Diasporas in Foreign Policymaking: Just Another Ploy of Neoliberal Multiculturalism?

Recent weeks have seen a brief revival of discussion in print and elsewhere on the question of whether Canadian multiculturalism is passé. This latest round of debate has shed little new light on the topic, having consisted chiefly of anecdotes about cultural pigeonholing (as opposed to broader evidence about the impact of multiculturalism as public policy). There are, however, some relatively new angles on the topic worth exploring—and ones that bear on the intersection of multiculturalism and Canadian foreign policy-making.

An important line of critique is considering whether multiculturalism’s socially liberal achievements are being lost as it gets subsumed into the neoliberal state’s reshaping of relations between civil society and government. In a forthcoming paper titled “Neo-liberal Multiculturalism?”, Will Kymlicka shows how, in Canada and other Western countries, a movement about emancipation, social justice and democratic citizenship has become a constellation of policy efforts promoting economic competitiveness, social cohesion and privatization. As he writes, “the defining feature of neoliberal multiculturalism is the belief that ethnic identities and attachments can be assets to market actors, and hence that they can legitimately be supported by the neoliberal state.”

Does neoliberal multiculturalism’s ‘dark side’ threaten to tarnish the potential engagement of diasporas in foreign policymaking—in other words, to make it yet another way in which citizens become co-opted into the machinations of state power?

In a related forthcoming paper on “Neoliberal Heritage Redress”, Matt James uses recent heritage programs by Canada’s federal government as a means of exploring the “field of interest intermediation—the diverse bureaucratic mechanisms and discursive processes of state consultation and communication with advocacy groups—as a site of neoliberal change.” Both his paper and Kymlicka’s make it clear that state agendas for multiculturalism in many cases produce results less than ideal from the perspective of multiculturalism’s originally socially liberal goals.

This somewhat jaded perspective on the current state of multiculturalism is relevant not just to Canada’s domestic sphere but, less intuitively, to its international policy as well. The past couple of decades have seen tentative movements by the federal government toward involving citizens in foreign policy-making (albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and modest tangible impact). Recently, policy-makers in Canada and elsewhere have begun to see engagement specifically with diaspora groups as a potentially valuable tool for promoting international policy goals. Diaspora groups are increasingly seen as important agents of development through remittances, trade and investment in their countries of origin. More controversially, their knowledge and connections might make them valuable partners in peace-building and conflict resolution efforts abroad. (These possibilities are explored in the 2011 Gordon Foundation/Mosaic Institute report Tapping Our Potential: Diaspora Communities and Canadian Foreign Policy, for which I was the lead researcher and have previously written about on this blog.)

Such engagements by government with Canada’s ethnic and diaspora groups have a significant multicultural dimension because they’re not just aimed at promoting common foreign interests but also bear on democratic citizenship and minority-group empowerment. As the Tapping Our Potential report argues, inasmuch as government is committed to seeking citizen input into policy, it is obliged to solicit the views of all citizens. In the sphere of international affairs, this entails making efforts to develop the engagement capacity of diaspora groups, many of whom are poorly funded and weakly organized. So a serious effort by government to develop the capacity of diaspora groups to contribute to foreign policy-making should end up increasing these groups’ empowerment as active democratic citizens—an important dimension of multiculturalism’s original liberal aims.

But does neoliberal multiculturalism’s ‘dark side’ threaten to tarnish the potential engagement of diasporas in foreign policymaking—in other words, to make it yet another way in which citizens become co-opted into the machinations of state power? Well, yes and no.

Even on the ‘yes’ side of the equation, the effects are mixed. On one hand, as the Tapping Our Potential report notes, it would be an entirely legitimate and constructive ‘disciplining’ effect for Canada’s government to require that all of its potential diaspora interlocutors on foreign affairs share a commitment to fundamental Canadian values such as democracy, human rights, mutual respect and gender equality.

On the other hand, however, if diaspora groups within Canada are given government funding to organize themselves as foreign policy interlocutors, and dedicated bureaucratic channels through which to engage with government, their positions will inevitably be shaped in other, and potentially unfortunate, policy directions. Government-funded diaspora groups would be disposed to ensure that their messages complement existing government positions (as underlined by the Harper government’s de-funding of non-profit groups critical of CIDA’s development agenda.) That might well diminish the ability of diaspora groups to deliver valuable outsider perspectives on policy issues.

Furthermore, it is inevitable that certain topics will be more welcome than others for diaspora groups to weigh in on. When it comes to neoliberal immigrant (and diaspora) multiculturalism, as Kymlicka describes, the agenda for discussion is markedly skewed: “Neoliberal multiculturalism for immigrants affirms – even valorizes – ethnic immigrant entrepreneurship, strategic cosmopolitanism, and transnational commercial linkages and remittances, but silences debates on economic redistribution, racial inequality, unemployment, economic restructuring and labour rights.”

Yet even in light of the undeniable negative potentials for policy messages to be shaped by diaspora groups’ engagement with government, the resulting picture isn’t entirely bleak. Both Kymlicka and James point out that neoliberal mechanisms of state mediation have more than one dimension: genuinely empowering effects arise alongside the more darkly ‘disciplining’ ones. What Kymlicka terms ‘moments of resilience’ enable minority groups to use their mobilized powers as citizens to take a seat at tables of power and continue pressing for their own ends—including ends in opposition to the neoliberal agenda.

Much remains to be seen about the potentials for minority group ‘resilience’ in face of neoliberal multiculturalism. And it’s worth keeping an eye on Canada’s international policy-making, as well as its domestic one, to see how these effects play out in the years ahead.

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