Battling for the best and brightest: immigration, great power rivalry, and the history of talent importation

Immigration, asylum and naturalisation policies have always been at the heart of great power competition. It is time for American policymakers to begin thinking about how a more enlightened approach to immigration can help the United States preserve its primacy.
immigration lyndon usa
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Immigration and Nationality Act into law as Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Senators Edward M. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy and others look on. Credit: LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto / Wikipedia Commons.
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A tale of two expulsions

In April 1609, King Philip III of Spain discreetly ordered the mass expulsion of hundreds of thousands of his own subjects. The targets of the royal edict, which suddenly and brutally went into effect six months later, were the so-called Moriscos, those remaining Iberians of Moorish or Mudéjar descent. In the century or so since the fall of Nasrid Granada, the Moriscos had, in the wake of a series of bloody revolts, been forcibly dispersed across the peninsula, and presented with the Cornelian dilemma of either converting to Catholicism or leaving the country forthright. Those who had chosen to remain, the conversos, or cristianos nuevos, were viewed with paranoia and hostility, suspected of being only nominal Christians at best. Royal advisors fretted that such a large and disgruntled minority might come to form a dangerous fifth column, colluding with an adversarial foreign power invading from the north (Bourbon France) or from the south (the Ottoman Empire and its Barbary coast allies.) These suspicions, while often exaggerated, were not always unfounded — indeed, the beleaguered Moriscos had, in the past, petitioned the Sublime Porte for assistance, and, more recently, covertly dispatched agents to the court of Henri IV of France.

Indolent, overly impressionable, and anxious to project an image of resoluteness and confessional fervour following the signing of a controversial peace treaty with the Dutch, Spain’s young ruler had — after years of fretful prevarication — decided to follow the long-standing advice of the more hardline members of his entourage. The resultant act of ethnic cleansing, which took over four years to complete, was framed as an unavoidable form of internal purgation, and publicly celebrated as the fulfilment of a providential mission. While historians continue to debate the exact figures, it is estimated that close to 300,000 Moriscos were driven from their homeland. As Sir Charles Cornwallis, England’s ambassador to Spain, observed in his dispatches back to London, ‘this young king (Philip III)…taking advantage of his late made treaties with the English (and Dutch),…desirous both to fill his purse and evacuate…his kingdom of those dangerous humours, to the end that there may be no aptness for other princes to put fire in his own country,’ had made a fateful decision. Whether the edict was truly in accordance with the dictates of raison d’état, or merely an act of brutal despotism, Cornwallis intimated, was up to the judgment of posterity, ‘How lawful and how Christian so extreme a course may be, I leave to the judgment of the world,’ before slyly expressing the hope that public opinion at his next foreign posting (in Ireland) would soon ‘discern the difference between the sweet and Christian government’ of his King James I, and the ‘rigorous, irregular, and inhumane proceedings of others’ (that is, Spain).

Other foreign observers were somewhat less restrained in their commentary. Cardinal Richelieu, the redoubtable chief minister of France under Louis XIII, struck an uncharacteristically emotional chord in his memoirs, recalling his fierce outrage at the piteous sight of endless, ragged columns of dust-caked migrants stumbling their way across the Pyrenees and into south-western France. For Richelieu, Spain’s expulsion of the Moriscos exceeded in its callousness the infamous Alhambra decree of 1492, which had targeted its Jewish population; for the Moriscos, unlike their earlier Jewish partners in misfortune, had not even been given the opportunity to remain in the country as converts. Indeed, the cardinal thundered, the fate of the Moriscos was even more cruel than that of the slaves fleeing pharaonic Egypt, for whereas ‘the Hebrews left a foreign land in order to sacrifice to God and arrived in a fertile one that had been promised to them’, the ‘Moriscos left their native land to pass into an unknown one’. Spain’s inhumanity, Richelieu added, had given its longstanding French rival the opportunity to burnish its humanist credentials ‘as a refuge for the afflicted’ in the eyes of international public opinion, and to display its Christian generosity.

The Moriscos, who had been given just 30 days to depart, with their wives and children, had their property confiscated and their possessions sold for ‘allowable goods’ rather than money. Those who lived close to the sea, sailed for Barbary, while the rest set out for France. As Richelieu noted: ‘It is impossible to describe the pity inspired by these poor people, stripped of all their belongings, banished from the land of their birth; those who were Christians, and they were not few in number, deserved even great compassion for being sent, like the others, to Barbary, where they could not help but be in clear danger of having to adopt the Mohammedan religion against their will.’

