Military analysts are always talking about strategy. Often they are proposing one that they have just invented and naturally think will be the solution to the nation’s security problems. The present time, filled as it is with the threat of Islamist terrorism and with the debacle of the Iraq War, is especially marked by the proliferation of strategic proposals.

More seasoned analysts know, however, that if any strategy is to prove effective, it must fit social and structural realities, including the state of technology, the economy, and the political system. Less noted is the role of demography.

Until recently, demographic changes were so slow that they hardly seemed to be a variable effecting strategic challenges. But today, many major nations are undergoing rapid and evident changes in their demographic structure. This is most obvious in Europe, but it is also the case in the United States, Russia, China, and Japan. Demographic disruption is impacting America, all of its major allies, and all of its traditional or potential adversaries.

In Western countries, the combination of a sharp decline in the birth rates of the European or European-descended population, on the one hand, and the sharp increase in the non-European immigrant population, on the other, is causing a great transformation in social structure and national identity, which is bringing about a major transformation in military strategy. The process has only begun, but in the years ahead, history will teach us once again that demography is destiny.


In order for a particular population to sustain its numbers, it should have an average reproduction rate of 2.1 births per woman. But the birth rate for almost every Western nation has fallen below 1.5 during the last couple of decades. In Italy and Spain, formerly the European nations with the highest birth rates, it is now under 1.3. Although the United States has a rising population, that growth is entirely due to immigration and to the higher reproduction rates of peoples of non-European origin. With the exception of devout religious communities—especially the Mormons—among most European-American groups, reproduction rates are below the level of sustainability.

When one projects these demographic statistics forward, it appears inevitable that in half a century most European-descended peoples will have only two-thirds or less of the population that they have today. Furthermore, a much larger percentage of that population will be old and no longer able to work. It follows that national security will have a very different meaning when nations themselves have become so different.

A transformation in Western, particularly American, military strategy has occurred alongside this demographic transformation. New technologies have issued in great improvements in what the military calls C4—command, control, communication, and computers. In the past two decades, the U.S. military has found it essential to incorporate these improvements into its strategies, operations, and weapons acquisitions, with the totality of results being called the “revolution in military affairs” or RMA.

Unfortunately, there is always someone who will carry a good thing too far, as was the case with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s ineffective “military transformation” project. Rumsfeld’s misuse of the RMA meant reducing the size of the U.S. ground forces, but it had always been focused upon enabling our military to defeat other militaries—that is to say, upon conventional war—and had nothing to say about defeating insurgencies, as has become amply clear in Iraq. Rumsfeld’s reductions made the transformed ground forces even less capable of dealing with the Iraqi insurgency than the old-fashioned pre-transformation forces would have been.

There has also been a parallel “revolution in attitudes toward the military” or RAM. Whereas the RMA has principally been propelled by the new technologies of the information economy, the RAM has been driven by the new demography of low birth rates. These two revolutions are connected and mutually reinforcing.

In the modernizing societies of a century ago, the number of children per couple was normally four or more. It was also common for some of these children to die from disease while their parents were still living. If it happened that some instead died while fighting in a war, this was seen as a sad, but not surprising, variation on the familiar theme of death among the young.

Today, it is very rare for a child in postmodern society to die from disease while his parents are alive. And if he should die in military combat, this is seen as a shocking surprise. Indeed, for one of these rare children to die in such a rare way will increasingly seem a unique catastrophe and an unacceptable scandal. This is particularly true for the children of the professional class—the liberal professionals and the professional liberals. This class, of course, is especially large and dominant in the information economy and postmodern culture.

It is difficult to imagine such a society, with its one-child demography and no-death mentality, undertaking such military operations as the massive infantry assaults and trench warfare of World War I, the immense amphibious invasions and foxhole fighting of World War II, and the prolonged and stalemated combat of the Korean War. These kinds of operations could be undertaken by a modern society, but they probably are beyond the capabilities of a postmodern one. The popular opposition to the prolonged combat of the Vietnam War and now the Iraq War illustrates the point. Rather, the military undertakings that are suitable for a postmodern society are the highly mobile and extremely brief operations of the Persian Gulf War and the Kosovo War. Above all, they must be low-casualty operations. (During the Kosovo War, NATO forces did not suffer a single combat death.)

