The growing irregular immigration and asylum pressure polarizes and paralyzes the political ecosystems in the USA and Europe. It empowers the new nationalists that seek to dismantle or withdraw from the liberal international institutions (EU, NATO, United Nations), which they perceive as undermining their capacity to assert national sovereignty. To save ‘liberal order,’ therefore, the established governments and political parties on both sides of the Atlantic need to bring back a perception of internal control over external events. They need a more explicit acknowledgment of their national interests that cannot always accommodate migrants’ interest in settling in more prosperous and safer countries. The article argues that migration management must be integrated into a notion of Western grand strategy focused on the preservation of internal cohesion and sovereignty, which preconditions consensus on maintaining ‘liberal order’ in the first place.
If the West continues to abandon its leadership in the world—the USA by turning inward and Europe through disunity—rising great powers like China and Russia stand ready to fill the vacuum. Rising powers become more capable of instrumentalizing the United Nations (UN) for illiberal purposes and sidelining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU), if the member states of those institutions lose interest in collective action and defending the values that bind them together. In the competition for leadership in the international system, it is essential that the Western countries build back the unity they have been losing since the 2010s with the rise of the new nationalism.
While many factors nourish the new nationalism – international free trade, wage stagnation and the erosion of traditional values – the perception of uncontrolled immigration stands out as the most potent one.Footnote 1 The political repercussions of irregular migration and asylum seekers over the past decade have shaken and, in some cases, overwhelmed the establishments in both Europe and the USA, which struggle to produce a coherent answer to an external challenge of this magnitude, while the COVID-19 travel restrictions gave temporary relief in a world of ever-growing demand to migrate, they only seem to underline the need for sustainable solutions. Bringing migration under control and the methods to achieve this goal has mounted to one of the most polarizing issues of the post-Cold War period.
Immigration is closely linked with the concept of ‘Westlessness’ as coined by the Munich Security Conference in 2020, which refers to a divided and in some parts more illiberal West, which seems to be retreating from the world stage or in any case has difficulties in agreeing on which role it should play.Footnote 2 Citizens dissatisfied with irregular migration and the extensive right to asylum tend to vote for nationalist parties whose anti-immigration policies spill over into distinct anti-liberal agendas that undermine international cooperation. The new nationalists can be labeled populists in the sense that they claim to represent ‘the people’ against ‘the elites.’ The migration issue has given an unprecedented platform for political forces in the Western countries that seek to dismantle or withdraw from the liberal international institutions that grew out of World War II and the rules they embody.
This article demonstrates the perception of uncontrolled immigration on both sides of the Atlantic a chief reason for the political polarization and the resulting paralysis, as government coalitions become increasingly difficult. Irreversible foreign-policy consequences similar to Donald Trump in the USA and Brexit in the United Kingdom may reoccur, if governments in the post-COVID-19 world again fail to devise solutions that give a sense of control over external events. The irregular migration pressure from across the Mediterranean, South Asia, and Central America shows no sign of diminishing.
The article calls for the exploration of durable national consensuses that seeks to attenuate the strong emotions surrounding the issue, starting by acknowledging the existence of migrants’ and national interests that often do not coincide. The article calls for an adaptation of Western grand strategic thinking to include migration management as an essential element of internal cohesion and precondition for Western leadership that underpins liberal order.
The rise of nationalist populism on both sides of the Atlantic draws the picture of a fundamental political realignment. Irregular migration is not a new challenge to the USA, which granted a grand amnesty in 1986, or the European countries, which in the 1980s allowed refugees and guest workers to settle permanently. Immigration has always been a sensitive issue, but its salience has increased significantly in the past decade, and the public perception of migration being out of control made it such an important issue to win elections.Footnote 3 Migration-skeptic voters are alienated from mainstream politics and attracted to nationalist parties or political leaders that promise radical measures to reduce the numbers of people allowed to settle in their countries. A glance at the political trends on both sides of the Atlantic shows migration as a key reason for polarization and growing paralysis.
The USA is the country where the political polarization runs deepest and sharpest along the Republican-Democrat party lines. Migration is a key factor in recurrent discussions about whether the Democrat and Republican parties are shifting their support bases and opening new cleavages.Footnote 4 Voters who supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election did so in large part because they viewed illegal immigration as a serious problem to be dealt with and because they saw him as a strong person able to break the status quo and employ unprecedented but necessary measures.Footnote 5 Immigration stood out as the most polarizing issue: wall building, border security and deportations evoked strong emotions, whereas trade policy, infrastructure building and social security did not.Footnote 6 No administration in recent history placed such a high priority on immigration policy with an almost exclusive focus on restricting both illegal and legal flows.