King Henri IV, ‘moved by pity’, decreed that those who wished to follow the Catholic religion would be allowed to remain in his kingdom, while those who wished to live ‘in the sect of Mohammed’ would be provided with the ships needed to take them to Barbary. Unfortunately, this spirit of munificence only partially survived ‘the good king Henri’s’ assassination by a Catholic zealot in May 1610. His tractable widow, Marie de Medici, pursued toward the Moriscos — as in so many other aspects of government under her regency — a vacillatory policy, closing and reopening the border in fits and spurts. Fearful of the spread of disease, beggary and Spanish spies, southern French locals soon began to carp at this forced influx of destitute foreigners, with provincial assemblies, such as the Parlements of Provence and Toulouse, passing their own localised edicts of expulsion. A prelate from the Midi-Pyrenees region, Bishop Hardouin de Péréfixe of Rodez, lamented the fact that even though the French crown dealt ruthlessly with those few abusers it did manage to apprehend, local bandits seemingly preyed at will on the hapless refugees,

…to tell the truth, those who arrived by land were hardly better treated by the French than the others had been by the Spanish: for while crossing les Landes (a vast heathland in Gascony) they were almost all robbed, and their wives and daughters raped; so that, finding so little security in a country where they had hoped to take refuge, they embarked with the King’s permission from the ports of Languedoc and set sail for North Africa.(..) Only a few families chose to stay and settle in the kingdom’s coastal cities such as Rouen and Bordeaux.

In the end, it would appear that only a relatively small minority of the Morisco refugee population chose to remain in France, with the majority opting to head onto an almost equally uncertain and hardscrabble future in North Africa. And yet, despite the rather underwhelming and fluctuant nature of France’s asylum policies, there is little doubt that for much of the first half of the seventeenth century, it remained far more tolerant than its trans Pyrenean great power rival — something which lent it a major advantage in terms of both soft power and economic competitiveness. In fact, as eminent scholars such as John Elliott have argued, Spain’s forced migration and displacement policies sapped the foundations of its already brittle economy, dislocating its wool market, rendering it more dependent on gluttonous foreign bankers rather than on native Jewish financiers, and depriving certain regions such as Aragon and Valencia of a vital source of cheap (Morisco) labour.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pyrenees, after decades of vicious internecine conflict, Henri IV had secured a fragile confessional peace in 1598 through the issuance of the Edict of Nantes, a landmark document which accorded French Calvinists, or Huguenots, freedom of worship in approximately 200 designated towns. Separate articles discreetly provided for the maintenance of protective garrisons in certain key Protestant ‘security towns’, at royal expense. Following a major Huguenot uprising in 1627-1628, the Huguenots were divested of their independent political assemblies and fortified safe havens but largely retained the religious rights that had been guaranteed under the Edict of Nantes. Bourbon France’s greater tradition of (relative) confessional tolerance was a major diplomatic asset — indeed, it helped service Richelieu’s dexterous grand strategy under Louis XIII by rendering it a more politically palatable partner for Protestant powers wishing to counterbalance Habsburg hegemony.

Since the early Renaissance, certain French political theorists had also argued in favour of select naturalisation policies, urging their monarch to lure the best and brightest from overseas — and in so doing prevent them from serving the interests of rival polities. One of the more prominent advocates of this more strategic approach to tailored immigration was Claude Seyssel, the author of the highly influential treatise La Grand’ Monarchie de France (The Great Monarchy of France), which was published in 1519 and dedicated to Francis I, France’s flamboyant warrior king. Of aristocratic Savoyard provenance, Seyssel had chosen to temporarily forgo a quiet, somewhat idyllic, academic life in Turin for a more bustling and peripatetic career, occupying a series of illustrious advisory and diplomatic positions in service to the French crown. His own professional trajectory, he suggested to Francis I, was one that should be replicated and encouraged by any shrewd ruler. The goal should not solely be to deepen one’s own reservoir of intellectual talent, but also — and perhaps just as importantly — to preemptively deplete that of one’s great power competitor. ‘A king of France can do this better than any other prince, because his realm has more to offer in the way of great offices and charges to all sorts of people, great, middling and small, than any other land,’ stated Seyssel. And, once drawn to France and ‘treated according to their merits and services’, these foreigners will come to love the nation, become as loyal as the natives, and be rewarded with governorships of provinces, towns and border strongholds, ‘more dangerous and more important than those given to subjects’.

Cardinal Richelieu clearly shared his Savoyard predecessor’s views with regard to talent importation, encouraging, for instance, the establishment of small, industrious communities of Spanish conversos — whether of Jewish or Muslim origin in French port cities such as Rouen, and discreetly shielding these economically productive ‘peregrinos’, or wanderers, from persecution.

The chief minister also had a remarkable eye for individual foreign talent. One of his most effective spies and negotiators was ‘le sieur Loppes’ —  Alfonso López — a shadowy Aragonese diamond merchant of either Moorish or Jewish descent who, in addition to amassing a considerable personal fortune, was naturalised and appointed maître d’hôtel to Louis XIII and conseiller d’état. Perhaps most famously, Richelieu handpicked a foreigner, Giulio Raimondo Mazzarini, to be his successor. Originally a Neapolitan from the Abruzzi, Mazzarini spent his formative years in Rome, working for influential Italian noble families such as the Colonnas and Barberinis. During the Mantuan Succession crisis, he was tasked by Pope Urban VIII with mediating a truce between Spain and France, and played a prominent role in the negotiation of the Peace of Cherasco in 1631. Over the course of their lengthy bilateral discussions, Cardinal Richelieu had been favourably impressed by his Italian counterpart’s supple mind, Mediterranean charm, and sparkling verve. He stealthily began the process of luring him into France’s orbit, commending him to the Pope and pressing for him to be selected as papal nuncio to Paris. In 1639, Richelieu’s protégé was offered letters of naturalisation — complete with the new, gallicised name Jules Mazarin — and formally embarked upon his long years of service to the French crown. On his deathbed, the French principal minister purportedly urged Louis XIII to make good use of his Italian créature’s services, famously observing that ‘he had a mind sufficient to govern four empires’. Richelieu no doubt also knew that his equally pragmatic successor would perpetuate his own policies of relative religious moderation.

