Population and International Security in the New World Order

Author(s): Fátima Vianna Mello
Date Published: July 12, 2006
Source: Political Environments #3, Spring 1996

In the post-Cold War era population is becoming part of the redefinition of international security. Although this seems to be a post-1989 phenomenon, in fact fears about population and security, at least on the part of the U.S. government, can be found two decades ago in the National Security Study Memorandum 200 (NSSM 200), "Implications of Worldwide Population Growth for U.S. Security and Overseas Interests." This report was prepared for the Ford administration by the CIA, AID, and the Departments of State, Defense and Agriculture. The document raised very similar concerns to those currently formulated by conservative environmentalists and the population establishment.

NSSM 200 identified conflicts over resources resulting from population growth in the South as a major threat to U.S. interests. The document remained classified until 1989, and only in 1991 was presented to the public. One of the reasons why it became a public document only recently is that nowadays 'population explosion' paranoia has gained a high level of legitimacy in public opinion, and among scholars, journalists, environmentalists, non-governmental organizations and public institutions.

What happened between 1974 and the 1990s that made the 'population explosion' become so legitimate, to the extent that it is once again perceived as a major threat to international security?

As a consequence of the end of the Cold War, at least two major issues emerged which helped forge the new population consensus. First, after the decline of the socialist bloc, there was the need to find a new enemy, so that the Northern-Western powers would remain united. Secondly, with the end of the bipolar balance of terror, during which military concerns dominated, environmental and social crises around the world became much more visible to the public.

Thus, in the 1990s international security is being redefined to include not only military and economic concerns, but also social, natural resource and environmental issues. This might have been a positive move if the majority of powerful states and international institutions had the real political will and commitment to address global social and environmental crises in a profound way. However, because this move developed according to the opposite reasoning - i.e., to maintain and reinforce Northern-Western nations' power in the international system - the nexus between population size and growth and global social and environmental crises has been highlighted, while the political and economic processes that are at the root of these crises are not being addressed.

In the post?Cold War era, the consensus around the need to control population growth among the Southern poor is being built through the international institutions in charge of elaborating the governance and regulations necessary in an increasingly interdependent world (with the collaboration of a significant part of the international women's movement), and, at the same time, through coercive methods used by multilateral institutions and bilateral donors such as including population control as a conditionality for a nation to obtain financial loans. Thus, the fact that population concerns are on the top of the international security agenda is a result of a consensus built according to the interests of the most powerful nations.

This consensus argues that population is no longer a concern to be governed within national boundaries: as the impacts of population growth are supposedly global in scope, they should be treated as threats to international security and therefore the object of international policies and programs. Links between population and international security are made through the following elements:

Population and environmental degradation
Conservative environmentalists say that population growth lies at the core of most environmental problems such as energy use, the depletion of natural resources, and deforestation. The prevalent notion of carrying capacity claims that population growth inevitably entails increased resource consumption. This lays the groundwork for blaming the poor for the destruction carried out by big landowners, transnational companies, and mega?projects funded by multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, whose purpose is to export natural resources to feed consumption and production in the North. Carrying capacity takes out of the equation the political, economic and social dynamics which govern the relations between human beings and nature. Blaming powerless poor Southern women will not stop the negative impacts of unsustainable patterns of production and consumption that feed the dominant economic development model.

Population and international migration
Carrying capacity arguments consider that so-called overpopulation in the South is the leading cause of the desire to emigrate. According to this reasoning, there are two ways to stop international migration: closing and militarizing Northern borders, and dealing with immigration 'at the source,' by, as the National Audubon Society suggests, lobbying for increased funding for population control in the South so that the leading incentive to emigrate would be reduced. However, the desire to emigrate has no relationship with population growth. In countries like Brazil, where population growth and fertility rates are coming down rapidly, the desire to emigrate is directly linked to the recession, unemployment and lack of economic opportunities resulting from current neoliberal economic policies. Another clear example is Mexican migration to the U.S., which has no links to population growth but rather to NAFTA, structural adjustment programs, and long?-term economic disparities.

Population, poverty and hunger
The argument is a mathematical one: population growth causes pressure for more food production, and Southern governments do not have enough capital to meet the daily needs of an increasing number of people. However, the experience of many countries, including Brazil, demonstrates that investments in peoples' needs are not defined by the availability of capital but rather by the political will to do so. Brazil is the ninth world economy in terms of GNP and its fertility rates are declining rapidly, yet millions of Brazilians are starving while the concentration of wealth is among the highest in the world. Poverty and hunger are political rather than mathematical issues. Moreover, the neo-liberal ethos still prevalent in Brazil and elsewhere perceives the persistence of poverty and hunger as a side problem, and not as inherent to `modernization' policies. According to this rationale, people who do not fit into the current economic order become surplus and are viewed as an obstacle to good economic performance. Instead of rethinking and redefining the economic order, the idea is to eliminate what is not useful to the global market. The perfect target in this logic are women, the powerless and the poorest among the poor.

Population and political instability
In 1974, the NSSM 200 report affirmed that rapid population growth threatens political stability, contributing to revolutionary actions that could affect U.S. interests. Today, the argument that population growth leads to economic decline, poverty and destruction of the natural resource base, which in turn leads to political and social revolts, is still used to mobilize the public and fenders towards increasing support for population control in the South.

However, history demonstrates that political instability in the majority of countries results from processes such as religious and ethnic conflict, authoritarianism, disrespect for human rights, economic patterns of development based on social exclusion, and corruption. These are all part of political dynamics and forces rather than a consequence of the number of people. It is also important to remember that the U.S. supported many authoritarian military governments in the South in the past decades.

Thus, if the links between population and international security are weak and false, we should ask what the goals of this redefinition of international security are. Who will benefit from this new notion of international security? For what purposes was it formulated? If the goal is the search for peace by combating poverty and protecting the environment, why don't international policies do exactly what they should do, i.e., fight poverty and hunger through development strategies which redistribute wealth and resources, democratize power among and within nations, and protect the natural resource base by new political, economic and social processes?

International security in such an unstable and interdependent world should not be based on the interests of the powerful but rather on, the goal of food security and safe livelihoods. In a progressive vision of security, hunger and poverty are perceived as urgent problems not because they are a threat to the reproduction of the economic system, but because from a human rights and truly democratic perspective, hunger and poverty are totally unacceptable.