The Sick Man of Eurasia

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There's nothing terribly unexpected in Nicholas Eberstadt's essay on Russia's demographic decline, but his analysis provides useful background for both the debate over birth rates and the debate over America's Russia policy. To wit:

Strikingly, and perhaps paradoxically, Moscow's leadership is advancing into this uncertain terrain not only with insouciance but with highly ambitious goals. In late 2007, for example, the Kremlin outlined the objective of achieving and maintaining an average annual pace of economic growth in the decades ahead on the order of nearly 7 percent a year: on this path, according to Russian officials, GDP will quadruple in the next two decades, and the Russian Federation will emerge as the world's fifth largest economy by 2020.

But history offers no examples of a society that has demonstrated sustained material advance in the face of long-term population decline. It seems highly unlikely that such an ambitious agenda can be achieved in the face of Russia's current demographic crisis. Sooner or later, Russian leadership will have to acknowledge that these daunting long-term developments are shrinking their country's social and political potential.

And the American leadership will have to adjust its policy approach accordingly. It's unlikely that Russia will be as supine as it was in the latter Yeltsin years anytime soon - and for the sake of the Russian people, we should hope it won't be. But concerns about its re-emergence as a peer competitor need to be tempered by an awareness that Russia's likely future trajectory as a world power will tend downward, rather than up, no matter who's in charge.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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