And indeed, during the early years of Louis XIV’s reign, under Mazarin’s ministerial tenure, the Edict of Nantes would be repeatedly reaffirmed — in 1643, 1653, and 1657. Throughout the chaos of La Fronde, whose baronial wars convulsed the country from 1648 to 1653, the Huguenots remained unerringly loyal, prompting Cardinal Mazarin to quip that even if France’s ‘little flock’ of Calvinists ‘fed on evil weeds’, ‘at least they did not stray’. As the historian Geoffrey Treasure rightly observes, the chief minister’s unwillingness, in the face of growing public pressure, to curtail the rights of the Huguenots appears to have been rooted in a rocky realism rather than in any soft alluvium of inner tolerance. Richelieu’s former protégé was ever mindful of the diplomatic, economic, and social costs of renewed confessional discord. Revealingly, when Oliver Cromwell, a fire and brimstone Puritan, opted for an alliance in 1657 with Paris against Madrid — a critical, and highly contentious, decision which decisively shifted the European balance of power in Bourbon France’s favour — he privately justified his choice of one Catholic-majority country over the other in the following terms, suggesting that France’s greater tolerance was one factor — albeit among many — that had shaped his decision-making;

…the one gives liberty of conscience to the professors of the protestant religion (France) and the other persecutes it with loss of life and estate (Spain), and the friendship is likely to be constant and lasting on my part, having in the contracting thereof not only satisfied the interest of the state, but pursued my own principle and conscience.

Henri IV’s quest for moderation and confessional co-existence had thus, more than half a century after his assassination, emerged as a key source of competitive advantage in France’s protracted great power competition with Spain. Unfortunately, this state of affairs was not to endure. Once deprived of the palliating influence of his godfather and chief minister, Mazarin, who died in 1661, Louis XIV began to display ever more troubling signs of intolerance and immoderation. At the beginning of his period of personal rule, he claimed in his Memoirs for the Instruction of the Dauphin (written circa 1670), that he had opted to pursue a rigid,  albeit largely status quo-ist, approach to the lingering ‘evil’ of heresy, contending that he believed that,

the best means to gradually reduce the Huguenots in my kingdom was to not pressure them at all by any new rigors, to observe the [privileges] they had obtained under previous reigns, but also to grant them nothing further, and even to restrict [these privileges] within the narrowest limits that justice and propriety would permit.

As he approached middle age, however, a more zealous and despotic Louis XIV increasingly found the concept of religious dualism to be both incompatible with his conception of royal absolutism, and with his coronation oath to eradicate heresy. From the late 1670s onwards, France’s 850,000-strong Calvinist minority slowly began to suffocate under the weight of growingly oppressive measures. Protestant theological schools were shuttered, temples were razed on specious legal grounds, and Huguenots were progressively evinced from judicial, medical, and municipal jobs. Perhaps most harrowingly, children were separated from their parents, bundled off to convents or monasteries, and forcibly converted to Catholicism. The repression reached its ugly crescendo in 1681 with the introduction of the infamous dragonnades’, whereby royal dragoons were selectively billeted in Protestant households, with the aim of compelling their terrified, tyrannised hosts to convert in exchange for their tormentors’ departure.  Finally, in October 1685 Louis XIV decided to officially revoke the Edict of Nantes. ‘Thereby,’ observes Philip Mansel in his magisterial recent biography of the Sun King, ‘Louis XIV betrayed his grandfather Henri IV, his godfather Mazarin, and his own younger self.’ Practising the religion of the ‘so-called Reformed Church’ was now formally forbidden, pastors were given two weeks to convert on pain of being sent to the galleys, and emigration was banned.