The Trump administration pursued its election promise by drastically reducing the yearly refugee admissions, banning travels for selected high-risk countries knows as the ‘Muslim ban,’ by ending the temporary protected status of migrants regime, prioritizing deportations of the estimated eleven million undocumented immigrants, as well as prosecuting illegal immigrants at the border.Footnote 7 President Trump did not fulfill his objective to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which protects the so-called dreamers from deportation, but had success in securing green light from the Supreme Court to allocate emergency funds to build ‘the wall’ on the southern border.
Trump furthermore proposed to change the source of legal migration away from family reunification but, like the previous administrations, was unable to devise the path for a consensus in Congress. The Republican-Democrat inability to come to consensus over immigration and border security caused two government lockdowns in 2018. Meanwhile, immigration was fought out as a legal battle between the ‘sanctuary cities’ and the Trump administration, the latter of which moved to withhold funding for non-cooperation with the federal immigration authorities on enforcement of the immigration laws.Footnote 8
The United Kingdom’s referendum to leave the EU in 2016 was a similar popular backlash against mainstream policy that revealed a deep polarization. Research shows that strong public concerns about immigration, particularly the local communities having undergone higher rates of demographic and ethnic change prior to the vote in 2016, were central to explain Brexit.Footnote 9 In the United Kingdom, voters protested the cheap labor arriving from the EU’s low-income countries, although illegal migration securitized as the perception of a poorly protected external EU border also played a role and was instrumentalized by the Brexit campaigners. Then-Prime Minister David Cameron failed in his attempt to convince the other European leaders to put an upper limit to the free movement of labor, one of the EU’s four orthodoxies. Thus, the Leave campaign in earnest could frame the Brexit referendum as an opportunity to not just generally break free from Brussels but specifically to bring immigration back under national authority.Footnote 10
It was indeed the EU’s asylum and migration system that experienced the most acute failure to handle the pressure of around two million incoming people in 2015–16. The EU Dublin Regulation requires asylum seekers to make their claim in the first safe EU country they arrive to and not ‘shop around’ for the best country to stay. However, it broke down following the German unilateral decision in 2015 to allow in Syrian refugees, when Chancellor Angela Merkel infamously declared that Germany would be able to handle the situation. The uncontrolled migration flows in turn caused a temporary breakdown of EU’s Schengen system, after several governments started border checks to stop the irregular migrants from crossing the borders. By 2019, more than 15 percent of European voters had voted for a right-wing populist party in their last national election.Footnote 11 Tougher border restrictions and other measures in place since the migration crisis in 2015–16 have reduced the numbers but not radically so: the number of asylum seekers to the EU arriving from the south was reduced to around 100,000 arriving per year but increased again after the fading of the corona pandemic restrictions reaching around 330,000 in 2022 (not including Ukrainians).Footnote 12
As seen from the following, the perception of uncontrolled migration caused also political paralysis both within the EU countries, since the nationalist parties complicate the ability of government coalitions to form and hold together, and among the EU countries, since they could not agree on a common asylum and refugee policy.
One part of the explanation of the growing political paralysis is that the new nationalist parties often come to the negotiation table with ultimate demands on immigration and other issues. This makes them unstable partners in ruling coalitions. In Italy, for instance, the nationalist Lega Nord in 2018 joined a government coalition but the cooperation lasted little more than a year. Italian Interior Minister and leader of Lega Nord, Matteo Salvini, was a constant source of instability, in no small part due to his controversial anti-immigration initiatives and closure of Italian ports to irregular immigrants.
The other, more significant, part of the explanation to the growing paralysis is that most established political parties refuse to cooperate with the new nationalists. However, it is becoming harder to work around them, as they grow stronger after each election. In Sweden in 2018, to avoid cooperation with the migrant-skeptic Sweden Democrats that had won nearly 18 percent of the votes, it took the Social Democrats four and a half months to form a government by pulling two liberal parties over the middle. Spain had two elections in 2019, each of which strengthened the right-wing Vox party and forced the socialists into months of negotiations to form a government. In the Netherlands, a failure to reach agreement on immigration in 2017 resulted in seven and a half months of coalition negotiations and to a coalition government collapse in 2023. In Belgium, the Flemish nationalists in 2018 left the government coalition due to a dispute over the country’s commitment to the U.N. migration guidelines. In Germany, it took the conservative CDU/CSU and the social-democratic SDP four months in 2017 to form a government to navigate around the migration-skeptic and in some respects illiberal Alternative for Germany at nearly 13 percent of the votes in the national election. In early 2020 in the German state of Thüringen, the local CDU party’s cooperation with the Alternative for Germany to elect a liberal state premier gave the final push for Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to give up her ambition to succeed Angela Merkel as the CDU candidate for Chancellor of Germany. While Germany’s history makes it a special case, it is symptomatic for a general aversion across the European countries to cooperate with the new nationalist parties even on minor issues.
