03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Migration Summit To Address Shrinking Birth Rates

Russia is disappearing. So is Japan. Europe is next to go.

It's not the rising waters of global warming that threaten these parts of the world. The problem is more basic. The Russians and Japanese, as well as large numbers of Europeans, are not having enough children to replace themselves. The birth rates across a large swath of Eurasia are considerably below the replacement rate of 2.1 babies.

To prevent further shrinkage, many of these countries have instituted policies that encourage reproduction, such as more generous family leave and better child care. While such policies are essential regardless of a country's fertility rate, they are not going to solve the disappearing country problem. Birth rates continue to remain very low in Taiwan (1.14), South Korea (1.21), Japan (1.21), Ukraine (1.26), Poland (1.28), and Italy (1.31). In the 1970s, only 24 countries had birth rates of 2.1 or less. Today, over 70 countries fall into this category.

Pushing for another baby boom is also globally irresponsible. At a time of climate and energy crises, the earth simply can't take on too many more passengers. Women bearing children in the industrialized world, in particular, have an enormous impact on global warming: American women having babies generate seven times the carbon output of Chinese women having babies.

The solution lies not in the greater production of people but in their more equitable distribution. The answer to the disappearing country problem is immigration.Birth dearth countries already rely heavily on foreign workers to meet their labor shortage. Their remittances, although reduced by the current global economic crisis, have helped in a modest way to bridge the wealth gap between the developing and developed world.

But foreign workers only temporarily address a symptom of the deeper problem. Only by lowering the barriers to citizenship -- as Germany did in 2000 -- can shrinking countries revive their economies and become more dynamic international players.

It won't be easy to persuade Russians to welcome large numbers of Chinese into Siberia or Italy to embrace more Nigerians. The rancorous immigration debate in America demonstrates that fear and xenophobia can overwhelm practical considerations even in immigration nations.Demography, however, is destiny. The pull of economic need and the push of population pressures in the global south are already creating the next great migration.

Rather than watch these patterns unfold, world leaders should act preemptively. We've had global summits on population, racism, and the environment. We urgently need a migration summit to coordinate immigration policies, improve the integration of migrants, and address the inevitable xenophobic backlash.

President Obama, the son of an immigrant, should spearhead the initiative. By pushing for a migration summit, he can demonstrate that the United States is finally ready to play well with others. Such a Statue of Liberty play would be a fitting way for the president to spend the political capital of his Nobel Prize and secure his legacy as a global leader.

Cross-posted from Foreign Policy In Focus, where you can read the full post. To subscribe to FPIF's e-zine World Beat, click here.