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


Harris Mylonas, George Washington University y

Alan Gamlen has written an ambitious and insightful book on the emergence and spread of diaspora management institutions. The empirical puzzle that motivates this book is the slow spread of diaspora institutions up until the 1990s and their lightning-speed-spread since 2005. The author identifies three waves in this process and proposes a different logic driving it in each phase. The first one, from mid-20th century to the early 1990s, involves relatively few countries, primarily attempting to gather back former exiles following regime shocks, such as decolonization and post-colonial nation-building. The second, from mid-1990s to mid-2000s, is a much larger wave involving many more countries that adopt diaspora institutions primarily in order to manage (labour) mobility and market integration within regional integration initiatives. The last and most important wave, from Gamlen’s perspective, began circa 2005 and is on-going. This period involves by far the most states adopting diaspora institutions than ever before. Gamlen attributes this wave to the aggressive promotion of this trend by “international organizations, by migration experts, by first-mover states, and by an industry of diaspora engagement consultants” (p. 16). He provides a superb intellectual history of the process and unpacks the mechanisms, including the iterative process of cocreation and adaptation he identifies, in chapters 8 to 10.

The author tests his argument against two main alternative hypotheses (the ‘tapping’ and the ‘embracing’ perspectives) using a new substantial dataset he has compiled identifying and documenting “formally named, funded, and staffed offices housed within the executive and legislative branches of migrant’s origin states, which are dedicated to affairs surrounding emigrants and their descendants” (p. 31). Thus, this dataset does not include municipal or provincial level institutions or diaspora NGOs and other such organizations. The dataset is presented in a thorough 36-page appendix documenting the type of diaspora institutions existing across the majority of UN member states (118 of 193 members). Beyond this dataset, the author has conducted dozens of interviews and systematically analysed various documents from a sample of 72 countries and 13 international organizations in order to test his argument against alternatives. His narrative chapters unpack the rise of diaspora institutions in a wide range of countries over time, from Mexico to India, providing a rich genealogy of the phenomenon but also raising many research questions.

Let’s turn to Gamlen’s main argument, namely, that the establishment of diaspora engagement institutions since 2005 is “a particular kind of socially scripted action” (p. 15). States conform to international models and best practices in the context of an emerging global migration governance consensus. Gamlen’s main argument is best calibrated to explain the critical juncture of the mid-2000s rather than the ‘over time’ variation since 1936—the year that his coding begins. This becomes obvious in the organisation of the book where he has to rely on a variety of arguments and concepts to account for the emergence of diaspora institutions prior to the 2000s. Regime shocks and in-gathering of the exiles or labour export as a safety valve from regime shocks in phase 1 (chapters 3-5); regional integration processes in phase 2 (chapters 6-7). But the transition to phase 3 is the main variation that Gamlen’s argument is best calibrated to address, and it appropriately gets unpacked in three chapters (8 to 10). In chapter 8, Gamlen does try to present developments in phase 2 as a precursor for what comes in phase 3,[1] and in this sense this periodisation is useful, but there are too many ‘moving parts’ for the story to be parsimonious. Chapter 10 of Human Geopolitics also provides ample evidence for the main argument, demonstrating that many states established diaspora institutions in Phase 3 in order to conform to changing international norms rather than to furthering their national interest. Finally, while 61 per cent of UN member states have diaspora institutions, 39 per cent do not. Why didn’t international norms have an effect on the latter set of countries? A stand-alone article by the author trying to account for the outliers, the cases that do not fit his framework in each phase would be an interesting read. For instance, in Phase 1 on top of the factors that Gamlen identifies to account for the two main trends, geopolitical considerations, levels of economic development, and divergent understandings of nationhood could also help account for variation between cases focused on ‘exile in-gathering and integration’ vs. those that focused on ‘exporting unemployment’. Similarly, in Phase 2, several countries that develop diaspora institutions are not members of the EU (e.g. Ukraine, Montenegro), although some, but not all, of them aspire to be. In each phase there are also really intriguing regional patterns that emerge, which could be explored further.

Overall, the ‘tapping’ and the ‘embracing’ perspectives find more support in phases 1 and 2 than in phase 3. As I mentioned above, Gamlen’s central empirical puzzle is the impressive rise of diaspora engagement institutions since the 1990s, and especially after the mid-2000s. But, the coding of his dependent variable does not allow us to tell apart states that had policies engaging their diaspora prior to establishing a ‘diaspora institution’ from states that did not have any policies or special diaspora institutions. Having a better sense about this distinction would help the author further unpack the mechanisms at work. For instance, is what we are observing since the early 1990s the end of a taboo in terms of naming specialized state institutions using the term ‘diaspora’—although engagement policies were in place—or are these governments start thinking about the very possibility of engaging their diasporas only then? These are quite different states of the world. In other words, is the rise of diaspora institutions a situation where a government-level preference revelation problem was overcome because of changes in the structure of the international system or a norm diffusion reality produced by epistemic communities and world society logics (see e.g., Kuran 1995)? I return to this discussion below.

