Diaspora Politics and the Growing Influence of Sharp Powers

July 9, 2018

Russia’s influence on the 2016 US presidential elections and China’s interventions in foreign democracies have shocked policy analysts and scholars worldwide. While meddling in other states’ domestic affairs is nothing new,[i]the ease with which these actions were carried out is remarkable, leading analysts Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig to coin a new term for it: “sharp power”. A sharp power is a state that uses practices aimed at spreading and manipulating opinion abroad through actively distorting information. Due to democracies’ “open political and information environment”, Walter and Ludwig argue, non-democratic states can spread their authoritarian values in Western societies, thereby undermining democratic ones.[ii]

Walker and Ludwig’s article sparked substantial international debate. Many authors shared their concerns,[iii]while others argued that the Western states’ concern about sharp power revealed their double standards.[iv]But the debate has neglected one critical aspect of foreign state influence: the manipulation of national diaspora communities. With growing diaspora communities in democratic states, the attempt of authoritarian and semi-authoritarian states to influence or control “their” diaspora for political purposes is a worrisome development. The so-called “long arms” of states can have detrimental effects on social cohesion and democracy. It is time to put this issue on the agenda and develop adequate policy responses.

As Nye Jr notes the activity of states trying to manipulate ideas abroad is nothing new.[v]What is new are technological developments making the spreading of such ideas simpler, faster, and harder to control. Though connections between states and “their” diaspora have arguably existed since the birth of nation-states, enhanced global connectivity has increased the extent of these relations and the ease with which they are established. New technologies have also made diaspora communities central players in transnational politics, enhancing their importance to national governments.[vi]

Both democratic and less democratic states practice diaspora politics.[vii]What sets some authoritarian and semi-authoritarian states apart, however, are their efforts to make their diaspora part of their policies “not as citizens, but rather as subjects, patriots or clients.”[viii]Besides mobilizing diaspora to promote national culture or political interests abroad – a common practice among all states – authoritarian and semi-authoritarian states use new technologies to surveil or control overseas populations or even to interfere in foreign domestic spheres.[ix]A recent report from the DSP, a Dutch policy research institute, and Tilburg University showed that the Eritrean government keeps its diaspora under control by setting up diaspora associations and organizing cultural activities, and by placing informants in the private sphere, among other tactics. Constant fear of government repression minimizes public dissent among Eritreans abroad and helps the government to implement its “diaspora tax” of 2% on income.[x]Likewise, the Syrian government used “video recordings of pro-revolution gatherings” and verbal threats to limit dissent abroad during and after the 2011 uprisings.,[xi]while researchers and practitioners have accused also Ankara, Moscow, and Rabat of controlling and instrumentalizing their diaspora for political gain.[xii]

Such practices have troubling implications for democratic states. Only the clear negative consequences on the individuals involved should already cause concern to democratic governments with a duty to protect their inhabitants against threats of repression. Moreover, repressive control over diasporas can limit integration, threaten social cohesion and trust, and hamper democracy. The DSP/Tilburg University report showed that control of community life by the Eritrean regime reduces Eritreans’ trust in the rule of law and limits their interaction with the host population. At least in thecase of the Netherlands, this has severely hampered the Eritrean community’s integration into social, economic, and political life.[xiii]

Similarly in Germany, Turkish immigrants have retained close ties to Ankara to the detriment of their bonds with Germany: Turkish-Germans in North Rhine-Westphalia increasingly consider Turkey their home, while fewer think the same about Germany.[xiv]Furthermore, recent interference by the Turkish regime in countries such as Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands shows how diaspora politics can export domestic conflicts to host countries. After the July 2016 coup attempt, the Turkish state published a list of schools and organizations linked to Turkish religious leader Fethullah Gülen – who the Turkish government suspected to be behind the coup – which heightened tensions between Turkish groups abroad and resulted sometimes in violent clashes.[xv]

The threat posed by undemocratic diaspora politics highlights a need for adequate policy responses from democratic countries. Policies to bolster openness and democratic principles in society will be essential, though care must be taken not to alienate diaspora communities. Policy responses should combine regulation of foreign influence with civil society outreach. Marginalization and exclusion are not only distressing for diaspora communities, they also play into the hands of authoritarian leaders. Policymakers should concentrate on one central message: diaspora communities are a central part of open and democratic societies, and no foreign government can take that away.