In Central and Eastern Europe, migration anxiety plays a key role in the rise of national conservatism. This is so particularly in Poland and Hungary in the declared attempt to preserve the particular Christian national cultures against inassimilable Middle Eastern and African migrants. The 2015 migration crisis caused deeply hostile reactions, particularly in Hungary, which built a barrier facing Serbia and Croatia. In Poland and Hungary, the aversion to non-Western immigration strengthens illiberal governments’ grip on power and has become a chief reason for tensions with other EU countries that seek a common asylum and refugee system, including a common redistribution system of refugees.Footnote 13 Irregular migration is a source of division not only between east and west but also between south and north: Greece and Italy in particular have urged that the northern countries step up their contributions to enforce the common EU border against the external pressure. Appeals to European solidarity in 2020 largely failed to make other EU members accept migrants stranded on the Greek islands.
All of the above examples show how the emerging nationalist parties throughout the USA and Europe thrived in a polarized political ecosystem as they could easily appeal to the citizens that feel alienated from the mainstream policies on immigration and their enforcement. Where the nationalists and the established parties and the EU countries could not agree, the result was political paralysis. Still worse for the preservation of ‘liberal order,’ in the cases where the nationalists assumed government power, they started to undermine the existing Western economic and security cooperation.
Erosion of the western order
Populist or national conservative leaders treat the liberal international institutions as failing to find or standing in the way for adequate and enforceable policy responses to the migration challenge, and therefore seek to revise or abandon them. Their backlashes against liberal order in some cases had irreversible effect.
U.S. President Trump under the banner of ‘America First’ stands out as its most potent destabilizer. Immigration was the straw that ceded the political space to an unprecedented nationalist figure with a foreign policy contrary to the liberal values that the USA had been a vanguard of since the end of World War II. One thing was Trump’s disdain for multilateral cooperation as seen in his administration’s withdrawal from parts of the U.N. system (Human Rights Council, World Health Organization) and obstruction of the World Trade Organization by blocking the appointment of appeal judges for trade dispute settlements. A far graver thing was Trump’s shattering of the European confidence that U.S. politics would oscillate within fixed limits. He treated the EU as a trade foe and openly encouraged the United Kingdom to leave the Union. His wavering commitment to and speculations about pulling out of NATO sent shock waves through the European establishments, since Washington’s commitment to its treaty obligations, and the perception thereof, is indispensable to the preservation of any meaningful transatlantic defense alliance.Footnote 14 It should be a concern that the polarization in the USA about foreign policy also seems to reflect diverging commitments to NATO and resources otherwise devoted to the maintenance of liberal order.Footnote 15 As Joseph Biden’s narrow election victory in 2020 showed, Trump is not a transitory problem but a culmination of a long-term trend where the American citizens question unchecked globalization.
The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU is the so far biggest foreign-policy retrenchment of one single country caused by the popular wish to bring back borders under national control. The United Kingdom remains a core NATO ally but Brexit leaves a permanent crack in the integration of Europe’s economies, which historically preconditioned its unity and peace.Footnote 16 Brexit confirms what the French and Dutch rejections of the EU Constitutional Treaty suggested back in 2005, namely that European integration remains strongly elite-driven and that majorities in the populations tend to reject further integration when given the possibility to vote against in referendums.Footnote 17 The political establishments have reason to fear calls for new anti-immigration-inspired referendums in other countries about membership of the EU, which may push the Union toward further disintegration.
In the big continental European countries of France, Italy, and Spain with growing support for nationalist parties or political leaders like Marine Le Pen that see the EU as undermining the national capability to contain migration, the polarization questions the durability of the current foreign policy beyond the next election. It is worth keeping in mind that Italy under its previous nationalist government broke with the EU not only on the common asylum policy, but also on important foreign policy issues such as the sanctions against Russia and keeping Chinese investments and technology relating to critical infrastructure at bay. Hungary under the leadership of Prime Minister Victor Orban has become the EU’s most China-friendly country, whereby Budapest seeks to not only attract its investments, but also to counterbalance Brussels on migration and issues pertaining to societal values.
The need for reconciliation
Immigration is no exception from the rule that failure to address a problem early can have more radical consequences later. As the established parties bend over the middle of the political spectrum to prevent the influence of the populists, they also widen the space for radical parties to harvest votes on the extremes. However, ignoring the nationalist tendency is hardly a viable strategy and only seems to cause further Western division and give a strong political basis for the rise of parties and leaders seeking to revise or withdraw from the liberal order.
As for the USA, the corona pandemic and the ensuing halt in immigration and access to asylum took the steam off the topic in the 2020 presidential campaign. However, polls indicate that illegal immigration remains a salient issue for the Republican votersFootnote 18 and that President Biden’s pledge to roll back Trump’s asylum policies is among his least popular policies.Footnote 19 The fact that USA struggled with its biggest migrant surge ever at around two million per year on average during 2021–22Footnote 20 leaves the Biden administration politically vulnerable on asylum policy and border security. It is possible that a public sense that the political establishment again is unable to tackle chaos and mass inflow of irregular migrants at the border could give Trump or a like-minded Republican president candidate sufficient backing to secure another election victory in 2024.