This low-casualty imperative is the major feature of the revolution in attitudes toward the military. It obviously has a major impact, and imposes major limitations, upon strategy, especially the strategy of the U.S. Army. It is also a major factor promoting the revolution in military affairs, as the United States once again, as it has in earlier wars, seeks to use high technologies to ensure low casualties. This is especially the case with the strategy of the U.S. Air Force.

In the aftermath of their dismal Iraq experience, American ground forces, especially the Army, will very likely want to avoid counterinsurgency wars. After the Vietnam War, the Army tried to reinvent itself in a way that would make it difficult for civilian policymakers to put it into a war involving guerrillas or insurgents. The famous Weinberger-Powell Doctrine, which in effect proscribed prolonged counterinsurgency wars, was one result. The Air-Land Battle Doctrine, which provided for high-tech wars against conventional armies, was another. After the Iraq War, the Army will probably turn to some new high-tech variation of its conventional definition and mission and therefore to some new version of the RMA to correct the distorted version of the Rumsfeld era. Moreover, the post-Iraq and neo-RMA Army will have to operate within the context of a widespread popular resistance to military casualties, which will be even greater than it was before the Iraq War—a sort of neo-RAM.

What strategy will the Army develop in response to the double impact of the post-Iraq versions of the RMA and the RAM? What kind of enemies will the Army want to fight so that it can use high technology to fight its wars, while keeping American casualties low?

On the one hand, it is clear that the Army will not want to fight guerrillas or insurgents, and therefore it will not really develop a counterinsurgency strategy. Most of the current Army’s focus upon counterinsurgency strategy will disappear soon after it withdraws from Iraq, rather like its elaborate, if short-lived, efforts at counterinsurgency strategy made during the Vietnam War. On the other hand, it is also clear that the Army will not want to fight the conventional forces of America’s most obvious peer competitor, China.

The kind of enemies that the Army will want to fight will be something in between: the conventional forces of medium or small-size powers—what have often been called rogue states. But the Army will want to be sure that these enemies’ conventional forces do not turn into counterinsurgencies, as happened in Iraq. Indeed, in the months before the Iraq War began, the Army was concerned about this very possibility. That is why the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, wanted several hundred thousand soldiers to impose order in post-Saddam Iraq and to abort an insurgency before it could develop. Still earlier, and because of the same concern, the Army had been very cautious about sending ground troops into Kosovo in 1999. (It was the good fortune of the Army—and of the Clinton administration—that Serbia capitulated before NATO ground forces had to be employed.)

Given all of these constraints, there are not really that many enemies left for the U.S. Army to fight. The Bush administration’s 2002 list of rogue states—the notorious “axis of evil”—specified Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. But given what has happened in Iraq, it is unlikely that the Army will want to fight in Iran; it not only looks too much like Iraq, but is three times as big. As for North Korea, the Army has long been prepared to fight a conventional, high-tech campaign against that country’s conventional, low-tech army. But North Korea is now not just a conventional power; it is potentially a nuclear one. If even the Bush administration has proved reluctant to use military force against North Korea, it is almost certain that any future administration will be reluctant, too.

It thus appears that the Army is left with no specific and identifiable enemy. The most that it will be able to contemplate is some hypothetical, conventional rogue state that may materialize sometime in the future—which makes it difficult to develop a credible strategy.

The two military revolutions have very different consequences for the U.S. Air Force than for the Army. From its beginning, the Air Force has seen itself as the most high-tech of the services, and it has always sold itself as being the most able to win victory with low casualties.

In World War II, the U.S. Air Force promised “victory through air power” and “precision bombing.” In the Cold War, it promised not only “more bang for the buck” but also less blood for the bang. Of course, the Korean War and the Vietnam War demonstrated the limitations of air power and the continuing necessity for ground forces, but the Air Force persisted in the pursuit of its long-standing mission. The Persian Gulf War of 1991, with its initial air campaign of five weeks and its subsequent ground campaign of only four days, brought it closer to that goal. The Bosnian War of 1995, with the NATO air strikes overshadowing what was actually the more decisive ground campaign conducted by the Croatian and Bosnian Muslim armies, appeared to bring it closer still. Then the Kosovo War of 1999 became the first war in history to be won by air power alone and the first war in which the victorious side did not suffer a single combat casualty. The long journey of the U.S. Air Force through the wars of the 20th century toward its goal of victory through air power by itself had at last reached its destination. Kosovo seemed to decisively demonstrate the efficacy and efficiency of a military strategy based upon air power and precision bombing.

