Berghahn Books Logo

berghahn New York · Oxford

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Youtube
  • Instagram

Why Every Country Must Become “An Immigrant Country”

TheoriaThis is a guest post written by Adam K Webb, contributor to Volume 62, Number 142 of the journal Theoria. Adam K Webb is the author of the article titled “Not an Immigrant Country? Non-Western Racism and the Duties of Global Citizenship.”

What is an “immigrant country”? The phrase brings to mind for most people countries like America and Australia made up largely of settlers from elsewhere and their descendants.

But the striking thing about the phrase is how often it is used in denial. Germany, despite receiving millions of guest workers from Turkey and elsewhere, insisted until the 1990s that it was “not an immigrant country,” before eventually having to recognise reality and adjust its laws to fit. Most of Europe now is made up of “immigrant countries,” so to speak.

In much of Asia today, we see something quite different. China, Japan, the Gulf States, and the like insist that they are “not immigrant countries,” and that the standards of openness and nondiscrimination that have gained ground in the West do not apply to them. Practices on the ground would shock the conscience if they still happened in the West. Foreigners are routinely turned away from hotels in Japan and China, multiple generations born in the Gulf States acquire no right to citizenship, and stereotyping and employment discrimination, especially against dark-skinned foreigners, abound.

Mainstream opinion in many Asian societies sees little reason to apologise for such things. Either airy dismissals are bandied about that such things are not “really” racism, or claims are made that their national identities are built on sameness and that they do not feel any need to adopt the Western model of diversity.


Hong Kong Immigration Department | 入境事務處火炭辦事處

Well-meaning Western observers tend not to notice such things, or at least to treat them with kid gloves. Postcolonial guilt makes them reluctant to critique those who were once on the receiving end of European imperialism, lest it look like picking on the underdog. Perhaps they hope that attitudes will change eventually, without pressure. Or perhaps they hold the non-West to a permanently different standard. Perhaps becoming an “immigrant country” is the consequence of earlier empire-building, by which one forfeits the right to keep to oneself, a right that Asia has retained.

This logic troubles some of us more than others, for various reasons. Those of us who have spent time both in Asia and in other parts of the Global South—such as Latin America and Africa—often notice that the trend to openness, to being comfortable with messy diversity and the prospects of global citizenship, is not merely some quirk of Europe and North America. The more closed and self-congratulatory parts of Asia are outliers on the global landscape. Any glance over history also suggests that cosmopolitanism was more the default, not walling off territory and cultivating obsessions with race. That some rising powers in Asia have embraced a hard-edged version of the modern state—because it is convenient for national élites and national majorities that want to dominate their own spaces—does not make it the natural human condition.

Still, why ask these sorts of uncomfortable questions? Why not leave some societies to their own devices, if that is the way they like it?

For one thing, non-Western practices of exclusion and discrimination are not self-contained. As a fair amount of global economic and diplomatic weight shifts eastward, Asian societies are going to have more influence on global governance. The attitudes they hold toward diversity and openness at home will spill over into the kind of world order they will help shape in coming decades.
To leave such questions unasked, out of misguided notions of treading lightly, does no one any favours in the long run. It risks sleepwalking into a much more hard-edged world, in which the “Asian century” merely means new hierarchies rather than breaking down boundaries. Do we want our great grandchildren to live in a world that still has discrimination, visas, and deportations? Or do we want one in which a Nigerian can move to Korea, or a Mongolian to Kuwait, and be treated the same as a local?

Asking such hard questions about practices and images of the future is the most likely way to realise a genuine model of global citizenship. Build on the best of the European Union’s vision of free movement—really, a return to free movement, since passport controls only started with the First World War—as well as kindred experiments like Unasur in South America. Go back to the long term default mode in history, which was diversity and fluidity in open spaces. Resurrect something like the old cosmopolitan empires, but on a much grander scale, with equality and rule of law.

That more open vision will not come about just by assuming that the West’s decline solves all problems. Rather, it means arguing about what common standard we apply to all societies, in the name of justice. It would be far more respectful of insular societies in Asia to call their practices what they are, to compare them broadly, and to enmesh them in treaty obligations and other irreversible processes that will make them more open as they rise in influence.

Demography, interestingly, is our friend. The vast majority of people now alive were born long after colonialism, so certain ways of talking about older problems rather than current ones are likely to fade fast. Moreover, since the fastest growing populations in the world, in Africa and elsewhere, are shown in surveys to be rather more cosmopolitan, particularly among the internet generation, sheer weight of numbers may well be on the side of openness in the long run.

By 2100, we are more likely than not to have an “immigrant world,” with all the institutional structures to make it work. But getting there would be much surer, and quicker, if the debate about consistency started now in earnest.


Adam K. Webb is Resident Professor of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University (SAIS) – Hopkins-Nanjing Centre (A.B. Harvard, Ph.D. Princeton). He was formerly lecturer at Princeton and Harvard and visiting scholar at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is author of Beyond the Global Culture War (2006), A Path of Our Own: An Andean Village and Tomorrow’s Economy of Values (2009), and Deep Cosmopolis: Rethinking World Politics and Globalisation (2015).