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May 2000, Volume 7, Number 5

Population and Power

Geoffrey McNicoll argues that the size of each nation-state's population currently plays little role in the international system--formal relations among states exclude population from consideration by the principle of sovereign equality. One consequence is that the influence of the ten most populous nations in world affairs is very unequal— China, 1.3 billion; India, 1 billion; US, 275 million; Indonesia, 205 million; Brazil, 165 million; Pakistan and Russia, 150 million each; Japan and Bangladesh, 125 million each; and Nigeria, 105 million.

During industrialization in the 19th and early 20th century, European and North American populations increased two- and three-fold. During the industrialization of developing countries that began in the 1960s, populations have increased by six to eight times. In 1900, when the locus of industrialization was in Europe and North America, these areas included about one-third of the world's 1.6 billion residents. In 2000, Europe and North America have about 17 percent of the world's six billion residents and they are projected to have 12 percent of the world's projected population of nine billion in 2050.

Europe and Africa are projected to reverse their shares of world population between 1800 and 2050. In 1800, Europe had 20 percent of the world's 900 million residents and Africa, eight percent. In 2050, Europe is projected to have seven percent of nine billion residents, and Africa, 20 percent.

McNicoll outlines three reasons why a state's population may matter more in the 21st century, signaling the shift of power to influence world events to the populous developing countries such as India, Nigeria and Brazil. First, technology and economic policy changes could speed up economic growth in developing nations, leading to a convergence of incomes that increased the relative power of developing nations. Second, concern over greenhouse gases eroding the atmosphere could lead to international agreements to regulate their emission— rights to emit greenhouse gases could be issued on a per capita basis, transferring potentially important wealth to populous developing countries if they sold these rights to emit greenhouse gases to industries in developed countries. Third, population may become more important if "civil society" gains importance at the expense of the governments of nation-states.

The consequences for migration of power following population are not clear. The number of persons turning 15 each year— the age of labor force entry in UN data— more than doubled between 1950 and 2000, from 46 million a year to 106 million a year, and is projected to increase to 117 million a year in 2050. In Europe and North America, the number of 15-year olds peaked at 16 million, or 20 percent, of the 76 million worldwide in 1975— in 2000, the 14 million 15-year olds in Europe and North America are 13 percent of the 106 million total. By 2050, Africa is expected to have 29 million 15-year olds, almost three times the 11 million in Europe and North America. Young people seeking jobs are most likely to migrate.

McNicoll, Geoffrey. 1999. Population Weights in the International Order. Population and Development Review. Volume 25 Number 3. September. 411–442.