We have entered the age of migration. If all the people who live outside the country of their birth united to form their own — a republic of the rootless — it would be the fifth-largest country in the world, with a population of more than 240 million people.
Though much has been written about how a world on the move is changing national politics, there has been little consideration of its geopolitical effects. But the mass movement of people is already creating three types of migration superpowers: New colonialists, integrators, and go-betweens.
The new colonialists call to mind the settlers from Europe who spread across the world in the 18th and 19th centuries, benefiting not just themselves, but also their homelands. Similarly, the most mobile populations of the 21st century are helping their countries of origin obtain access to markets, technology and a political voice in the world.
US journalist Howard W. French describes how Africa has become “China’s second continent,” as more than a million new Chinese settlers remake Sub-Saharan Africa. With more Chinese citizens living outside mainland China than there are French people living in France, a similar story is playing out on almost every continent. When those migrants return to China, their capabilities are expertly harvested. Known in China as “sea turtles,” they dominate their country’s technology industry.
India, too, has a large diaspora of an estimated 20 million citizens who are super-successful and hyper-connected. Indian-born entrepreneurs are responsible for setting up one in 10 companies in Silicon Valley. How does this benefit India? For starters, India receives more than $70 billion in remittances every year, the largest sum worldwide, amounting to nearly 4 percent of its GDP, which is more than it spends on education. And while it may not be possible to prove a causal connection, the influx of Indians into America has coincided with a shift in both countries’ geopolitical orientations, as evidenced by the historic 2008 nuclear deal by which the US abandoned its policy of equidistance between India and Pakistan.
With so many people on the move, it is even possible to become a settler superpower without being recognized as a state. The estimated 35 million Kurds are becoming one of the most politically active migrant populations in Europe. It is likely no coincidence that the governments of Sweden and Germany, with their large populations of Kurdish origin, are providing militarily support to the Kurdish Peshmerga in their fight against Daesh.
The second type of superpower is the integrator. Libraries could be filled with books about how the US has benefited from its ability to transform people from around the world into American citizens. Similarly, Angola and Brazil have reversed the brain drain and are receiving large flows of immigrants from their former colonial ruler, Portugal. But one of the most eye-catching experiments in integration today is Israel.
Immigration from the diaspora is essential to Israel, which is reflected in the Hebrew word for it: aliyah, derived from the verb “to ascend.” Indeed, the government provides “aliyah consultants,” as well as free one-way flights, language classes and practical support. As a result, Israel’s population has risen ninefold since 1948.
In Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, co-authored with Saul Singer, the American writer and political adviser Dan Senor poses a fundamental question. “How is it,” he asks, “that Israel — a country of 7.1 million people, only sixty years old…with no natural resources — produces more start-up companies than large, peaceful, and stable nations like Japan, China, India, Korea, Canada, and the United Kingdom?” The answer, of course, is immigration.
The third type of immigration superpowers are go-betweens, which use their geography to extract concessions from migration-phobic neighbors.
If the established powers that first benefited from the globalization of trade are known as the G-7, the countries, regions, and organizations that are benefiting from migration — China, India, Kurdistan, Israel, Turkey and Niger — could be called the M-7. As control over population flows become a currency of power, states that follow the M-7’s lead will have the opportunity to boost their geopolitical heft.
For the West, the biggest challenge will be to reconcile domestic pressure for closed borders with the geopolitical advantages of embracing migration. For now, at least, it seems that the G-7 — for which an easily affordable influx of refugees has somehow become a “crisis” — will continue to aid the M-7’s rise.
The writer is Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.