As for the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson won the national election in 2019 with a promise to ‘get Brexit done.’ Once the country had finally left the EU in early 2020, his government introduced a point-based system to reduce the overall numbers of immigrants to shift the economy away from cheap labor from the EU countries such as Poland and Romania. It did so in a declared response to the popular wish expressed by the Brexit referendum to take back full control over immigration. Furthermore, the United Kingdom introduced severe penalties for human smuggling and for asylum seekers to enter the country without permission a criminal offense in an attempt to contain irregular migration across the English Channel.
As for Western Europe, the lifting of corona pandemic restrictions led to a resumption of irregular migrants seeking to gain entrance through now especially the Central Mediterranean routes. The number of illegal entries into the EU in 2022 was the highest level since the migration crisis in 2016.Footnote 21 In Italy, the far-right parties seem impossible to avoid in future government coalitions, with Salvini’s Lega Nord in the national polls overtaken by the Brothers of Italy, led by Giorgia Meloni with a tough stance on anti-immigration, the protection of Christian values and with Trumpist sympathies.Footnote 22 In Germany, significant infighting within the Alternative for Germany and the cooling in migration numbers during the corona pandemic did not cause the party to split up, and the subsequent rise in numbers correlates with 20 percent support for the party in the national polls. In France, Marine Le Pen won around 41 percent of the votes against incumbent Emmanuel Macron at the presidential election in April 2022 (up from around 34 percent in 2017), while her party, The National Rally, won around 17 percent of the vote at the subsequent parliamentary elections (up from around nine percent in 2017).
The USA and the European countries stand at a crossroads. Either they will come to agreement on how to bring a public sense of control over the growing irregular migration pressure – or they will risk further far-right extremism, which may break apart the Western community that underpins liberal order. The liberal-oriented political establishments are unlikely to solve the polarization of the political systems and between countries, as long as they disregard the concerns of voters prone to vote for far-right alternatives and only holding their breath when elections are approaching. This holds a risk of bigger and more embittered national-conservative and populist far-right parties that will be emboldened to undertake even more radical foreign-policy revisions, if they assume government power.
It is common place to identify a tension or incompatibility between populism and liberal democracy, saying the former excludes minorities from ‘the people’Footnote 23 or rejects electoral representation.Footnote 24 However, this does not need to be so if the populists legitimately seek to exercise power in the name of the people.Footnote 25 Instead, it may be useful to distinguish democratically minded nationalists (including the nativist right and the laissez-faire libertarians) from the illiberal authoritarian right along a multi-issue space rather than equaling all types of populism with extreme right-wingers along a single left–right spectrum.Footnote 26 From this perspective, the solution to the polarization does not seem to be to isolate and shame the populist nationalists, which is a failing strategy, but to be open to dialog and compromise on their grievances about open borders and supranational decision-making.
The emergence of durable national consensuses on immigration must start with the premise that the best point of departure is to listen to the concerns of the increasing number of dissatisfied voters. The same applies to the shaming of the immigration-skeptic countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Poland and Hungary must rightly be criticized for their illiberal setbacks such as attempts to undermine the free media and the independent judiciaries. However, this issue must be separated from their decisions to close their borders and rejection of redistribution of refugees, which they did not sign up for when they joined the EU, and which further alienates them from a sense of belonging to a Western community.Footnote 27
Tackling irregular immigration requires an informed debate about both ethics and consequences, which seem to be lacking across the Western world due to strong emotional reactions and tendency to split societies into mutually exclusive groups. At the core of the difficulty to find common ground lies the ‘outrage culture’: a near-constant state of indignation, virtue signaling, and no conversation or debate about policy (only about politics).Footnote 28 Outrage becomes an impediment for strategic thinking about policies and their consequences for societies. Western democracies must improve the free debate as the best mechanism to come to terms with a complex policy problem as migration and asylum policy, to which there are at least two sides.
National and migrants’ interests
Decisions directly affecting individual human beings and families tend to evoke strong emotions in the Western debates but otherwise are not different from other aspects of foreign affairs, in which the national interest needs to be balanced against other concerns. Restoring balance in the political ecosystems is essentially a question of balancing the humanitarian and economic reasons for irregular migrants and asylum seekers to settle in safer and more prosperous countries against legitimate concerns about the preservation of state sovereignty and national cohesion.Footnote 29 The populist nationalists derive their political success from voters who believe the current immigration and refugee policies favor the former disproportionately over the latter.
Balancing migrants’ and the national interests is complicated by the fact that it appears impossible to separate the migrants’ willingness to undertake perilous journeys from host countries’ willingness to welcome them (the ‘pull factor’). The number of asylum seekers and irregular migrants is obviously linked to the likelihood of being granted asylum and the likelihood of non-repatriation in case of rejection. The Western countries must adapt to a reality where the demand to migrate to prosperous countries in principle is infinite. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 108 million people were forcibly displaced globally by the end of 2022, the largest number ever recorded and almost three times as many as ten years ago.Footnote 30 Considering the population growth south of Mexico and in the broader Middle East and Africa especially,Footnote 31 the wealthier northern countries will never be able to absorb the increasing numbers of especially young people that want to migrate for safer and better lives.