The initial Afghan campaign, which relied heavily upon air bombardment of concentrations of Taliban forces, seemed to underline the value of the Air Force strategy. So did the initial Iraq campaign. But as soon as these conventional campaigns were superceded by counterinsurgency ones, it became clear that the Air Force’s old strategic solution had no convincing answer to the new strategic problem. In the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghan wars, the Air Force, like the Army, will have to find the right kind of enemies to fight.

The Air Force’s idea of fighting is bombing. And although bombing is largely useless against insurgents, it can be very useful against conventional militaries, particularly against armored forces—using machines to destroy machines. Although the Air Force has always resisted having its principal mission defined as ground support, or assistance to the Army, it is willing to undertake such operations on occasion.

The Air Force really likes to bomb civilian targets. But it recognizes that massive bombing as with Germany and Japan during World War II, North Korea during the Korean War, and, briefly, Hanoi during the Vietnam War is not seen as legitimate by the publics of postmodern societies. The no-death mentality seems to apply even to enemies. Consequently, the Air Force used the RMA to transform the mass bombing of civilians of the mid-20th century into the precision bombing of particular civilian installations during the Persian Gulf War and the Kosovo War. This is the kind of bombing that the Air Force will want to do in the future.

With the exception of insurgents, the Air Force will seek to bomb the very enemies that the Army will seek to avoid. Whereas the Army sees the size of China and even of Iran as presenting a formidable obstacle, the Air Force sees a “target-rich environment.” Indeed, during discussions within the Pentagon about a possible U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, the Air Force has been willing and eager to undertake this campaign, while the Army and the Marine Corps have been opposed.

Of course, because China is a nuclear power, U.S. civilian policymakers will be extremely reluctant to launch any air bombardment of its civilian installations. And so, in the end, the Air Force may not be left with many more specific and identifiable enemies than the U.S. Army.

China, like the U.S., is also characterized by a sharp decline in its birth rate, which will affect its military strategy. China’s lowered birth rate, of course, is not a result of postmodern values—it is still a modernizing society, although one with substantial modern sectors—but of the government’s one-child policy. And like the United States, China has undertaken its own version of military transformation. It has substantially reduced the numbers of its infantry soldiers and is developing an impressive capability to use high technologies for military purposes, especially for cyberwar. China seeks to trump the U.S. advantage in capital-intensive, high-tech weapons systems, particularly aircraft carriers and fighter bombers, by leaping over these to a new, information-age version of asymmetrical warfare.

(There is one peculiar twist to China’s low birth rate. Because of the traditional preference for male children, the government’s one-child policy often becomes a one-boy, no-girl practice. Some Chinese provinces now have as many as 120 or more boys for every 100 girls. As these excess boys reach late adolescence, the age of both high youth-crime rates and high army-recruitment rates, maintaining internal stability may require the civilizing influence of military discipline, leading it to maintain a large army despite depressed birth rates.)

Russia has been afflicted with the greatest decline in birth rate of any major power in the past two decades. For this reason, but also because of economic constraints and bureaucratic corruption and incompetence, the Russian Army has become hollow. Russia has many grievances against several of its neighbors, which were once republics within the Soviet Union and are now within Russia’s “near abroad.” But its army is not a very effective instrument for the Kremlin to use in dealing with these grievances. Instead, it has turned to non-military instruments, such as cutting off vital oil and natural gas exports or, recently, cyberwar attacks on Estonia’s vital government and financial computer systems. Russia’s low birth rate means that its army probably will be weak for years to come.

It might thus seem that the consequences of demographic change are rather benign, at least with respect to the prospects for greater international peace and tranquility. America’s historical and potential peer competitors and military rivals are less likely to engage in aggression because they lack the large reserves of surplus manpower that were so much a part of their military pasts. And America itself will be less likely to undertake foreign wars and military adventures, not only because of the short-term consequences of its debacle in Iraq but also because of the long-term effects of its low birth rate and the low-casualty imperative. From a traditional conservative perspective, with its emphasis on the prudent, sensible, and realistic use of military force, the era of low birth rates among the major powers might seem to be a good thing.