While many Catholic grandees expressed their delight at Louis XIV’s sweeping actions — with the famed court preacher Bossuet portraying his royal patron in rapturous terms as ‘a new Theodosius’, the first Roman emperor to persecute the pagans — a few, more tempered, souls were quietly dismayed at such a mass exodus of talented Frenchmen overseas. It is estimated that approximately 200,000 Huguenots chose to defy Louis XIV’s ban on emigration, settling in regions as far flung as South Carolina and South Africa, in addition to more proximate and popular destinations such as England, the United Provinces, and various German principalities. In 1689, the Marquis de Vauban, one of France’s greatest generals, and the finest military engineer of his age, penned a memorandum calling for a return to the Edict of Nantes. ‘Kings are masters of the lives and the goods of their subjects,’ he sagely observed, ‘but never of their opinions, for inward beliefs are beyond their sovereignty, and God alone can guide them whither they will.’ More concretely, he fretted about the economic and geopolitical ramifications of Louis XIV’s actions, comparing them with Spain’s self-damaging eviction of its Morisco citizens, and drawing attention to the large number of well-trained Huguenot officers who had begun to swell the ranks of France’s opponents. According to Vauban, between 80-100,000 Huguenots had already fled France’s unwelcoming shores by 1689, providing enemy forces with — in addition to reams of vital military intelligence — 500 to 600 army officers, 10- 12,000 soldiers ‘much tougher than those already in their service’ and 15 to 20% of France’s navy, within which Huguenots from French coastal regions had traditionally been over-represented. In 1686, Frederick Schomberg, a naturalised general of German descent, and Louis XIV’s most experienced commander, had steadfastly refused to convert to Catholicism, before defecting to Brandenburg, and then to Holland. Huguenot gunsmiths were now perfecting English firearms, which would soon be of even better quality than those in French armouries. All across Europe, their skilled artisans and tradesmen had exported and diffused France’s technological and commercial savoir-faire, thus fissuring the intellectual bedrock of its primacy. Vauban’s concerns at these developments were shared by the Marquis de Seignelay, Louis XIV’s talented head of the navy, who urged one of his underlings to take the issue of mass emigration seriously, scolding him in the following terms,

…With regard to those who are leaving the realm you are in error when you write that the consequences are not great and will have little effect on trade. You should be persuaded that the departure of a large number of subjects who transport their industry to foreign countries and enrich them at the expense of this kingdom will occasion the greatest harm to the state.

The Sun King had also signally underestimated the role that his nation’s reputation for relative freedom of conscience had played in its overarching grand strategy. Instead, the savagery of the dragonnades tarnished France’s prestige across Europe, and horrified key Protestant allies.  One such alienated partner was Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg, who in 1685 issued the Edict of Potsdam, offering asylum to all Huguenots fleeing France. The edict is a remarkable historical document, not only in its compassion and largesse — with a bevy of generous financial inducements and tax exemptions designed to encourage Huguenot settlement — but also in its unabashed pragmatism. Like other German duchies and principalities still recovering from the ravages of the Thirty Years War, Brandenburg was more than eager to welcome such dynamic, hardworking co-religionists to help revitalise its battered economy.

 Meanwhile, in England, Parliament voted in favour of a large relief package for the ‘refugees’ — a word which then first formally entered the English language as the anglicised bastardisation of the French word ‘réfugié’, that is, those who seek refuge overseas — and several men of Huguenot descent wound up among the founder directors of the Bank of England, established in 1694, thus playing a lead role in London’s steady rise to prominence as a global financial hub. Seignelay and Vauban’s concerns had therefore been well founded, for wherever they went— from Dutch South Africa, where they imported French winemaking techniques, to Berlin, where they introduced silk farming and spinning — the Huguenots transferred skilled labour, precious intellectual capital, and cutting edge craftmanship.  Meanwhile, wily French Protestant counsellors, powered by a white-hot sense of betrayal at the hands of a ‘felonious king who had revoked the irrevocable’, came to serve as righthand men to some of their former monarch’s greatest enemies. By 1713, French trade negotiators openly bemoaned the fact that fellow European powers now produced — thanks to Huguenot immigrants — goods of a similar or even superior quality to those of France, and that this had negatively affected Paris’ trade balance with its neighbours.

In short, it gradually become apparent to French elites that the effects of Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes had been disastrous.  Writing close to half a century later, the Duke de Saint-Simon gave voice to this belatedly shared sentiment. Unleashing one of his characteristically torrential flows of high-minded eloquence, he lambasted the morally and strategically calamitous nature of the Sun King’s decision,

The revocation of the Edict of Nantes, without the slightest pretext or necessity, and the various proscriptions that followed it (…) depopulated a quarter of the realm, ruined its commerce, weakened it in every direction, gave it up for a long time to the public and avowed pillage of the dragoons, authorised torments and punishments by which so many innocent people of both sexes were killed by the thousands, ruined a numerous class; tore in pieces a world of families; armed relatives against relatives, so as to seize their property and leave them to die of hunger; banished our manufactures to foreign lands, made those lands flourish and overflow at the expense of France, and enabled them to build new cities; gave to the world the spectacle of a prodigious population proscribed, stripped, fugitive, wandering, without crime, and seeking shelter from its country.

But by then it was too late, and France, by axing some of the societal pillars that had helped sustain its primacy in early modern Europe — its relative openness, tolerance and capacity for innovation — had durably weakened its position on the continent.

Putting immigration back at the heart of great power rivalry

What relevance do these distant events, however momentous or tragic, have to contemporary geopolitics? How might these episodes of early modern statecraft, complete with their confusing medleys of monarchs, ministers, and edicts, inform our present situation, or add nuance and depth to our collective discussions on issues such as great power rivalry or protracted competition? Primarily, I would argue, by highlighting the extent to which immigration and asylum policies have always constituted core elements of a state’s diplomacy — or indeed of its overarching grand strategy — and hence the intellectual fallacy of continuing to view such questions solely through the shrunken aperture of domestic politics.

