WASHINGTON -- Just in case you are wondering what the most serious question of the New Year will be, you might well start by thinking about Russia's evil power plays, about the vulgar leaders who seem to be popping up everywhere, or about the rise of the oceans that, until now, have always protected America.
All good guesses, but I will guess that you would be wrong. In fact, our No. 1 global problem is the mass movement of peoples.
It is not only that the demands of these denationalized men and women could easily destabilize the countries they seek to enter, but also the fact that their movement underlies virtually all of the world's other great problems.
It may seem that we have absorbed the reality of the million poor souls Germany took in last year in Angela Merkel's great gamble, but nearly a fifth more migrants arrived in Italy by boat during 2016, setting a new record. It may seem that the United States has begun to control its borders, but in reality, the Border Patrol nabbed more than 15,000 illegal immigrants on the Southwest border in November, the most for any November on record.
And the worst is yet to come. With so few economic policies or birth control programs in the overcrowded areas of the world to alleviate the reasons for migrants' flight, the world population today of 7.3 billion is, according to the United Nations' most recent World Population Prospect report, predicted to rise to 9.7 billion by 2050 and 11.3 billion by 2100.
Meanwhile, as Ben Barber, one of our most discerning foreign correspondents, who for 40 years has covered what has been called the "developing world" (but now should more honestly be called the "non-developing world"), wrote recently in the Huffington Post of a "giant wave of refugee migrants" readying to come:
"The bulk of them remain in their villages and cities and have not yet begun to pack. But they are watching the news and, if thousands continue to be granted asylum, they will join the exodus."
Here is where we sidestep for a moment the sheer numbers and focus on the real problems for the industrialized North. These problems are moral and ethical; and they lie not only in the very heart of the future of nation-states but in the very substance, spirit and stability of united communities.
In both North America and Northern Europe, with their shared Judeo-Christian heritage, the major problem with dealing with masses of immigrants may be the moral question of taking in the needy and the suffering. It was why German Chancellor Angela Merkel, declaring "We can do it," was willing to take in a million Middle Eastern and Central Asian immigrants against the clear desires of the majority of Germans; it is also why the U.S. has been so sadly unable to hammer out a moderate, humane and centrist immigration policy.
We have to absorb some lessons here -- lessons that might seem, but only at first, to go against our best moral nature:
1. It is not prejudice, not hatred of "the other," and not even selfishness to want -- in fact, to insist -- your nation remain true to its own values and its own history, not simply to its own carrying capacity. In fact, it is the highest calling in the morality of nations, for otherwise, all nations will fail together.
2. Overpopulation, especially the massive overpopulation in so many small landmasses today, swiftly becomes the progenitor of those problems of the "other." (Think of the 103 million people on the Philippine Islands and the 6 million-plus in tiny El Salvador, today ravaged by gang warfare.)
The horrific civil war in Rwanda in Central Africa during the mid-1990s, when 900,000 Hutu and Tutsi tribespeople hacked their neighbors to death, was unmistakably due to fights over land.
Little covered is the fact that the Syrian civil war that is still screaming across the headlines has its roots in overpopulation exacerbated by drought. Syria's population soared from only 3 million in 1950 to an astronomical 22 million in 2012. Large numbers moved from farms to the cities, always the incubator of violence for the displaced.
3. Finally, the true danger for the developed world is escorting too many of the problems of the undeveloped (and apparently unthinking) world across its borders without proper preparation or attention to numbers. That would only mean there will be no hiding from these savage problems anywhere.
The proper response is to attack overpopulation with birth control, force countries with terrible governance to face themselves, and aid, when possible, economic development.
These are not the popular ideas -- or answers -- to the destructive mass movement of peoples toward the North, toward what they conceive of as hope. But they are the only answers, unless we are willing to pay very high prices indeed.