GLOBALCIT Review Symposium on Alan Gamlen, Human Geopolitics: States, Emigrants, and the Rise of Diaspora Institutions, Oxford University Press, 2019


Michael Collyer, University of Sussex

In 2001, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika accused emigrants in France of orchestrating the dramatic anti-government protests in the Kabyle region of the country, denouncing ‘this criminal manipulation of our children, when their own families live in their gilded cages overseas.’ Only a few years earlier, in 1996, the Algerian government had introduced incredibly ambitious plans to enfranchise emigrants, including four representatives in the legislature elected by emigrants in France and a further four for the rest of the world. Despite this ground-breaking electoral system, Bouteflika’s comments demonstrate a strategy to undermine the legitimacy of emigrants, simply because they had left the country. The confused and often contradictory approach to the opening up of diaspora representation in Algeria typifies the approach of many countries to emigrants and their descendants. Yet, for the last two decades much of the analysis of diaspora engagement has been surprisingly uncritical, presenting it as a matter of technicalities with few downsides rather than complex, messy politics with winners and losers. Alan Gamlen’s Human Geopolitics enters this field as a powerful and especially well-informed critical analysis.

The book’s greatest strength is its ability to account for the contradictory set of responses characterised by the Algerian example, not just in one country, but using a vast quantity of original material from all over the world. The book encompasses and accounts for what has become the standard celebratory rhetoric about diaspora engagement. It also goes well beyond this to consider the growing array of more negative examples of state relationships with emigrants on the territory of other states. The core theme of ‘human geopolitics’ characterises the rapidly growing institutionalisation of this relationship, but cleverly ties this into a much longer and much darker historical current of deliberate destabilisation of neighbouring states. I had never heard the term ‘human geopolitics’ before and it turns out that’s because Gamlen has coined the term specially – one of a number of useful conceptual developments that the book offers.

Gamlen defines ‘human geopolitics’ as state competition over population, rather than territory and this is the central theme of the book. There are solid theoretical antecedents to this, particularly in the origins of geopolitics in the late 19th century. Gamlen traces the notion of lebensraum from the 1901 essay with that title by Frederich Ratzel to the central theme in the ideology of the Nazi party, which did so much to discredit the idea, and even the term ‘geopolitics’ itself for the next half century. This account highlights how competition over population has inevitable territorial consequences; indeed, population and territory are inseparable in the Nazi use of lebensraum. Related ideas can be traced through contemporary conflicts such as the Russian annexation of the Crimea and war in the Donbass, both of which relied initially on the instrumentalisation of the Russian population of those regions. Gamlen identifies a more population focused control strategy in the instances of government sponsored assassinations of individual emigrants, several of which (Skripal, Khashoggi) have provoked significant international disruption in recent years. On a larger scale the spread of emigration controls is a further example highlighted in the conclusion, although they are not an empirical focus of the book.

Human geopolitics itself is likely to be the most widely cited conceptual development of the book, but there are plenty of others offered here. For me, the most successful of these new terms build on the literature on policy transfer, detailed in the final three chapters of the book (Chapters 8-10). The success of the ‘Diaspora Engagement Industry’ (a description few familiar with the intensity of international engagement on the issue would argue with) is attributed to the use of ‘donor menus’, a lovely phrase that highlights the operation of power through the presentation of a limited set of options, which narrows the set of possible outcomes. Later, the tendency to present certain countries as ‘models’ of particular policies within international discussions on these topics highlights how policy approaches circulate internationally often in reference to a single national example which takes on a degree of authority as an indicator of quality; in Gamlen’s term these are ‘benchmarking loops’ and also help to explain how policy development has been so constrained in this area. These new conceptual terms have a broader currency and will resonate in other policy fields beyond discussions of diaspora – the frequency of reference to the ‘Australian points-based system’ in recent British discussion of immigration immediately struck me as another example of ‘benchmarking loops’ in a separate context.

Despite this raft of new theoretical ideas with a wider appeal, the book is obviously still about diaspora, and this is where the key contributions lie. For many years, I gave a regular ‘introduction to diaspora’ lecture in which I spent far too long dwelling on various definitions of diaspora. Thankfully, the field has moved on from there and Gamlen dispenses with the definitional quagmire on page 8, citing Vertovec’s beautifully straightforward definition of diaspora as “an imagined community living away from a professed place of origin”. Despite the refreshing lack of focus on definitions, the book skips over this a little too quickly, and questions remain. The same page has a fascinating (though unsourced) graph plotting uses of ‘diaspora’ against ‘emigrants’ since 1750: ‘diaspora’ does not even register until the late 19th century and only overtakes ‘emigrants’ in the 1990s. The discussion recognises that ‘diaspora’ is fluid over time and defies easy measurement, such as birthplace, but it stops there. The following paragraph continues “governments are the focal point for activities that can periodically galvanise diverse and dispersed networks” (p.8). From one paragraph to the next we jump from Vertovec’s definition, which makes no mention of governments or states, to the ‘crucial point’ that governments are central to the whole thing.