Of course, the recognition of the inherently strategic nature of immigration laws is nothing new in and of itself, and indeed ante-dated the periods just discussed. After all, Machiavelli, in his Discourses on Livyfamously argued that if Rome had succeeded in its quest for superpower status, while doughty Sparta had foundered, it was because of the ease with which the former admitted ‘foreigners to its honours’.  Rome’s more liberal attitude toward naturalisation had allowed the once modest Tiberine city-state, the Florentine posited, to greatly expand the number of its citizens and the size of its territories, all while rendering its hegemony more attractive to ambitious outsiders hopeful of integrating Rome’s elite. Sparta, on the other hand, had chosen to stubbornly perpetuate its exclusionary immigration policies—something which, by preventing a genuine enlargement and diversification of its citizen body, led to stagnation, causing its power to eventually wither on the vine. Thus, he noted,

Those who plan for a city to make a great empire should contrive with all industry to make it full of inhabitants, for without this abundance of men one will never succeed in making a city great. This is done in two modes: by love and by force. By love through keeping the ways open and secure for foreigners who plan to come to inhabit it so that everyone may inhabit it willingly; by force through undoing the neighbouring cities and sending their inhabitants to inhabit your city.

If Rome had far surpassed Sparta in its power, Machiavelli added, ‘this arose not from Rome’s site’s being more benign than theirs, but only from its different mode of proceeding.’

…For since Lycurgus, founder of the Spartan republic, considered that nothing could dissolve his laws more easily than the mixture of new inhabitants, he did everything so that foreigners should not have to deal there. Besides not admitting them into marriages, into citizenship, and into other dealings that make men come together, he ordered that leather money should be spent in his republic to take away from everyone the desire to come there, to bring merchandise there, or to bring some art there, so the city-state could never thicken with inhabitants. And since all our actions imitate nature, it is neither possible nor natural for a thin trunk to support a thick branch. So a small republic cannot seize cities or kingdoms that are sounder or thicker than it. If, however, it seizes one, what happens is as with a tree that has a branch thicker than the stem: it supports it with labor, and every small wind breaks it. Thus it was seen to happen to Sparta, which had seized all the cities of Greece. No sooner did Thebes rebel than all the other cities rebelled, and the trunk alone remained without branches. This could not happen to Rome since its stem was so thick it could easily support any branch whatever.

The famed Anti-Machiavellian political theorist Giovanni Botero disagreed with Machiavelli on the role of Christian ethics in statecraft, but largely concurred with his Florentine predecessor on the magnetic power of Rome’s societal model and willingness to incorporate foreign talent. In both On the Causes of the Greatness and Magnificence of Cities (1588and The Reason of State (1589), the influential Piedmontese thinker emphasised the fact that a nation’s people constituted its most valuable resource, as ‘all other resources are reduced to them’. Astute rulers, Botero noted, should therefore do everything in their power to enhance both the quantity and quality of their workforce, arguing vigorously in favour of what we would now call a skill-based immigration model. ‘The prince who wants to populate his city,’ he contended, ‘ought to introduce there every sort of industry and craft by bringing in outstanding craftsmen from other countries, providing them with accommodations and suitable comfort while taking account of their attractive talents, encouraging creativity and works that have something singular or rare about them, and rewarding perfection and excellence.’ He commented approvingly on the manner in which Ottoman sultans had (forcibly) imported thousands of skilled workers to foster Constantinople’s industrial development, or in which Flemish cities — through the granting of certain fiscal privileges — had succeeded in attracting a glut of foreign traders.

These arguments were reprised, in a somewhat more sophisticated form, close to a century later by John Locke, in his short essay entitled For a General Naturalisation, which he penned in 1693, but appears to have never published. The English philosopher had travelled through France from 1675 to 1679, where he had borne witness with quiet alarm to his Huguenot hosts’ increased victimisation. Scholars have long suggested that Locke’s deeply personal experience of his French co-religionists’ collective anguish helped shape, along with other instances of European religious repression, the ideas at the heart of his much-celebrated A Letter Concerning Toleration. Less known, however, is the fact that the subsequent mass emigration of Huguenots, 40- 50,000 of whom are estimated to have landed on England’s shores, may have also influenced his provocative views on late Stuart asylum and immigration policies. In his brief, tersely argued expose, Locke sought to preemptively dismantle the critiques of those hostile to general naturalisation. ‘I have sometimes heard it objected that they (immigrants) eat the bread out of our own people’s mouths,’ he comments, before impishly responding,

Which is no further true than it is a confession that they work cheaper or better. For nobody will leave his neighbour to use a foreigner but for one of those reasons, and can it be counted an inconvenience that which will bring down the unreasonable rates of your own people or force them to work better? Want of people raises their price and makes them both dear and careless. Besides once they are naturalised, how can it be said that they eat the bread out of our own people’s mouths? When they are then in interest as much our own people as any the only difficulty is their language which will be cured too in their children, and they will be as perfect Englishmen as those that have been here since William the Conqueror’s days and came over with him. For t’is hardly to be doubted but that most of even our Ancestors were foreigners.