The solution is not necessarily stricter immigration and asylum laws but more consistent enforcement of existing asylum and refugee policies. The Western countries must reduce the incentive for migration by leaving the possibility to file asylum application open only to those who meet the core requirement for protection – and deter irregular migrants that do not. Wall- and fence-building combined with new technology to better monitor and keep track of people passing borders are increasingly accepted methods to control the people that pass. In addition, the Western countries must provide sufficient guarantees that asylum is temporary, linked to the need for protection, and no longer largely synonymous with a right to migrate, as practice has been until today. Migration policy is meaningful only if rejected asylum seekers and people who no longer require protection as a rule face repatriation.Footnote 32
Only a few countries have demonstrated the ability to foster less polarized political systems by a more careful consideration of the actual national willingness to sustain the intake. In Austria, the People’s Party following a major government scandal involving the far-right Freedom Party was able to form a new coalition with the Green Party in 2020, while maintaining the existing immigration policy that cuts off the Balkan route. This was a successful example of bridge building between conservatives and progressives. In Denmark, the Social Democratic party in 2019 recaptured a huge chunk of the voters it had lost to the nationalist Danish People’s Party since the 1990s by accommodating the preferences of its traditional voters for limited immigration from non-Western countries to preserve the Scandinavian welfare state. The Danish government has moved to systematically repatriate refugees no longer deemed in need of protection and explored options for outsourcing the asylum proceedings to far-away third countries. By doing so, it has parried calls from the right-parties to withdraw Denmark from the EU and its international refugee commitments.
Other Western countries could learn from the Austrian and Danish examples of national reconciliation on a topic that previously would spark high – on the left – moralistic and – on the right – anti-elitist reactions. Denmark and Austria are homogenous countries by comparison to, e.g., the USA, but the principle of accommodating concerns of voters otherwise prone to illiberal right-wing alternatives remains the same. In Germany, ‘never again’ is still a good motto for a country with a special history, but it must be reconciled with – not put in opposition to – the growing public skepticism to uncontrolled migration. The truly illiberal segments of the Alternative for Germany may otherwise be empowered. If the established German parties would admit that past policies were in some respects misguided and, going forward, pay more attention to numbers coming in and the return of people not or no longer in need of protection, they might easily be able to gain back a significant portion of voters they lost to the new nationalists over the past years.
In the USA, the deep and often bitter division make the exercise of national reconciliation more complicated. However, it is crucial for the Western world as a whole that the USA as its leader and as an example can overcome its domestic disarray. Immigration and the enforcement of border security are too important national issues to be decided by executive orders by the President or by rulings of the Supreme Court. Congress has been unable to reach an agreement on comprehensive immigration reform over the past two decades (passing one chamber but not the other). The time may have passed, when the USA could strike a deal about immigration in isolation from other issues of its foreign policy. A significant segment of the Republican voters is unlikely to be convinced about the general benefit of ‘liberal order’ if that contradicts their wish for stricter immigration control. The USA may wish to explore national reconciliation as a bargain over the macro-issue at play, namely the negative consequences of globalization at large, to achieve bipartisan consensus.
The United Kingdom shows that stricter immigration policy does not otherwise exclude commitment to liberal order. Because of Brexit, London intensified its engagement in NATO, including through military support for Ukraine, as an essential means to demonstrate its continued commitment to both European and global security. The rise of China has given further reason for the United Kingdom to beef up its cooperation with like-minded democracies, notably to criticize the abolishment of Hong Kong’s autonomy and human-rights abuses within China, as well as the trilateral security pact with Australia and the USA (AUKUS) and the proposal to expand the G7 into a ‘Democratic 10’ including Australia, India, and South Korea.Footnote 33
It falls on the EU to finally draw the hard lesson from Brexit, namely that a new consensus on the regulation of migration is needed to prevent further disintegration of the Union. With public calls for immigration control across all the European countries, it is symptomatic for the EU’s inability to do grand strategy. It took the EU five years from the migration crisis in 2015 to come forward, in 2020, with a proposal for a new pact for migration and asylum. The pact has a stronger focus on border security and deportation but continues to meet aversion of Central and Eastern Europe and other EU-skeptic segments of the European electorates against redistribution and the processing of asylum applications on EU territory.Footnote 34 European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also in 2020 pledged a ‘geopolitical Commission’, which however is unlikely to become reality as long as Brussels remains unable to give its members higher assurance that it is not the external demand to migrate but the domestic capacity and will that decides the intake.
