Although demographic policy has long been discussed at an international level, family policy has typically been viewed as a domestic policy concern. Yet it is becoming clear that this field—a way of orienting national legislation toward fostering and defending family life—provides an alternative value basis that is drawing increasing interest in international relations. Indeed, elements of a quiet consensus on family policy are beginning to take hold among countries that want to strengthen their societies.
Family Policy as a National Interest
In recent years there have been two alternative approaches to managing demographic challenges within countries. One approach emphasizes the free movement of peoples as an overall win-win: “Rich, aging countries need workers,” as a 2010 New York Times report put it, while “people in poor countries need jobs.” A few countries, however, have begun to follow the other approach of family policy, whereby national governments incentivize domestic population growth and encourage talent retention.
Family policy has not typically been viewed as a matter of international affairs. Contemporary international institutions have been largely oriented toward advancing a liberal understanding of sexual freedom, particularly through international norms such as the Beijing Declaration and the Istanbul Convention. The Biden administration has trumpeted its global prioritization of LGBTQ issues “through U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance,” and EU institutions have done the same.
Developments in family life have reflected the same shift in recent decades. During the second half of the twentieth century, global birth rates fell while expectations around industrial capacity increased. International efforts at managing population growth were common, especially through promoting the use of birth control. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the theme of global discussions shifted toward breaking down international barriers—from borders to glass ceilings to norms around marriage and family.
In retrospect, it is clear that the post-1990 consensus had a demographic thesis embedded in its foreign policy; one of global mobility under a soft regime of social liberalism. With the advent of the Schengen Area, Europe became a model of how free-trade areas and shared economic zones could lead to the free movement of peoples. It no longer mattered where things were made. Classical family structures were likewise viewed as restrictive.
But the traditional family has returned to international discussion. First, economists such as Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan have pointed out that societies with low birth rates are aging societies. Aging societies tend to become industrially sclerotic and experience intergenerational tensions. Industry must shift toward medical care, and economies can become inflation-prone. Yet declines in family formation seem to be common across all industrial societies, outside of certain highly-religious subgroups. For this reason, measures supportive of family life ought to have broad consideration in international discourse.
Second, the values that promote family formation are no longer taken for granted. Western societies have steadily moved away from a classical definition of the family. Western governments, as well as popular culture, have also placed greater emphasis on defending and even celebrating alternative lifestyles than on the classical definition of the family.
With each passing year, it becomes clearer that demographic challenges lie at the heart of international affairs as well. A report from the New York Times this summer highlighted the fact that, “By 2050, people age 65 and older will make up nearly 40 percent of the population in some parts of East Asia and Europe.” In these aging societies, working-age populations will shrink, while “the best-balanced work forces will mostly be in South and Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East.” The geopolitical and geoeconomic consequences of this shift are only beginning to be envisioned.
In light of reports like this one, at the European Council meeting this past summer heads of state requested that the European Commission develop a “Demographic Toolbox,” citing in particular the relationship between demographic strength and economic competitiveness. The reason is fairly simple: governments around the world are beginning to realize—both individually and in common—that demographic challenges won’t be helped by putting further pressure on traditional family structures or by further encouragement of mass migration.
It is in this context that, in recent years, “family policy” has emerged as a nationally oriented approach to managing demographic challenges. In my view, family policy is built on three pillars: 1) a state support system linked to the family and incentivizing family life; 2) protection of and promotion of the traditional family as integral to the functioning of society; 3) rejection of mass migration and emphasis on the integrity of borders and an orderly approach to immigration. Together, these three elements are aimed at bolstering the role of the family within society.
All large economic structures have the ability to, and are designed to, shift incentives around life choices. When state support and welfare systems are not tied to family structures, the system itself can come to take the place of fathers. Contrast this with Hungary, where the family support system built since 2015 is designed to make the choice to start a family more financially beneficial than the alternative. Mothers receive their full salary for an extended period after the birth of their child, parents can apply for large loans and grants to cover the cost of setting up a household, and a variety of other financial incentives are in place to encourage family formation. This suite of policies has drawn broad foreign attention: the recently concluded fifth Budapest Demographic Summit included official representation from the governments of Italy, Bulgaria, Serbia, Tanzania, Kazakhstan, Türkiye, Qatar, Bahrain, Tunisia, and Ecuador. In recent years, former U.S. vice president Mike Pence as well as official representatives from Czechia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, and Latvia and elsewhere have also attended. The Polish government has also introduced family support policies in recent years, as well.
The International Implications of Family Policy
Although family policy is currently pursued at a national level, each element of family policy has potential international repercussions. For this reason, it has all the elements of an alternative international consensus. But because existing international structures are oriented against strong border policies and interpret human rights institutions against domestic pro-family policies, this phenomenon has not fully reached international visibility.
Will the global geopolitical order shift in such a way as to allow the emergence of international mechanisms for promoting family policy on these lines? The post-1990s global order was built on a unitary package of American-led military security, economic opportunity (through expanding free-trade facilities), and a liberal interpretation of ever-expanding human rights. But with the rise of non-Western-led economic organizations and with an ever more aggressive Western approach on sexual lifestyles, the incentives for a “multi-vector” foreign policy are rising. In that environment, states have a stronger mutual rationale for sharing good practices with regard to the promotion of stable family life, even where they differ in other respects.
The reality is that the overall package of a country’s demographic policies is now of immense importance in the international context, given that many states are facing similar challenges. But instead of waiting for the European Union to create a “Demographic Toolkit,” the basic elements of family policy already exist—and are needed in different respects in different parts of the world.
In Europe, the mass migration experienced since 2015 has not been followed by increasing social cohesion; meanwhile, the key elements of strong family life have continued to decline. Since the turn of the century, illegitimacy rates have risen by nearly 70 percent, so that 42 percent of births in Europe are now outside wedlock. During the height of the migration crisis in 2015, EU leaders confidently predicted that the arrival of three million migrants would bring an economic benefit to Europe. Instead, the European economy now looks more sclerotic than at any point in recent years.
While the United States—itself unique due a long history of processing and assimilating immigrants, along with well-developed immigration-related institutions—has maintained population growth through immigration, current circumstances with millions of border crossers per year seem unsustainable. At the same time, cultural and economic pressures on American families have made family life less attractive for the young.
Even among the rising countries that will soon lead the world in working-age population—like South Africa, India, or the Philippines—family policy will be necessary to maintain a strong social structure and avoid following the path of aging Western societies.
Now that the “package” of the post-1990s global order is becoming unbundled, it is no surprise that the world is becoming more polarized, not more liberal, in terms of attitudes toward socially liberal family structures. As Western societies have progressed beyond twentieth-century norms to become more aggressive in promoting alternative lifestyles, even through diplomatic channels, some governments have quietly grown more skeptical. Many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Latin America benefit from Chinese investment yet, from the Western side, feel only pressure to change their fundamental cultural values.
The arrival of demographic policy as foreign policy is also a sign that the “values” identified at the heart of the existing global order are considered by many global actors to be insufficient to power it. With the West trying to step back from fully integrated global markets—sanctioning its geopolitical opponents and “de-risking” from trade with China—the reasons for accepting the “values” part of the Western package have also begun to decline. Countries will have to evaluate whether their demographic position requires economic development to meet a rising population, financial incentives to rescue a falling population and, in conjunction with this, other types of cultural and legal support for traditional family structures.