‘People,’ Locke observed, echoing Botero and broader mercantilist doctrine, ‘are the strength of any government’, before asking whether ‘if all those French men who are employed in France in the manufacturing of wool were transported and settled here in England would it not be an advantage and gain to England?’ As historians such as Warren Scoville have shown, Huguenot immigrants would come to play an important role — just as Locke had predicted — in the modernisation of the English textile industry, introducing new techniques of wool manufacturing and dyeing, as well as linen weaving and silk throwing. As the political theorist David Resnick reminds us, Locke’s ‘vision of England as an expanding commercial society was incompatible with an understanding of liberty inspired by classical republican theory, or a nativist belief that liberty is a peculiarly English possession which would be undermined by admitting foreigners’. It was to be across the Atlantic, however, that the Lockean conception of citizenship as a voluntary basis of political obligation would first fully take root, in large part because the American founding generation were the first to properly grapple with ‘the problem of allegiance from the point of view of naturalisation’.

Questions of immigration and naturalisation were tightly interwoven with that of the fledgling republic’s future security, and the object of spirited internal debate among the Founding Fathers. Indeed, one tends to forget that one of the principal ‘facts submitted to a candid world’, or casus belli, listed in The Declaration of Independence was, in fact, the British Empire’s efforts to restrict emigration to its restless American colonies out of fear of their growing financial and demographic heft. King George III, states the document, had ‘endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalisation of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands’. Considering the substratal profundity of this unique national heritage, one might expect that it would be in the United States of the twenty-first century that the security benefits to be derived from a sounder, and better tailored immigration policy would be the most immediately apparent. Unfortunately, however, this does not seem to be the case. Debates over immigration have increasingly been sucked into the polluted eddies of America’s fevered culture wars and petulant party politics. Comprehensive immigration reform remains elusive at best, and American legislators have, as of now, showed themselves either unwilling, or unable, to engage in the bipartisan efforts required for Washington to prevail in an accelerating global competition for talent. Now more than ever, America’s community of defence intellectuals must work to raise awareness of the importance of a judicious, well-thought-out immigration policy for national defence.

Towards a more competitive US immigration policy

At first glance, it might seem superfluous, or even unnecessary, to remind readers of the enormous technological, economic, and national security advantages the United States has reaped from immigration in the decades since its rise to superpowerdom. From the refugee scientists who spearheaded the Manhattan Project to the extraordinary proportion (more than 45%) of Fortune 500 companies founded either by immigrants or their children, the lasting dividends drawn from these influxes of foreign talent appear self-evident. No other industrialised country can boast such a distinguished roster of foreign-born, naturalised citizens having played such a central role in the formulation of its national security policy — from the German-born Henry Kissinger, to the Polish-born Zbigniew Brzezinski, to the late, Czech-born, Madeleine Albright. This influence extends beyond policymaking to the groves of academia; consider, for example, one of the most historically influential volumes in the academic field of strategic studies, the initial edition of Makers of Modern Strategy. First published in 1943, the edited volume, which exerted a deep and lasting influence over American intellectual approaches to grand strategy, includes a remarkably high proportion of German refugee scholars among its illustrious contributors.

From the Bulgarian-born aeronautical engineering genius Assen ‘Jerry’ Jordanoff, to Hyman Rickover, the Polish-American ‘father of the nuclear navy’, the American military innovation enterprise has also benefited from the drive, ingenuity and patriotism of naturalised immigrants. As Claude Seyssel already concluded over six centuries ago, freshly minted citizens — having made the deeply personal and active decision to integrate into their host nation — often approach public service with a higher level of reverence and dedication. Laura Fermi, the daughter of Enrico Fermi, who fled Mussolini’s Italy for America, where he played a lead role in the development of the Manhattan Project, wrote that it was her father’s immigrant status that instilled in him such a remarkable strength of purpose in the defence of his new homeland:

The determination to defend America at all costs spurred the newcomers no less than the Americans, and the European-born may have come to this determination somewhat earlier than the native-born, driven by stronger personal emotions. The picture of their country under Nazi power in the event of a German victory was something the Americans could imagine only with difficulty…And if America failed them, where they would they go? It was not only gratitude to the country that had offered them asylum or pride in their new citizenship but also the fear of dictators that drove them to work to the limit of their physical and mental endurance.

And yet it is worth keeping in mind that for all these uplifting demonstrations of the benefits the United States has accrued from immigration, there is an almost equally powerful restrictionist tradition in American culture and politics — a tradition manifested, for example, in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which, for the first time, singled out an entire ethnic group for restriction by prohibiting all Chinese labourers from entering the United States; or in the Emergency immigration Act of 1921, which drastically curtailed immigration from eastern and southern Europe to the United States. For much of the twentieth century, American immigration was heavily shaped by the quota system of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which aimed to preserve racial homogeneity by reserving more than 70% of slots to immigrants of north-western European origin. In defence of the bill that he co-sponsored, Republican Senator David Reed triumphantly crowed in The New York Times that the ‘America of the Melting Pot’ had ‘come to an end’. In his virulently bigoted defence of the legislation, Reed went on to note that,

The racial composition of America at the present time thus is made permanent. The composition of our population will not change in future decades in the same way in which it changed between 1885 and the outbreak of the World War. It is true that 75% of our immigration will hereafter come from Northwestern Europe; but it is fair that it should do so, because 75% of us who are now here owe our origin to immigrants from these same countries.

