Immigration and Geopolitics: Should Latvia Have an Open Border with Russia?

  • January 9, 2024
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In the debate over immigration among laissez-faire liberals and libertarians, one aspect of the open-borders side becomes quickly apparent: the debate generally ignores problems related to geopolitics such as international conflict, ethnic strife, and expansionist states. Rather, the libertarian advocates of open borders tend to focus overwhelmingly on why rich countries should open their borders to migrants from lower-income countries. These open-border arguments generally stick to listing the practical benefits of immigration in terms of economic factors like productivity and per capita GDP. It is assumed that open borders will necessarily lead to a rising standard of living for the residents of the host country. Yet, we rarely see these open-border arguments convincingly applied to contexts outside the developed world. 

One example of this is Bryan Caplan’s book The Case for Open Borders, which might as well be called The Case for Open Borders for Wealthy Countries. The reader will find very little in this book about the global geopolitical aspects of immigration. Similarly, the CATO Institute’s summary of the general case for open borders makes no mention at all of the potential problems migration poses to territorial ethnic minorities, small states, or targets of larger expansionist states. Only slightly more nuanced is an article by Christopher Freiman and Javier Hidalgo titled “Only libertarianism can provide a robust justification for open borders.” Yet, even here, the authors quickly dismiss as an “extreme case” the concern that large-scale migration could overwhelm and subjugate the local host population. 

Instead, the open-borders quickly retreat to familiar and domestic territory, discussing only the effects on immigration on first-world social benefits programs and worker productivity in rich countries. This amounts to a lot of dismissive hand-waving about the relationship between migration and geopolitics. It suggests open-borders advocates have little to say beyond immigration policy in a narrow sliver of the developed world. 

Consider, however, some of the issues that crop up once we look beyond North America and western Europe. Small countries next to large countries face sizable existential challenges related to migration. Demographic asymmetries among bordering countries of different sizes means that in many times and places open borders between two states can lead to the end of majority status for a regional or national population in the smaller country. This in itself would not be a problem in terms of economic progress were it not for the fact that experience suggests a loss of majority status also bring a loss of rights and prerogatives such as self-rule, self-determination, and private property protections. This is especially the case in Europe, Asia, and Africa where divisions among religious, ethnic, and language groups are often pronounced.  Thus, a large demographic change brought about by migration is not politically neutral, and it cannot be assumed that the new minorities will share in the alleged bounty that open-borders advocates assume will be always wrought by greater levels of immigration.  

The arguments of open-borders advocates may indeed be applicable in some corners of the developed world. But when it comes to immigration, it’s one thing to be the United States, which contains one of the world’s largest native-born populations and which shares a land border with only two countries. Things are quite different in Botswana and Lithuania and Vietnam. 

The Big Country/Small Country Problem 

Most of the open-border discussion is framed within the context of wealthy countries opening up their borders to migrants from poorer countries. Moreover, many of these wealthy countries in question—i.e., the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Sweden—do not border any low-income countries with larger populations. These factors in themselves help to significantly limit migration into these states.  

These mitigating factors are hardly universal. In contrast, we can find many cases in which a small higher-income country is next to a much larger lower-income country. Open borders would present an entirely different challenge in these countries than they would in, say, Canada. For example, Latvia has a GDP per capita of $21,267 and is adjacent to Russia with a GDP per capita of $12,259. Latvia’s resident population is 1.8 million, and it is estimated nearly nine percent of these residents are non-citizens. Meanwhile, Russia’s population is 144 million. 

Now, let’s suppose that Latvia implements an open-border policy. In this scheme, anyone who wants to reside in Latvia may do so. Since Latvia has a much higher standard of living than Russia, we can assume that many Russians would be open to resettlement. (We can even assume a minimal border control that refuses passage to known criminals.) In this scenario, however,  Latvia opens itself up some big geopolitical risks with open borders. For example, less than 1.5 percent of Russia’s population would need to emigrate to Latvia for ethnic Russians to outnumber Latvians. This would be a sizable undertaking in the short term, but spread out over over a dozen years or so it is far from impossible. It is especially feasible if the migrants are subsidized by the Russian state and essentially “paid to leave.” 

To say that this would be politically destabilizing for Latvians would be an understatement. It would quickly change the geopolitical situation between Latvia, the EU, and Russia. It would also subject Latvia’s political institutions to a potentially hostile ethnic Russian population. Many within the new majority may have little concern for protecting the property rights of ethnic Latvians—especially given the long history of hostility between the two countries.  In cases like these, the ethnic group that finds itself relegated to minority status would soon face a far more uncertain future. Even if open borders somehow produced a higher per capita GDP within the borders of Latvia, new political realities make it less likely that Latvians will enjoy these gains into the longer term. 

We can see similar problems with demographic asymmetry in other parts of the globe. We might ask if high-income South Korea should have an open border with medium-income China. South Korea’s current population is 52 million, one-sixteenth the size of China. China would hardly have to empty itself to make an ethnic Chinese migrant population an influential and powerful minority within Korea. 

Not Just Rich Countries

Nor does a country need to be wealthy to face similar situations. A country need only be wealthier than its neighbors. Botswana, for example, is a low-mid-income country with a population of only 2.6 million. It is nevertheless one of the wealthiest nations in sub-Saharan Africa. Foreign immigration is a perennial concern there. Botswana shares a border with Zimbabwe, an impoverished and unstable country to the northeast. Would Botswanans benefit from opening the border to 16 million desperately poor Zimbabweans right next door? Possibly. But experience strongly suggests many Botswanans, should they be subject to a new Zimbabwean majority, would be risking their property rights and human rights in the process. 

