People in the diaspora automatically become “citizen diplomats” since they are showing a human face to their country. As an Atlas Corps Fellow, living amongst many people outside their home countries, I see a need to redefine the word “diplomat” within “citizen diplomat.” Whereas diplomat traditionally suggests loyalty and support for one’s government, it means something much broader in terms of diaspora populations. Moreover, while nation-states recognize the importance of the diaspora, the diaspora is not a monolith – in fact, it is made up of diverse people with a range of opinions about their own governments.
Realizing the diversity within diasporas means realizing the complexity of nation-state power in an increasingly transnational, borderless world. Indeed, most contemporary international relations literature recognizes that recent globalization has changed the nature of traditional nation-state power. Globalization makes borders more fluid, nation-states less discrete. States are no longer the only prominent actors in international relations and diplomacy. NGOs, civil society organizations and individuals are changing the power dynamics of our complex world.
Through the framework of globalization, diasporas are where interests and values intersect. On the values side, the peaceful coexistence of multiple diasporas paints an idealistic picture of global community in an increasingly borderless world. At the same time, nation-states realize that engaging with their own diasporas is in line with their foreign policy interests and soft power initiatives. For example, countries seeking power in the international arena, such as India, China, and Russia have institutionalized their relationships with their diaspora populations abroad.
In all three cases, the diaspora from these emerging countries benefit from increased resources and services of their host countries. The emerging countries, then, see this as an opportunity for gaining more influence and investment beyond their static borders. By maintaining ties through multiple social, economic, and political avenues, home states, rather than their diaspora, become the primary agents in shaping diasporic relations with the host state. For example, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has adopted an open door policy for the Indian diaspora, stating that India welcomes anyone of Indian origin who needs refuge; even if the family has not been back to India for “100-150 years.”
However, this new way of looking at the diaspora has problematic layers, especially when there is a discursive gap between government rhetoric and the complex and diverse realities of lived immigrant experience. For example, official efforts to cultivate ties abroad—usually driven by the political elites of the home country—may only consider one particular socioeconomic or cultural subset of their diaspora, further marginalizing or sharpening intra-diasporic cleavages. This approach solidifies the more traditional, hierarchal state structures that motivate emigration in the first place.
Delving into the complexities surrounding and within the diasporas of emerging states shows that in a world where relations are multidimensional and shared by different actors, the diaspora can become an important tool. This tool is not only for nation-states, but also for individual changemakers, entrepreneurs, international organizations, and innovators. Likewise, disparate diaspora communities can come together through their common goals—regarding human rights, mutual understanding, shared experience—superseding their home country’s interests altogether, and creating new solutions for overcoming traditional obstacles.