Migration management as grand strategy
IR scholarship has traditionally understood migration as an issue of ‘low’ rather than of ‘high’ politics.Footnote 35 This changed after the end of the Cold War, when scholars started to factor it into grand strategy and international security.Footnote 36 Today’s challenge, however, calls for a more distinct focus on how irregular migration threatens the cohesion of the Western countries, which underwrite liberal order. As opposed to more traditional theorizing about the impact of systemic shifts, IR scholarship needs to consider the possibility that domestic forces in the core Western states would fundamentally challenge the liberal order from within. Drawing on comparative politicsFootnote 37 or local understandings of order,Footnote 38 IR scholars must consider the emergence of domestic political forces and their relation to Western cohesion.
A significant part of this effort lies with addressing migration as a key contradiction in liberal order that erodes Western countries’ continued commitment to its preservation. Policymakers and scholars alike can benefit from the acknowledgments of recent liberal scholarship, according to which liberal order no longer brings obvious physical and economic security to the middle classes – in contrast to the time after World War II, when liberal order was put at the service of strengthening the individual Western nations.Footnote 39 Liberal scholars today acknowledge their own discipline’s failure to predict the potential for exclusionary populism in an ever-expanding concept of the nation,Footnote 40 as well as the tensions between the Westphalian-territorial and the supranational elements of the international liberal order.Footnote 41 They point to the ‘stickiness’ of international institutions, which in the past had contributed to the stability and longevity of the liberal order, but which today constrains necessary collective actionFootnote 42 and, thereby, spawned new mass demands for political participation and often support for antiliberal policies.Footnote 43
Migration and its impact on Western backing may, in fact, not best be comprehended by liberal IR theory, which understands international liberal order as a constitutional order in the rational interest of the states implied, but rather by realist IR theory, which understands international order as something enforced and maintained by interested nation-states. Specifically, migration needs to be integrated into a conception of grand strategy, namely, the ability to mobilize national power in the pursuit of external objectives. Migration touches on the core sovereign right about who is entitled to live on a nation’s territory and has a durable impact on the West’s ability to find consensus on liberal order. Grand strategy today needs to pay equal attention to internal cohesion, which preconditions the ability to formulate of external objectives in the first place. Some of the scholarly literature on grand strategy accepts the relevance of studying any policy of importance to the interests of a society, regardless of its source and content.Footnote 44 The encounter with such a powerful and unanticipated anti-liberal development within the Western countries calls for applying migration management to grand strategy as an innovation of the term.
Finding a way to manage migration that gives back a perception of internal control of external events seems unavoidable to shore up the West as a geopolitical force. Domestic cleavages give illiberal rival powers enhanced opportunities to undermine Western leadership on other foreign policy issues. Migration management falls within the best traditions of containment policy as coined 75 years ago by U.S. diplomat George Kennan. According to Kennan, the greatest danger to the strategic potential of the major Western countries was a foreign power’s exploitation of grievances to set up societal groups in a struggle for the destruction of each other rather than settling their differences through mediation and compromise.Footnote 45 Countries today unable to reconcile domestic antagonisms on migration are indeed more vulnerable to foreign influence. Digital technology speeds up the global dissemination of ideas that tap into and shapes frustrations of people resenting liberal order.
Russia actively seeks to promote Western disunity by befriending and supporting anti-establishment and anti-immigration political parties and leaders. Moscow backs the anti-establishment narratives to set the ‘the people’ against ‘the elite’ and the political right against the political left, and that especially through disinformation about the failure of Western governments to deal with inassimilable immigrants committing crimes against the native population.Footnote 46 Russia does not hide its intention to undermine the solidarity within NATO and EU, which it considers its main European geopolitical competitors especially over Ukraine. The no longer so subtly rising China, as seen during the corona pandemic crisis, likewise eyes possibilities to erode confidence in governments and supranational bodies or to cultivate bilateral relations with the migration-hostile Central European countries to undermine the Western consensus on criticism of its human rights violations.
Grand strategy to uphold liberal order must be founded on unity in the face of rival great powers that seek to diminish the role of NATO and the EU and to expand their own power within the U.N. system to redefine the global norms for human rights and the use of technology.Footnote 47 The Western countries are best united against China and Russia in the defense of the values that the liberal order embodies.Footnote 48 The West must adapt its strategic thinking to the current age of mass migration. Sovereignty today is challenged not mainly or only by interstate conflict but by irregular migration flows that erodes social cohesion within states. Migration must be included into a new strategic thinking that no longer ignores one essential aspect of what binds the Western community together. Political scientist Graham Allison noted that it took the great strategists of the early Cold War nearly five years to forge a basic approach to the Soviet Union and international communism.Footnote 49 In fairness to the current generation of decision makers, they struggle to come to agreement about a strategy to an address a nebulous and non-state challenge that involves trading off humanitarian concerns. On the other hand, the irregular migration challenge has been mounting for decades and should have been reason for better foresight.