There is no doubt that the phenomenon under study in Human Geopolitics is of critical importance today. The book clearly maps and analyses the various strategies that sending states pursue to mobilise and engage their diasporas. The title Human Geopolitics is certainly justified given the proliferation of diaspora engagement institutions that “unexpectedly flout some of the most basic territorial assumptions and unspoken rules of the modern international system” (p. 15). Implied in the book’s title is Gamlen’s argument that success or failure in today’s geopolitical struggles is not determined by dominating the oceans, as Alfred Mahan would argue, or by controlling the Eurasian landmass, as Halford Mackinder would put it, but rather strategic competition over people not territory. And, as in every epoch, the way we understand the sources of power dictates how we go about structuring state institutions and societies so that we can get more power and thus improve our chances of survival, or even grandeur.

While I definitely concur with Gamlen that he has identified an important trend, I take issue with when he places the origin of human geopolitics. In Gamlen’s account, human geopolitics is already represented in the Minorities Treaties system which emerged as a result of World War I. However, this is not justified sufficiently. For instance, population exchanges took place before then and clearly European powers often interfered in the internal workings of the Ottoman Empire long before the League of Nations was established. The Ottoman Empire (and other Empires) used internal colonialist practices as a way to consolidate their control, e.g. sürgün.  Gamlen is aware of all of this, but he sees the interwar period as a turning point. In a way, it is true that the degree of institutionalisation of these practices is much thicker since then, however, if we look into the raison d’être of that system we are likely to find Mackinder’s type of reasoning rather than Gamlen’s. As I put it in The Politics of Nation-Building,

…the League of Nations despite its initial optimism and limited success could not and did not enforce the World War I treaties. The victors of the war believed that the system of minority protection put in place by the League of Nations would initially accommodate the differences of certain non-core groups so that they could in the near future assimilate into their core societies. However, the minority protection regime constituted a perverse incentive structure undermining this – primarily British – expectation of assimilation.

(Mylonas 2013, 95)

All in all, I do concur with the author that in several instances elements of human geopolitics were ultimately cultivated or encouraged by the Minority Treaties system. But this was an unintended consequence of that system rather than its aim.

But why is human geopolitics more pronounced since the early 2000s than ever before?  I would argue that there is a variety of reasons, and that Gamlen’s primary argument concerning the diffusion of diaspora institutions by international organisations like the UN is one of many factors, albeit an important one. Technological advancements have: 1) made it much easier for homelands to stay in touch with their respective diasporas, 2) for diasporans to keep in touch with each other, 3) for a media and entertainment market for diasporans to flourish, 4) for diasporans to travel to the state of origin more often than at any other point in the past. Moreover, developments in the field of international governance following World War II have entrenched the border fixity norm and convinced elites the world over that they need not worry about territorial changes occurring as a result of human geopolitics (a rather flawed assumption in my view). Finally, economic globalisation and trade openness gave the impression to most national governments that the main competition which matters is one for markets and human talent. All these conditions, together with the infamous ‘Unipolar Moment’,[2] facilitated and encouraged the development of diaspora institutions and in turn rendered our era one of human geopolitics. I would argue that the continuation of this trend is predicated on open trade and a consensus over territorial integrity as a norm. If any of the two assumptions are violated, then we may return to a world where human geopolitics gets trumped by territorial and security logics. In this case, international organisations will also stop promoting such institutions.

Gamlen himself raises similar concerns toward the end of the book, when he writes that “the viral spread of diaspora institutions has unleashed new and troubling expressions of human geopolitics that may threaten this system” (p. 240).  He also describes the ‘dark side’ of diaspora engagement policies in the final pages of the book and is pointing to global developments which have led to the re-securitisation of diaspora politics in recent years. It remains to be seen if his call for clearer principles guiding diaspora engagement will be heard by the global migration regime. The challenge of course is to distinguish between diaspora engagement policies that are ‘benign and beneficial’ and those that are not.

Alan Gamlen has written an important comparative book that will be widely read and debated by political scientists, sociologists, political geographers, and migration studies scholars. His empirical work documenting the spread of diaspora institutions already constitutes a seminal ‘academic public good’; while the intellectual history of the emerging global migration regime he has provided us with is a well-timed and much appreciated contribution.


[1] Namely that we get from a regional model of migration management to a global best practice (p. 18). However, it is unclear if this is a sequencing argument or just a contingent event.

[2] Krauthammer (1990, 23-33) declared a ‘unipolar moment’ in 1990 arguing that “the centre of world power is the unchallenged superpower, the United States”.