This sleight of definitional hand is important. Governments clearly play an ever-growing role in diaspora mobilisation, as the rest of the book powerfully illustrates, but diasporas flourish in the absence of, or opposition to, government activity – or even in the absence of states. The Jewish diaspora, considered in some detail later in the book at the point of the foundation of Israel, provides the clearest example of the historical durability of non-state diasporas, but there are plenty more: Kurds, Sikhs, Tamils, Amazighs, Muslims – the list is potentially a long one. The book’s exclusive focus on diasporas defined in relation to states and mobilised by governments is an important conceptual move that reduces the scope of discussion. This is useful and makes the book manageable, but it at least requires an acknowledgement. Where governments do provide the focus for diaspora organisation this rarely goes beyond the symbolic gesture without a clearer membership requirement. This may not be restricted to emigrants themselves, but to enjoy genuine benefits of diaspora institutions – voting, tax advantages, visa-free travel, investment opportunities – citizenship is usually a necessity. Much of what is called diaspora engagement in the book could therefore equally be labelled extraterritorial citizenship, yet citizenship is not mentioned. Although there is not scope in the book to consider the vast implications of citizenship in any detail, I was disappointed that discussion of citizenship is avoided altogether.

Despite the downplaying of citizenship, the focus on government activities does reflect the current balance of power in these discussions. The dramatic growth in government engagement is presented in irrefutable detail in the first half of the book. This empirical analysis is another key reason why the book will become an essential reference in this field. Even for those of us who work in the area, it is still surprising to see quite how recent the normalisation of diaspora engagement has become. The growth of diaspora institutions is divided into three phases. The first phase, which Gamlen associates with post-colonial nation-state building runs from 1936 to the mid 1990s; the second phase covers the decade from the mid 1990s to the mid 2000s and the third phase since 2004 or 2005. This periodisation serves to highlight how recent this development is: the number of states with diaspora institutions rose from 22 in 1990 to 118 in 2015. Gamlen has identified and classified this data himself, set out in exemplary detail in two extensive appendices. Inevitably there are details to quibble with, and the generous presentation of information and sources allows (even invites) that. Nevertheless, no one has attempted such an authoritative and wide-ranging review before and this becomes the reference to which all other attempts must improve on.

Having presented this data in concise form in Chapter 2, the book then turns, in the following five chapters (3-7) to detailed and extremely well-informed analysis of individual case studies. Gamlen fills out the quantitative details with extensive quotes from interviews with senior political figures involved in diaspora institutions in at least 10 different countries. He highlights different processes associated with the three different phases of growth in diaspora institutions from the ‘exile in-gathering’ of the early post-colonial states, such as Israel, responses to ‘regime shocks’ highlighted by policy changes in India, Mexico and Eritrea to the emigration management of labour exporting countries such as the Philippines. This fills in important details around the overall arc of argument for the entire book that is laid out in the final three chapters (8-10) examining the global pattern of policy diffusion. The central conclusion is a powerful one: the rapid spread of diaspora institutions results from a network of international organisations sponsoring global policy exchanges and is evidence of an evolving migration regime. This is ground-breaking stuff, it demonstrates the value of theoretical analysis of the fantastic new policy database and presents an important response to the ‘missing regime’ thesis of global migration governance.

I have two challenges to this argument, that I will end with. The first refers back to my previous critique of the missing citizenship component of this analysis. There is reference throughout the book to diaspora institutions as tools of ‘migration management’ and this provides the foundations for the central argument of the developing migration regime. Since the early 1990s, ‘migration management’ has become an unquestioned euphemism for controlling the movement of people across international borders. Yet, even under the clear definition of “formal state offices devoted to matters concerning emigrants and their descendants abroad” (p. 30) diaspora institutions have no obvious role in managing migration. Border crossing is not a concern of diaspora institutions; their focus is working across borders, including with plenty of people who may never have crossed a border in their lives. This is therefore not a global regime in migration management, although the book makes an unassailable case that it is a global regime of some kind, so what is it? The main global innovation is the more fluid spatiality of state institutions recognising that departure does not mean an end to membership in the state. This illustrates a shift in the understanding of how states that care about their population should behave, it is a normative development in ideas of citizenship rather than in the control of migration; citizenship persists through several generations born abroad and creates relationships that are increasingly recognised by states even when they extend across borders. This is certainly dramatic, but it again requires an acknowledgement of citizenship practice.

The second challenge concerns the balance between positive and negative engagement. In a passage that I will be quoting regularly, Gamlen reminds us that engagement is not only a precursor to marriage but also to battle (p. 254). The book’s focus is much more on marriage. To return to Algeria, my opening anecdote highlighted how the progressive, more cosmopolitan impulses within diaspora institutions exist alongside the surveillance focused, nationalist activities which tend to view diaspora as a threat to the political status quo. The value of the central ‘human geopolitics’ concept lies in the ability to explain both of these extremes within a single framework, although the more positive side receives most attention. As an illustration, Algeria is recorded as initiating diaspora engagement in 1996, when following the ‘regime shock’ of the previous few years, a new constitution approved the creation of diaspora focused institutions. Yet Algeria already had a set of more surveillance focused diaspora activities in the form of the Amicale des Algériens en Europe, linked to the Ministry of the Interior and created a few months after Algerian independence in 1962. An issue with the date for a single state, even for 10 states, does nothing to undermine the value of the database presented here, but it does highlight how the perspective taken filters what is seen. The book has provided a framework of very significant and lasting value, but there remains work to be done to complete it.