This ethnocentric system remained largely in place for over four decades — and this despite the growing frustrations of early Cold War presidents such as Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, who all realised full well the extent to which America’s discriminatory immigration policies were prejudicial to its interests and global standing as a self-professed beacon of freedom and openness. It was only in 1965, with the Lyndon Johnson administration’s passage of the landmark Immigration and Nationality Act, that the origins quota system was finally dissolved once and for all, greatly diversifying and expanding the flow of legal immigration to the United States.

When the Trump Administration came to power, it expressed a strong desire to reverse the gains of 1965, and to return to the ethnic engineering and restrictionist policies of the 1920s. Figures such as Jeff Sessions or former White House senior advisor Stephen Miller openly pined for the origin quotas of the Johnson-Reed Act. Somewhat paradoxically, for all of the Trump Administration’s nativist bombast and bluster, it proved far more successful in weakening the flow of legal immigration than in reducing the number of illegal aliens on American soil, which remained largely the same as when President Trump came into office. Thus from 2016 to 2021, the US experienced a 49% reduction in legal immigration, with an 18% decline in the number of green cards issued overseas, and a 28% decline in the release of non-immigrant visas (NIVs). Meanwhile, refugee admissions were reduced to their lowest levels since the launching of the formal US refugee settlement programme in 1980. Finally, a Kafkaesque combination of executive orders, technical adjustments and hiring freezes resulted in a multi-million case backlog of visa and/or green card applications, with many prospective immigrants remaining in an indefinite, and oft-tortuous state of limbo. These drastic contractions were further exacerbated by the pandemic, which provided Trump Administration officials with both the justification and opportunity to enact the draconian restrictions on legal immigration they had always aspired to implement. Had Donald Trump won a second term, certain COVID-era immigration restrictions, such as a freeze on all new green cards and visas, may well have been extended for an indefinite period — as Stephen Miller ominously foreshadowed in an October 2020 interview. Unfortunately, this atavistic hostility towards refugees, foreign-worker visa holders, and immigration more broadly is now increasingly widespread within the Republican party. In December 2020, Senator Ted Cruz, himself the son of an asylum seeker, blocked the passage of the Hong Kong People’s Freedom and Choice Act of 2020which would have made it easier for persecuted Hong Kongers to gain refugee or temporary protected status. The McCarthyite justification proffered by the Texan Senator — that it would facilitate the infiltration of Chinese spies — was eerily similar to that advanced by the seventeenth century southern French officials who denied asylum to the downtrodden Moriscos. More recently, the question of the resettlement of Afghan refugees elicited similarly hostile reactions among many Republican house members.

Meanwhile, having campaigned on an unabashedly pro-immigration platform, President Joe Biden has revealed himself to be more cautious and risk-averse on the issue than many initially anticipated.  While the refugee cap has been raised from its historic low of 15,000 to 125,000, and the administration has worked hard to unwind many of the Trump-era restrictions through its own flurry of executive actions, the prospect of sweeping immigration reform — and particularly of providing a path to citizenship for America’s millions of undocumented immigrants — has rarely appeared more chimerical. Republican opposition and congressional gridlock, along with ham-fisted Democratic negotiation tactics, and the desire to focus on other less polarising issues in the lead-up to the midterms — there are many valid explanations for why Washington has slumped into such a bruising stalemate. For much of President Biden’s first year in office, legal immigration remained sluggish, mired in processing backlogs and COVID-induced delays. It was only in the last quarter of 2021 that the number of green cards issued began to reach pre-Trump levels.

On the issue of skill-based immigration reform, however, there may be more room for bipartisan compromise and legislative action, particularly if the broader defence policy community works to raise awareness of its criticality to US interests and security. Unlike China or Russia, the United States — with its high white-collar wages, deep and liquid capital markets, world-class universities, and reliable legal system — remains a country with enormous appeal to foreign scientists, engineers, academics and entrepreneurs. America has traditionally captured 40-50% of the global inflow of college-educated migrants to OECD nations, followed by the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, and more than half of Nobel prize winners moved to the US for professional reasons. Some 42% of all PhD students in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) disciplines in American universities are foreign-born, as is approximately 69% of the Silicon Valley tech workforce, with the largest shares coming from India (25%), and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Even as America continues to exert a strong gravitational pull on foreign talent, its domestic pool of skilled or highly specialised workers has become too shallow to properly compete with its most formidable rival, China. In international assessments, America’s K-12 education system (so named because it stretches from kindergarten to twelfth grade, or the end of high school) continues to lag behind those of most other industrialised nations, especially in STEM subjects. Meanwhile, in addition to recently outpacing the United States in several key scientific metrics and in its contribution to global R&D funding, Beijing is now projected to produce nearly twice as many STEM PhD graduates than the US by 2025. As the US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) observes in its 2021 report, Washington is confronted with a daunting workforce deficit, and ‘AI and digital talent is simply too scarce in the United States’. In 2020, ‘there were more than 430,000 open computer science jobs in the United States, while only 71,000 new computer scientists graduate from American universities each year’. These qualified workforce penuries extend well beyond the field of computer science and artificial intelligence, to affect the entirety of the US defence industrial base (DIB). A sense of genuine alarm has begun to permeate the national security establishment, with the most recently released Industrial Capabilities Report of the US Department of Defense not hesitating to describe the current STEM shortage in the DIB as ‘another Sputnik moment we can’t afford to ignore’.