The migration pressure requires the political establishments to conceive an appropriate strategy that encourages Western re-integration and, in the case of the USA, durable recommitment to liberal order. The abdication of Western leadership may be the biggest threat because the survival of liberal order hinges on the commitment of the liberal nation states. The liberal international institutions were originally erected to prevent great-power war, but today need to adjust to tackle the root causes of nationalist populism and conservatism. If unable to come up with a timely answer, the Western community risks the rise to power of even more extreme nationalist forces that are unwilling to act through or even wish to undo the EU and NATO and which will cede space to illiberal powers within the UN. A balanced debate in which it is possible to address both the national and migrants’ interests as equally legitimate arguments is needed to overcome the outrage culture that blurs strategic clarity about one the most consequential challenges of our time.
Sara Goodman and Frank Schimmelfennig, ‘Migration: a step too far for the contemporary global order?’, Journal of European Public Policy 27, no. 7, 1111; Robert Ford and Will Jennings, ‘The changing cleavage politics of Western Europe’, Annual Review of Political Science 23 (May (Goodman and Schimmelfennig 2020)), 302–4; Liesbet Hooghe and Gary Marks, ‘Cleavage theory meets Europe’s crises: Lipset, Rokkan, and the transnational cleavage’, Journal of European Public Policy 25, no. 1, 116–18.
Tobias Bunde et al., ‘Munich Security Report 2020 – Westlessness’, Munich Security Conference (February 2020).
For an overview of studies linking perceptions of immigration to voter support for right-wing populist parties, see Sergei Guriev and Elias Papaioannou, ‘The Political Economy of Populism’, Journal of Economic Literature (forthcoming, (Sweeney and Winn 2022)).
David Lake, Lisa Martin, and Thomas Risse, ‘Challenges to the Liberal Order: Reflections on International Organization’, International Organization 75, no. 2 (33), 239.
John Gramlich, ‘Trump voters want to build the wall, but are more divided on other immigration questions’ Pew Research Center, November 29, (Gramlich 2016).
Tyler Reny, Loren Collingwood, and Ali Valenzuela, ‘Vote Switching in the 2016 Election: How Racial and Immigration Attitudes, Not Economics, Explain Shifts in White Voting’, Public Opinion Quarterly 83, no. 1 ((Reny et al. 2019)), 94–96.
Sarah Pierce and Andrew Selee, ‘Immigration under Trump: A Review of Policy Shifts in the Year Since the Election’, Migration Policy Institute, December (Pierce and Selee 2017); William Kandel, ‘The Trump Administration’s 'Zero Tolerance' Immigration Enforcement Policy’, Congressional Research Service, February 26, (Timbro 2019).
Sarah Herman Peck, ‘'Sanctuary' Jurisdictions: Federal, State, and Local Policies and Related Litigation’, Congressional Research Service, May 3, (Peck and ‘'Sanctuary' Jurisdictions 2019).
Matthew Goodwin and Caitlin Milazzo, ‘Taking back control? Investigating the role of immigration in the 2016 vote for Brexit’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations 19, no. 3 ((Goodwin and Milazzo 2017)), 450–64.
Harold Clarke, Matthew Goodwin, and Paul Whiteley, Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (Goodwin and Milazzo 2017)), chap. 6; Cassilde Schwartz, Miranda Simon, David Hudson and Jennifer van-Heerde-Hudson, ‘A Populist Paradox? How Brexit Softened Anti-Immigrant Attitudes’, British Journal of Political Science 51, no. 3 (2020), 1162–63.
Timbro, Populism Index, (Timbro 2019).
FRONTEX, ‘EU’s external borders in 2022: Number of irregular border crossings highest since 2016’, 13 January 2023).
Swen Hutter and Hanspeter Kriesi, ‘Politicising Immigration in Times of Crisis’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 47, no. 1 ((Hutter and Kriesi 2021)), 9–11; Elzbieta Gozdziak & Peter Marton, ‘Where the Wild Things Are: Fear of Islam and the Anti-Refugee Rhetoric in Hungary and in Poland’, Central and Eastern European Migration Review 7, no. 2 (2018), 133–38. Ivan Krastev and Stephanie Holmes, ‘Explaining Eastern Europe: Imitation and Its Discontents’, Journal of Democracy 29, no. 3 ((Krastev and Holmes 2018)), 126–28.
James Goldgeier, ‘NATO at 70: Is the USA still in it for the long haul?’, Journal of Transatlantic Studies 17, no. 2, 260–65; Craig Kafura and Dina Schmeltz, ‘Seven Examples Where Partisan Divisions on Foreign Policy Widened in 2018’, Chicago Council on Global Affairs, January 3, (Kafura and Schmeltz 2019).
Simon Sweeney and Neil Winn, ‘Do or die? The UK, the EU, and internal/external security cooperation after Brexit’, European Political Science 20, no. 1 ((Sweeney and Winn 2022)), 247–48.