Picture: Chris Beckett

[i]“Sharp Power; China and the West,” The Economist, 2017, accessed June 6, 2018, https://acces-distant.sciences-po.fr/http/search.proquest.com/polcoll/index/docview/1977459770?accountid=13739; Thorsten Benner, “An Era of Authoritarian Influence? How Democracies Should Respond,” Foreign Affairs, 2017, accessed April 6, 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2017-09-15/era-authoritarian-influence.

[ii]Walker and Ludwig, “The Meaning of Sharp Power: How Authoritarian States Project Influence.”

[iii]See, amongs others, Thorsten Benner, “An Era of Authoritarian Influence? How Democracies Should Respond,” Foreign Affairs, 2017, accessed April 6, 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2017-09-15/era-authoritarian-influence; Joseph S. Nye Jr., “How Sharp Power Threatens Soft Power,” Foreign Affairs, 2018, accessed June 6, 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-01-24/how-sharp-power-threatens-soft-power.

[iv]See, amongst others, Scott Shane, “Russia Isn’t the Only One Meddling in Elections. We Do It, Too.,” New York Times, 2018, accessed April 7, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/17/sunday-review/russia-isnt-the-only-one-meddling-in-elections-we-do-it-too.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-left-region&region=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region; “Sharp Power Concept Proves Western Bias,” Global Times, 2018, accessed April 7, 2018, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1087165.shtml.

[v]Nye Jr., “How Sharp Power Threatens Soft Power,” para. 9.

[vi]Fiona B. Adamson, “The Growing Importance of Diaspora Politics,” Current History115, no. 784 (2016): 291–97.


[viii]Marlies Glasius, “Extraterritorial Authoritarian Practices: A Framework,” Globalizations15, no. 2 (2018): 179–97, https://doi.org/10.1080/14747731.2017.1403781.

[ix]Adamson, “The Growing Importance of Diaspora Politics.”

[x]“Niets Is Wat Het Lijkt: Eritrese Organisaties and Integratie” (DSP-groep Amsterdam, Universiteit Tilburg, 2016), https://www.dsp-groep.nl/projecten/eritrese-organisaties-en-integratie/.

[xi]Dana M. Moss, “Transnational Repression, Diaspora Mobilization, and the Case of The Arab Spring,” Social Problems63 (2016): 480–98, https://doi.org/10.1093/socpro/spw019.

[xii]Roderick Parkes and Annelies Pauwels, “World Wide Webs: Who Governs the Diasporas?,” Issue Alert (European Union Institute for Security Studies, October 2016), https://www.iss.europa.eu/content/world-wide-webs-who-governs-diasporas; Mikhail Suslov, “‘Russian World’: Russia’s Policy towards Its Diaspora,” Russie.Nei.Visions (Ifri, July 2017).

[xiii]“Niets Is Wat Het Lijkt: Eritrese Organisaties and Integratie.”

[xiv]“How Recep Tayyip Erdogan Seduces Turkish Migrants in Europe,” The Economist, 2017, accessed April 7, 2018, https://www.economist.com/news/europe/21727921-big-diaspora-complicates-european-relations-turkey-how-recep-tayyip-erdogan-seduces.

[xv]Parkes and Pauwels, “World Wide Webs: Who Governs the Diasporas?”; Philip Oltermann, “Turkish Diaspora in EU Divided over Erdogan Following Failed Coup,” The Guardian, 2016, accessed June 6, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/18/turkish-diaspora-eu-erdogan-failed-coup.

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