Inequality, Risk Sensitivity, and Grievance in Context – An NSI Aggrieved Populations Analysis

October 2019 No Comments

Inequality, Risk Sensitivity, and Grievance in Context – An NSI Aggrieved Populations Analysis

Authors | Editors: Kuznar, L. (NSI, Inc.); Kuznar, E. (NSI, Inc.); Aviles, W. (NSI, Inc.)

Executive Summary

Success in the global competition between the US, China, and Russia may be determined by a country’s ability to influence the world’s populations. A population’s aspirations and grievances can drive national security problems for all three powers when frustrated aspirations and grievances lead to state instability, terrorism, or other challenges such as unwanted or unmanaged migration. In accordance with the questions posed in the J39 Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA) Great Power Competition tasking, this report summarizes context-specific qualitative and quantitative analyses of the conditions impacting population aspirations and grievances for 25 countries, and how these impact US, Chinese, and Russian interests. Issues include:

  • Identifying where aggrieved populations are likely to exist globally and how they may be operationalized against US interests
  • Anticipating the effects of global climate change on state stability
  • Identifying the forms of instability that may challenge US interests (political instability, autocratic regimes, violent extremism, adversarial proxies)
  • Identifying the causes and effects of mass migration
  • Understanding Chinese interests and strategies in specific countries and their impacts on US interests
  • Understanding Russian interests and strategies in specific countries and their impacts on US interests

Six broad patterns in inequality, risk sensitivity, and social disruption emerged from these analyses.

  • Baselines. Two countries were used to baseline all other comparisons.
    • Finland—The world’s most stable society is also one of the world’s most egalitarian and therefore least acceptant of risk. The population also is homogenous, lacks a history of feudal inequality, and has a high level of education. The Finnish population’s lack of risk acceptance and high level of education appear to have inoculated its population against Russian attempts at disruption through social media.
    • The United States—The US was chosen as a baseline because of its familiarity to the researchers and intended audience of this report. The US has a highly risk acceptant population increasingly divided along class, race, and rural/urban divides. Furthermore, much of the middle class is experiencing loss aversion due to losses suffered in the Great Recession of 2009, which have not been regained. Adversaries have effectively used this risk acceptance to sow discord through social media.
  • Risk Acceptant Populations—Brazil, Honduras, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, and Venezuela have populations that are entirely or mostly risk acceptant
    • The primary effect of widespread risk acceptance is extremely high homicide rates, confirming research that demonstrates a connection between inequality and homicide.
    • In Nigeria and Venezuela, inequality between ethnic groups and/or classes has given rise to extremely disruptive protests, rebellions, and terrorism. Social unrest in Nigeria threatens oil production, investments, and the political stability of Africa’s most populous country, which all great powers desire. Social unrest in Venezuela threatens Russian and Chinese investments in propping up an adversarial government to the US.
    • Honduran and Mexican inequality and risk acceptance has fueled illegal migration and created disruption at the US border and further division among the US population.
    • Widespread risk acceptance in China has caused little disruption because of the state’s ability to suppress dissent, and to sustain growth that provides opportunities for a population hungry for advancement. However, protests in Hong Kong and Xinjiang are symptoms that when wealthy Chinese feel threatened (Hong Kong) or minorities (Uighurs in Xinjiang) perceive unfair gains for Han Chinese, the state will be challenged. A key to China’s mitigation of the risk acceptance of its population is to sustain a high rate of growth, which the Chinese economy may not be able to do in the future.
  • Loss Averse Populations—A number of the countries in the sample are experiencing real or perceived economic losses, leading to loss aversion, risk taking, and unrest.
    • European countries in this sample (Croatia, France, Germany, Italy, Serbia, United Kingdom) largely experienced either real or perceived losses and threats to their livelihoods and cultures from immigration, placing their populations into highly risk acceptant, loss averse, frames. This has manifest in challenges to their political status quo (Brexit) and the rise of right-wing challenges to their governments. Russia has exploited the situation to weaken European governments, the integrity of the European Union, and NATO.
    • Dramatic losses in status by working class Pakistanis fueled the rise of maverick populist Prime Minister Imran Khan.
    • Real and sustained economic losses in the Venezuelan economy have contributed to unrest.
    • Losses from a softening oil market and US sanctions are exacerbating upper-class risk acceptance and rural/urban differences, although the Iranian government’s ability to suppress dissent will probably contain any serious challenge to the government.
  • Agrarian Populations—Agrarian societies are characterized by extreme levels of inequality and consequently, risk acceptance. This was especially the case in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Pakistan. Most of these countries are also distinguished by sharp ethnic divides in access to wealth and opportunity, and all of them have a distinct impoverished rural vs. relatively wealthy urban divide. These divisions and inequalities create highly risk acceptant populations with grievances against other ethnic groups and urban elites, fueling social unrest in many forms including ethnic conflict, rebellion against the government, and terrorism.
  • Typical Populations—A typical society has an impoverished, risk acceptant class of poor, a distinct and risk averse middle class, and a highly risk acceptant elite. India, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Serbia, and South Korea have such a typical profile.
    • In the cases of Japan and South Korea, low inequality in relation to other countries has supported social stability, although there has been a shift toward a more nationalistic government in Japan.
    • India and Indonesia have so far been able to mitigate degrees of risk acceptance in some segments of their populations through continued economic growth. However, their agrarian and rural/urban divides and their ethnic diversity pose a challenge to stability.
    • Russia’s and Serbia’s communist past has left a legacy of relative equality compared to most countries, despite the rapid growth of their economies since the fall of the Soviet Union and a continued concentration of wealth among oligarchs. For now, indications are that Russians and Serbs are not risk acceptant enough to pose a serious challenge to their governments.
  • North Korea—There is probably no more unequal country than the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Virtually all wealth is concentrated in an extremely small cadre at the very top of society. Furthermore, the Kim regime punishes all dissent extremely harshly and effectively. This provides common North Koreans, who are struggling to survive, with virtually no incentive to rebel or to take any risky course of action such as escape through immigration. They are predicted to be risk averse. In contrast, the fight for the spoils among the elite is expected to generate intense competition and challenges at the top. There is some evidence that challenges have occurred. However, the Kim family has so far punished any challenge, even from close relatives, extremely harshly, effectively quashing any dissent. The DPRK is a truly unique case.

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