Nor does this demographic situation depend on the destination country being higher-income than the country sending the migrants. The situation becomes even more complex in areas where two adjacent countries are experiencing growing levels of international conflict. We might point to Ukraine, for example, where the per capita GDP is only a fraction of Russia’s. Had Ukraine adopted an open-border policy in the decades leading up to the beginning of the Russo-Ukraine war in 2014, the situation could have been quite different. The Russian regime could have subsidized new migrants to Crimea strengthening the Russian ethnic majority there. This, of course, would also have the benefit—from Moscow’s perspective—or shoring up de facto Russian control in the region. Meanwhile, Russian nationalists could have taken advantage of Ukraine’s open border by entering the Donbas region in the pre-war period, strengthening local resistance to the Kiev regime while paving the way for future Russian annexation in the east. This does not require “invasion”—as many anti-immigration activists are fond of describing any large migrant flow. Under an open-borders regime, ethnic Russians would be free to move to Ukraine as peaceful workers and residents. When the situation turns more hostile—as it did in 2014—there would not necessarily be anything stopping these migrants from expressing their pro-Russian sentiments at the ballot box, in public demonstrations, or as new recruits among the Donetsk and Luhansk militias. 

We might make similar observations about the border between middle-income China and low-income Vietnam. Border disputes between the two countries continue today in the South China Sea. The two countries only finalized their land border in 1991, after decades of conflict. China’s population is ten times the size of Vietnam’s. Would an open border benefit the Vietnamese? It’s difficult to know, although an influx of ethnic Chinese into the far north of Vietnam could certainly assist China in “renegotiating” the location of the border. 

This method of gradually adjusting international borders via migration has been pioneered in modern times by the “passportization” process sometimes employed by Moscow in eastern Ukraine. In this way, ethnic Russians living near the Russian border in foreign countries are granted Russian citizenship and given Russian passports. Under an open -borders regime, these newly naturalized foreigners could easily be augmented by new arrivals.  Some have suggested that China may eventually employ a similar tactic along the Russia-China border as described in the Hudson Institute’s report “The Great Siberian War of 2030.” Extrapolating from the report’s observations on the Siberian borderlands—dividing Russia from a far-more-populous China—it becomes apparent that a Russian open-border policy would quickly expand Chinese geopolitical influence in the region at the expense of the Russians. 

Backdoor Colonization

Some astute readers might conclude that small countries next to large countries could face a type of backdoor colonization were they to implement open border policies. This is quite possible. Outright colonization is a slightly different case, however, because it involves an open border imposed by one polity on another. This is more characteristic of the borders around Indian reservations in the United States or the borders between metropoles and their colonies. One example is the Algerian border under French rule. In cases of traditional non-democratic colonization, however, demographic imbalances don’t matter as much because the metropole’s power is employed to prop up minority populations in the face of larger indigenous populations. Consider, for example, how a small Anglo minority ruled in Kenya for decades. 

Open borders present a separate and distinct problem when we are looking at democratic countries that are in close proximity to much more populous countries. Small countries like the Baltic states, were they to implement open borders, would face immediate and potentially devastating demographic changes followed by political changes implemented via the ballot box. 

Yet, many advocates of open borders act as if this phenomenon is of trivial importance. Freiman and Hidalgo, for instance, grant that perhaps a liberal polity could legitimately implement a policy designed to prohibit “the entry of a billion foreigners to prevent its own destruction.” The implication here is that only an absurdly large number of migrants—i.e., a billion people—would justify a border-control regime. Yet, for many countries, the number necessary to bring about drastic demographic and political changes is far smaller than a billion.

There is certainly nothing novel about this observation. The free-market libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises recognized this issue nearly 100 years ago when he wrote about the same phenomenon, but in the context of a period when it was Europe that was exporting migrants: 

In the absence of any migration barriers whatsoever, vast hordes of immigrants from the comparatively overpopulated areas of Europe would, it is maintained, inundate Australia and America. They would come in such great numbers that it would no longer be possible to count on their assimilation. If in the past immigrants to America soon adopted the English language and American ways and customs, this was in part due to the fact that they did not come over all at once in such great numbers. … One of the most important reasons for this rapid national assimilation was the fact that the immigrants from foreign countries did not come in too great numbers. 

Mises notes that in the twentieth century, changes in global demographics and technology facilitates rapid demographic changes in levels not previously possible. He concludes that large-scale migration could fundamentally change the liberal nature of many western regimes—potentially for the worse. He notes many anti-immigration advocates fear this, and he continues: 

These fears may perhaps be exaggerated in regard to the United States. As regards Australia, they certainly are not. Australia has approximately the same number of inhabitants as Austria; its area, however, is a hundred times greater than Austria’s, and its natural resources are certainly incomparably richer. If Australia were thrown open to immigration, it can be assumed with great probability that its population would in a few years consist mostly of Japanese, Chinese, and Malayans.. . . . The entire nation [not just workers] is unanimous, however, in fearing inundation by foreigners. The present inhabitants of those favored lands [the U.S. and Australia] fear that some day they could be reduced to a minority in their own country and that they would then have to suffer all horrors of national persecution to which, for instance, the Germans today [1927] are exposed in Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Poland.

Mises here is concluding open borders work in some context but not in others. At the same time, Mises did not deny that open borders are always preferable when arguing as an economist. And he is right. There are no good economic arguments in favor of border controls. On the other hand, Mises also observed the political realities tend to intervene in ways that prevent us from benefiting from laissez-faire economic policy. In much of the world,  geopolitical realities often tend to mean that open border policies end up being laissez-faire only in the very short term. In the longer term, open borders tend to create new political realities that are often used against the very people who intended to improve economic growth and property rights by embracing free and open migration. 

Read More: “Mises on Nationalism, the Right of Self-Determination, and the Problem of Immigration” by Joseph Salerno.