What is the Transnational State? Interview with Thomas Lacroix

Coastal patrol

In this second volume of a two-part study,1 entitled The Transnational State: Governing Migratory Circulations, Thomas Lacroix questions the role of the state in global migration. Through an innovative conceptual framework, this book seeks to grasp the transformations of the contemporary state in both sending and receiving countries. It shows how states expand beyond national territorial limits by reaching out to migrants where they are. In this interview, Thomas sets out to show how and why the development of the transnational state is not a random fact.

In this volume on the state, you stress the importance of distinguishing between the Westphalian state and the transnational state. Could you briefly outline the main differences between the two, particularly with regard to territory and borders?

Cover The Transnational State Thomas LacroixThe Westphalian state is based on the principle of the superposition of a political apparatus, a territory, and a field of sovereignty. The Westphalian state regulates the social dynamics that take place within its borders. However, work on globalisation shows that public authorities are also called upon to manage flows that cross the territory: flows of people, money, ideas, goods, etc. In order to control these transnational flows, the state has to become transnational itself. It develops administrations and policies whose scope extends beyond national borders. For example, work on the trading state shows how trade policy feeds into economic diplomacy. I call the transnational state the set of public mechanisms whose task it is to regulate these material and immaterial flows. This concept invites us to decouple state action from territory and allows us to look at what the state does beyond and within its borders: how the management of these flows produces a specific diplomacy that affects its relations not only with other states, but also with private partners such as companies, international organisations, or NGOs. But it also leads the state to act at the sub-national level: global flows very often have a local impact that needs to be controlled or, on the contrary, encouraged.

On the basis of this classification, you introduce the concept of the transnational migratory state...

The transnational migratory state corresponds to the set of administrations and policies produced by the state to manage the flows generated by migration, not only flows of people, but also flows of money and ideas. In my work, I distinguish between two types of transnational migratory state. First is the emigration state, whose function is to manage the flows generated by emigration. What I mean by this is the flows of people who want to leave, as well as the flows generated by people who have left: remittances, investments, or the transfer of political ideas. Second is the immigration state. It is concerned with immigration flows generated by foreigners wishing to settle on its territory.

This distinction is not the same as the one usually made between countries of emigration in the South and countries of immigration in the North. Each state must develop a policy to manage these inflows and outflows. France has set up an administration to manage the immigrant population, but also services to deal with its own nationals who have left to settle in other countries. My colleague Christian Lequesne has just published a book on the diplomacy of French expatriates. In his book, he shows that France has built both an emigration state and an immigration state.

You point out that your aim is to understand how the state connects to transnational flows in order to control them. Can you tell us a little more about this relationship?

My argument in the book is that the transnationalisation of the state through the management of migration flows has a dynamic of its own. Public authorities have to act where these flows materialise and with the actors who are responsible for them. Policy makers need to understand and build on the social and spatial structures that organise transnational social fields. The first volume of this work focuses on these structures of transnational society. I describe the basic building blocks that are the three migratory social institutions—families, firms, and migrant associations—as well as the places, which I call ecotones, where migration flows territorialise. The state makes use of all these structures. That's what I call isomorphism between the state and transnational society. This is as true for the emigration state as it is for the immigration state, but not in quite the same way. The emigration state tends to rely on migrants' social institutions (entrepreneurs for investment, families for remittances, associations for political or cultural support). By contrast, the immigration state tends to act in the areas of migration in order to control the flow of people: in the countries of origin in order to discourage people from leaving, on the migration routes in the transit countries, at the borders, in the cities where people settle in order to detect illegal immigrants or to support the settlement of others.

International trade

Both receiving and sending countries seek to control these multiple flows (human, financial, and cultural/political) in order to reap the political and economic benefits. What do these transnational flows mean for the states that seek to benefit from them?

From the point of view of public authorities, these flows are deeply ambivalent. They are necessary as a source of currency or labour, especially in a globalised economy. But they also pose a political challenge when immigration contributes to introduce ideas or norms that are not accepted by the population or the government. The function of the transnational state is to filter migration flows according to its interests. Immigration states in northern countries seek to encourage the arrival of skilled people and discourage other migration profiles. Emigration states, on the other hand, welcome the economic resources of diasporas but seek to exclude political flows that run counter to their agenda. Examples include groups of exiled dissidents who organise to promote their cause in their country of origin. But the same is true of democracies. Riva Kastoryano shows, for example, that France is deeply embarrassed by the repatriation of the bodies of jihadists who have died in Syria or during an attack abroad: even dead, their bodies carry a symbolic burden that the authorities do not want imported into France.

How do you see the future of the transnational state and what are the implications for international relations?

Migration flows are different from other flows of globalisation. They are driven by people with agency, who respond to constraints imposed by states. If the authorities build a wall, migrants will try to circumvent it. In response, the authorities will try to adapt and extend the wall. This is true of physical walls, the extension of which forces migrants to take ever more dangerous and costly routes. It is also true of legal walls: as work visas become harder to obtain, people opt for family reunification, present themselves as asylum seekers, or enter through other than legal channels, prompting the authorities to adopt ever more restrictive laws. The state is outsourcing its borders in order to act as soon as the flows begin; it is reinforcing its borders by increasing its technical and human resources. Finally, it internalises its borders by involving whole sectors of society in this work of control, for example by forcing employers to check their employees' papers or face fines. That's the totalitarian temptation that has gripped the authorities. Of course, societies resist this kind of control. We can see, for example, the "welcoming cities" movement that is spreading in Europe and North America to counterbalance the threat that these policies pose to migrant populations.

Mexico border

Finally, it seems to me that this totalitarian temptation is at the root of a new diplomacy. The states of origin and transit have clearly understood the benefits they can derive from the obsession of the countries of destination. This can be seen in the outsourcing agreements with states such as Turkey, Egypt, and Tunisia: they are willing to cooperate, but in return for substantial financial and political compensation. Conversely, they can use the threat of opening their borders as a means of exerting diplomatic pressure. This was seen, for example, when thousands of Moroccans flooded into the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla: Morocco had not agreed to Spain hosting a general from the Polisario Front (the nationalist rebel movement that claims Western Sahara). In my view, the development of the transnational state will profoundly change the field of international relations.

Interview by Miriam Périer, CERI.

Access the interview on the first volume, The Transnational Society: A Social Theory of Cross Border Linkages .

Photo 1: A coastal patrol tower. Photo by PHkorsart for Shutterstock
Photo 2: A container cargo ship. Photo by Avigator Fortuner for Shutterstock
Photo 3: Mexican border. Photo by David Peinado Romero for Shuterstock


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