, we should note that young men in themselves are not military power. Turning them from targets into armies requires economic and political competence.

In another twenty years most of the Islamic youth bulges will have run their course--as they already have in Algeria, Iran, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey. Therefore, defending against the aggression of the youth bulges that have hijacked Islam is not an insurmountable obstacle...Iran's birth rate continues to fall. "Demographically," Heinsohn said, "Iran is a paper tiger."

Could Heinsohn be the Asia Times Spengler? Nah.

Colombia's return to peace and public safety a result of the "ageing out" of Colombia's last big youth bulge...

It must have been in the middle 1980s that Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote an opinion piece entitled "Pax" for the New York Times. He noted a decline in the crime rate, and attributed it to the smaller youth cohorts of what is now called Generation X. Just a few months later, the crack-cocaine fashion began, and all hell broke loose.

Low birth rates in Russia and China place both countries in demographic capitulation.

Russia's paradoxical advantage is that the Russian people is now relatively small; a major change is possible within a generation. As for China, the absolute size of its youth population is still very great.

"By 2050, the total demand for foreign talent in the developed world will reach 150 million. The United States alone will realize growth by pulling in the best and brightest from everywhere else. For this reason, friends and allies may opt out of alliances with the U.S., not out of anti-Americanism but because they don't want to be demographically neutered."

The NATO Alliance was built when the US had a low-immigration policy; alliances and immigration are different issues. In any case, if Heinsohn's idea of "demographic capitulation" has merit, it is not clear how the allies could do without the US, if they are to have any defense at all.

Finally, on a related note, let me qualify this assessment by British Admiral Chris Parry:

By 2010 China will have its first aircraft carrier and by 2018 state vs. state warfare "will be back with a vengeance." Which state vs. which state was left unclear.

Even in the Gulf and the Iraq Wars the US was claiming to act as the authorized agent of the UN. And China, as the saying goes, is a civilization pretending to be a state. Major interstate wars would become expressions of competing proposals for universal peace.

* * *

Belgium is Iraq with waffles: So the cruel Jonah Goldberg characterizes that politely anarchic kingdom in his recent piece Belgium: Europe's canary in a coal mine?

Belgium has managed to be interesting without getting invaded by Germany or abusing an African colony. ...Belgium is coming apart at the seams. For roughly 120 days, its 11 political parties have been unable to form a national government because the Dutch-speaking regions want greater autonomy, or even outright independence. ...Belgium was formed as a constitutional monarchy where the non-French speakers were mostly treated as second-class citizens....One is tempted to joke that it's an Iraq with better weather and waffles....

No country is more invested in the EU experiment than Belgium, whose capital, Brussels, is also the capital of the EU. If Belgium falls to sectarianism, what does that say about prospects for making Europe into a super-Belgium?...Joëlle Milquet, the leader of the French-speaking Humanist Democratic Center party and a defender of both a united Belgium and EU [said] "If 10 million people in a developed country do not manage to build a collective project...that would signal the bankruptcy of what one tries to build at the European and even international level."...[The] irony of all this: The European Union is in effect subsidizing nationalism in Belgium and across the Continent. As the EU assumes more of the responsibilities of states -- regulations, the economy, currency, possibly even defense -- the cost of independence becomes lower...By scaling back the job description of a nation-state to a few ceremonial duties, ethnic minorities see fewer risks and a lot more rewards in breaking away.

My paternal grandmother was born in Flanders during the reign of King Leopold the Wicked. Her loathing of the Walloons and all their works survived transport across the Atlantic and the events of nine decades of a life not otherwise without incident. (Paradoxically, she followed the events of the Belgian royal family with interest and affection: go figure.) So, perhaps I speak from inherited prejudice, but it seems to me that the disintegration of the Kingdom of the Belgians, should it occur, would probably not be the greatest disaster of the 21st century. However, I take issue with the view that the disintegration of Belgium bodes ill for the European Union: quite the opposite.

The EU does for state sovereignty what the Internet does for publishing: everyone who wants one gets a platform, but the platforms are necessarily under a single roof. The blogosphere, at its best, critiques and supplements the MSM. The blogosphere does not and could not replace it. Similarly, the existence of all these new European statelets is predicated on the fact that they don't have the ability to do much damage to their citizens or to each other. Washington and Brussels (well, Frankfurt) look after their defense and their money. The multiplication of such polities, in fact, makes the EU irreversible. Without it, they would need to rejoin some larger state structure.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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