Unfortunately, when we turn our attention from the international arena to the domestic one, and from military strategy to internal security, a very different picture emerges. Particularly in the West, radical demographic change means that the prospect for greater peace and tranquility abroad is dialectically and diabolically connected to the prospect for greater conflict and violence at home.

Current social attitudes and demographic trends in the West suggest that there will be a continuation of low reproduction rates among Western peoples and therefore a severe decline in their populations. Conversely, there will be a continuation of high immigration of non-Western peoples into the Western nations and of higher reproduction rates among the non-Western communities in the West than among the Western peoples themselves. This will have major consequences not only for the military strategies of the Western nations but for their national security—and even identity.

The most dramatic consequences are likely to occur in Europe, where most of the non-Western populations will be Muslim. These communities already perform functions essential to the economic system, and within the next decade, they are poised to become an important part of the political system. Many European countries will become two nations, and Europe as a whole will become two civilizations. The first will be a Western civilization or, more accurately, given Europeans’ rejection of many Western traditions, a post-Western civilization comprised of people of European descent. It will be secular, even pagan, rich, old, and feeble. The second will be the non-Western civilization, descended from non-European peoples. It will be religious, even Islamic, poor, young, and vigorous. It will be a kind of overseas colony of a foreign civilization, a familiar occurrence in European history, but this time the foreign civilization will be the umma of Islam and the colonized country will be Europe itself. The two civilizations will regard each other with mutual contempt. In the new civilization, there will be a growing rage, and in the old civilization, there will be a growing fear. These will be the perfect conditions for endemic Islamic terrorism, urban riots, and mob violence: an Islamist insurgency within Europe itself.

Analogous, but less dramatic, developments are likely to occur in the United States. Here the most numerous of the non-Western communities will be Latin American in their origin. Latino immigrants already perform functions essential to the American economic system and are steadily acquiring political power, including a kind of veto on many issues. It is possible that the United States might also become two nations or even two civilizations, although this is not as likely as in Europe. It is probably too much to predict that in the Anglo nation there will be a widespread fear of some kind of Latino terrorism, although young Latinos in the United States may learn from their Islamic counterparts in Europe. It is quite plausible, however, that there will be Latino urban riots and mob violence. And it is very likely that there will be a widespread fear of Latino crime. Gated communities, which are already widespread in the southwestern United States, could become an even more central part of the Anglo way of life, the distinctive architectural style and urban design of the Anglo nation.

Is there any kind of strategy that can deal effectively with the kind of internal violence and insecurity that many Western nations will face in the future?

On the one hand, this challenge is obviously not one of traditional war against a foreign military, so conventional military strategies will not be applicable. Neither is it defined by sporadic attacks by small, separated terrorist groups, so standard counterterrorist strategies are also inapplicable. What we face instead are episodic and perhaps endemic terrorist attacks and violence perpetrated by a minority supported by a much larger community hostile toward the majority society. Such a condition is normally called insurgency or, if it reaches a large enough scale, civil war.

European nations could experience in their homelands and from a Muslim minority of 10 percent or more a version of what France experienced in its Algerian colony from a Muslim majority of 90 percent. And the European population will have no place to retreat to. The Basque guerrillas in Spain, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, and the Muslim insurgents in India (Kashmir) are largely concentrated in a particular territory, making territorial secession seem like a viable objective. That is not the case with the Muslim community within Europe.

In the past, a minority community that turned militant has almost always been confronted with a majority that also became militant. In short, the majority had enough sense of being a community that it could come together, bring its weight to bear, and put down the militant minority. Effective and appropriate tactics have included arresting and imprisoning some of the minority’s leaders and co-opting or isolating the rest, and, if there has been another minority community, setting it against the militant one. And from time to time, violent young men of the majority have engaged in their own mob violence against the minority. This has wonderfully concentrated the mind of the minority community and usually resulted in its becoming more prudent. Of course, in our era of low birth rates, there are not that many young men of the majority around.

When a militant, violent minority community confronts a militant, violent majority community, the outcome will be clear—so clear that the minority is usually sensible enough not to become militant and violent in the first place. The outcome is less certain when a minority community confronts a majority that is only one in the numerical sense— just a conglomeration of little groups and isolated individuals who define themselves by ideologies like multiculturalism, diversity, or expressive individualism.

For the nations of the West, which have arrived at this historically unprecedented state, a viable strategy for the nation is no longer really possible because they are no longer really nations at all.


James Kurth is the Claude Smith Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College.