See, for instance, Heinrich Best, György Lengyel, and Luca Verzichelli (eds.), The Europe of Elites: A Study into the Europeanness of Europe's Political and Economic Elites (Oxford: Oxford University Press, (Best et al. 2012)).
Pew Research Center, ‘Populist Right Immigration hard-liners with critical views of the economic system’, November 9, (Pew Research Center 2021).
National Immigration Forum, ‘Polling Update: Americans Continue to Resist Negative Messages about Immigrants, but Partisan Differences Continue to Grow’, September 2020; Cameron Easley, ‘Biden’s Move to Expand Refugee Admissions Is His Most Unpopular Executive Action So Far’, Morning Consult, February 10, 2021.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, ‘Southwest Land Border Encounters’ (2023).
FRONTEX, EU’s external borders in 2022.
Mattia Ferraresi, ‘Italy’s Far-Right Is on the Rise’, Foreign Policy, June 29, (Ferraresi 2021).
Jan-Werner Müller, ‘The people must be extracted from within the people’: Reflections on
Populism, Constellations 21, no. 4 ((Müller 2014)), 485.
Maria Saffon and Nadia Urbinati, ‘Procedural democracy, the bulwark of equal Liberty’,
Political Theory 41, no. 3 ((Saffon and Urbinati 2013)), 451.
Fabio Wolkenstein, ‘Populism, liberal democracy and the ethics of peoplehood’, European Journal of Political Theory 8, no. 3 ((Wolkenstein 2019)), 344–45.
Pippa Norris, ‘Varieties of Populist Parties’, Philosophy & Social Criticism 45, no. 9–10 ((Norris 2019)), 995–1005.
James Dawson and Sean Hanley, ‘What’s Wrong with East-Central Europe? The Fading Mirage of the 'Liberal Consensus'’, Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 ((Dawson and Hanley 2016)), 20–34.
Steven A. Cook, ‘Outrage Culture Is Ruining Foreign Policy’, Foreign Policy, January 20, (Cook 2020).
See David Frum, ‘If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will’, The Atlantic, April 2019.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, ‘UNHCR Global Trends: Forced Displacements in 2022’, https://www.unhcr.org/global-trends-report-2022.
See, for instance, Stephen Smith, The Scramble for Europe: Young Africa on Its Way to the Old Continent (Cambridge UK: Polity Press, (Smith 2019)), 21–44.
Henrik Larsen, ‘The Transatlantic Perspective on Migration: Attuning Migration Policy to National Politics’, Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies, January (Larsen 2022).
Robin Niblett, ‘A New US–UK Democratic Agenda Could Be on the Horizon’, Chatham House, November 12, (Niblett 2020).
Donatienne Ruy and Erol Yayboke, ‘Deciphering the European Union’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum’, Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 29, (Ruy and Yayboke 2020).
Noora Lori and Kaija Schilde, ‘Muddying the waters: migration management in the global commons’, International Relations 35, no. 3 ((Lori and Schilde 2021)), 521–22.
Fiona Adamson, ‘Crossing Borders: International Migration and National Security’, International Security 31, no. 1 ((Adamson 2006)), 165–99; Kelly Greenhill, Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion, and Foreign Policy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, (Greenhill 2010)); Fiona Adamson and Gerasimos Tsourapas, ‘Migration Diplomacy in World Politics’, International Studies Perspectives 20, no. 2 (March (Adamson and Tsourapas 2019)), 113–28.
Lake, Martin and Risse, ‘Challenges to the Liberal Order: Reflections on International Organization’, 250–51.
Amitav Acharya, ‘Global International Relations (IR) and Regional Worlds: A New Agenda for International Studies’, International Studies Quarterly 58, no. 4 ((Acharya 2014)), pp. 652–54.
John Ikenberry, ‘The end of liberal international order?’, International Affairs 94, no. 1 ((Ikenberry 2018)), 21 –23.
Sara Goodman and Thomas Pepinsky, ‘The Exclusionary Foundations of Embedded Liberalism’, International Organization 75, no. 2 ((Goodman and Pepinsky 2021)), p. 431.
Beth Simmons and Hein Goemans, ‘Built on Borders: Tensions with the Institution Liberalism (Thought It) Left Behind’, International Organization 75, no. 2 ((Simmons and Goemans 2021)), p. 394; see also Lake, Martin and Risse, ‘Challenges to the Liberal Order: Reflections on International Organization’, 228–29.
Trine Flockhart, ‘Is this the end? Resilience, ontological security, and the crisis of the liberal international order’, Contemporary Security Policy 41, no. 2 ((Flockhart 2020)), 235.
Catherine De Vries, Sara Hobolt and Stefanie Walter, ‘Politicizing International Cooperation: The Mass Public, Political Entrepreneurs, and Political Opportunity Structures’, International Organization 75, no. 2 ((Vries 2021)), 319–22.
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