In short, the US needs large numbers of highly skilled immigrants — and preferably large numbers of naturalised highly skilled immigrants, who can take the oath of allegiance and serve the US government — to compete and prevail in the twenty-first century. Efforts should certainly be made to improve the quality of America’s K-12 education system, and to upscale the skills of its native-born workforce, but such reforms will inevitably take years, if not decades, to fully bear fruit, and will therefore provide no short to medium term solution to the US’s widening talent gap with China. Streamlining immigration and naturalisation processes for foreign citizens with coveted competencies should be a bipartisan national security priority, and disentangled from other, more domestically contentious, immigration-based issues. In recent years, there have been encouraging signs of an emergent — albeit fragile — bipartisan consensus on the pressing need for such an effort. One such example is the narrowly focused 2020 National Security Innovation Pathway Act, which sought to both facilitate the accordance of special immigrant status to scientists and technical experts with the kind of knowledge required to ‘promote and protect the national security innovation base’, and establish new scholarships for US students under the Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation Defense (SMART) Education Program. Unfortunately, however, the bipartisan bill never received a vote, dying a quiet death in the previous Congress. More recently, the America Competes Act, which passed the House and Senate but is currently going through the  conference process, contains a number of immigration related provisions. Provided these survive the negotiations between the two chambers, they would be steps in the right direction. Most notably, they would exempt foreign citizens with doctoral degrees in STEM fields from annual green card limits, in addition to creating a new ‘start-up visa category’ for foreign-born entrepreneurs. These proposed legislative reforms, however, still fall far short of the mark. The urgency of the situation is such that more drastic measures are needed. For example, the United States should follow the NSCAI’s recommendation to grant green cards to all students graduating with STEM PhDs from accredited American universities, and should also consider expanding the Fulbright Foreign Student Program, which currently provides approximately 4,000 outstanding foreign students with the ability to study and conduct research in the States. Establishing an effective international talent pipeline also requires facilitating the sponsorship of those foreign students whose families may not have the means to send them overseas.

Last but not least, the US should think more creatively about preemptively pilfering adversarial foreign talent in addition to building up its own, and about leveraging a key dimension of its soft power — its economic, cultural, and intellectual attractiveness — against its principal competitors. Conflict is a fundamentally interactive endeavour, and this includes the accelerating global competition for talent.  During the dread-steeped years of the early Cold War, Washington’s security managers proved themselves to be doggedly single-minded in this regard, sometimes almost distressingly so.  Operation Paperclip, the highly controversial post-war intelligence programme that secretly imported more than 1,600 Nazi scientists to work on a panoply of high-priority US defence projects — ranging from rocketry and biological weapons to space medicine — comes to mind. A key driver behind this morally fuliginous initiative was, of course, the desire to prevent the Third Reich’s dark geniuses from firing the furnaces of the rival Soviet war machine. While no contemporary US policymaker would want to be confronted with the same anfractuous ethical quandaries as the architects of Operation Paperclip, one should aspire to at least a partial reintroduction of this spirit of competitive ruthlessness. An adversary’s brain drain — whether from Hong Kong or from Moscow — should be America’s brain gain. For example, it is estimated that anywhere between 50-70,000 information technology specialists have left Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the last month or so. Meanwhile, growing numbers of China’s most highly educated millennials have begun to feverishly seek ways to escape their increasingly stagnant and dystopic society to find opportunity — and freedom — overseas. Why not welcome many of these talented Chinese and Russian emigrants to the United States, and following a diligent naturalisation and security clearance process, encourage a portion of them to eventually swell the ranks of America’s national security workforce, much in the same way that many Huguenots went on to buoy the military strength of Louis XIV’s rivals? In so doing, they would not only help fill critical workforce gaps in the US while widening those in their countries of origin, they would also provide invaluable regional expertise on the strengths and weaknesses of America’s primary competitors. In this regard, the Biden administration’s recent proposal to eliminate some visa requirements for Russians with a masters or doctoral degree in ‘science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, including but not limiting to degrees relevant to artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, semiconductors, and robotics’, is most certainly a step in the right direction. After all, as figures as varied as Botero, Richelieu and Locke readily understood, the strength of a great power lies both in its power of attraction, and in the intellectual qualities of its people.

Iskander Rehman

Iskander Rehman holds a PhD, with distinction, from the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), in Paris, and can be followed on twitter @IskanderRehman. In July, he will be joining the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs as an Ax:son Johnson Institute for Statecraft and Diplomacy Fellow.

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