By Hal Brands, Bloomberg Opinion

Will America or its authoritarian rivals dominate the 21st century? The answer may have as much to do with demography as with policy. Although we often fixate on military spending and GDP as markers of America’s position vis-à-vis China and Russia, a country’s demographic profile critically impacts its ability to generate that wealth and power. And if demography is indeed destiny, America’s geopolitical future looks pretty promising — so long as the country can navigate the dangers the world’s demographic future also holds.

A country’s people are taproot of its power in many respects. A large working-age population serves as a source of military manpower. Far more important, a relatively young, growing and well-educated population is a wellspring of the economic productivity that underlies other forms of international influence. All things equal, countries with healthy demographic profiles can create wealth more easily than their competitors. They can also can direct a larger share of that wealth to geopolitical projects as opposed to pensions and health care.

Countries with unhealthy demographic profiles will find it harder to remain economically competitive as their populations shrink and a smaller number of workers support a larger number of retirees. They will face agonizing guns-versus-butter tradeoffs that make it harder to undertake bold geopolitical ventures. When demographic problems become severe, they can exacerbate social and political strains, leading to crippling instability. And as it happens, America’s competitors are likely to face sharp demographic pressures in the coming decades.

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Hal Brands is the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Photo: Steve Martarano, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

America’s Big Advantage Over China and Russia: Demographics