The Strategic Implications of Exiting the Global Migration Compact Process

In its National Security Strategy (NSS) released on December 18, 2017, the Trump administration dedicates one of four pillars to “[Advancing] American Influence.” The NSS states clearly that the “United States must lead and engage in the multinational arrangements that shape many of the rules that affect U.S. interests and values.” It goes even further, rightly pointing out that “if the United States cedes leadership of these bodies to adversaries, opportunities to shape developments that are positive for the United States will be lost.”

On September 19, 2016, 193 countries unanimously adopted a set of commitments known as the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. At the time, all 193 countries recognized that unprecedented levels of people were on the move, including over 65 million refugees and countless other nonforced (yet often still irregular) migrants. The declaration called for two “compact” processes to be initiated, one on refugees and one on “safe, orderly and regular migration.” The resulting global migration compact will be a key multinational arrangement that will shape how countries all over the world view a critical—and truly global—issue.

On December 3, 2017, the Trump administration became the first and, to date, only country in the world to withdraw from the global migration compact process, claiming in a statement that it “could undermine the sovereign right of the United States to enforce [its] immigration laws and secure [its] borders.” Though “protecting American sovereignty” is mentioned liberally in the NSS and is cited in this decision, being the only country in the world to pull out of the process was a strategic mistake that could make the United States less safe with less global influence and thus even less control over irregular migration to its borders.

To understand the strategic implications of the decision, it is worth understanding what the UN global compact on migration process is intended to do:

  • address all aspects of international migration, including humanitarian, developmental, and human rights related;
  • make an important contribution to global governance and enhance coordination on international migration;
  • present a framework for comprehensive international cooperation on migrants and human mobility;
  • set out a range of actionable commitments, means of implementation, and a framework for follow-up and review among member states regarding international migration in all its dimensions.

It is also worth understanding what the process is not intended to do: the resulting compact will be a nonbinding, political (i.e. not legal) document. In pulling out of the process, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that “Americans and Americans alone are the ones who will decide how to best control our borders and who will be allowed to enter our country.” This incorrectly assumes that the global compact will reduce the ability of the United States to enact and enforce its own migration-related laws. In fact, by strengthening global governance and enhancing coordination among member states, the compact aims to move people out of the shadows of irregularity so that migration can be managed and monitored more closely. Without these discussions and without collective action on this agenda, the status quo of irregular migration and human trafficking is almost certain to continue.

The United States will always set the rules for how best to control its borders and who will be allowed to enter the country, regardless of multilateral efforts. The compact will establish a framework for thinking about migration collectively; it will hardly be a binding legal document.

The “sovereignty argument,” as cited in the withdrawal statement, has been used often over the years, recently in the context of Brexit but also by bad actors worldwide to justify nonintervention by foreign powers over bad actions. As evidenced by President Trump’s use of the word no less than 21 times in his maiden UN General Assembly speech in September, sovereignty is nonetheless at the top of the U.S. foreign policy agenda.

Strategically, using the sovereignty argument in this context (i.e., one in which U.S. sovereignty is not really at risk) could make us less credible when attempting to counter an increasingly assertive China in the East and South China Seas. It challenges our credibility when calling , as President Trump has done repeatedly, for unified global action against North Korea. It limits our ability credibly to counter increasing Russian influence in democratic elections. Bad actors could point to this usage of the sovereignty argument every time the United States and its allies attempt to influence them positively.

In reality, the migration compact process provides a forum to address one of the globe’s most pressing challenges, one that is not going away and, without action, will continue to get worse. The point of the compact is to foster a greater understanding of how to organize and streamline migratory flows to benefit both the migrants themselves and host communities. And yes, the compact aims to make the inevitable migration of people more orderly and safe.

People are on the move whether we like it or not; no policy will stop it if the factors pushing people to leave—be they conflict, poverty, or anything else—outweigh the walls erected to stop them. Either we find ways to make migration legal (i.e., “regular”), safe, and orderly as a group of nations or this movement will continue to happen largely in irregular and destabilizing ways. The migration compact process should be seen as an attempt to mobilize resources, to agree on mutually beneficial policy changes where appropriate (most of these will end up being regional or bilateral using the compact as a guide), to proactively prepare for future migration flows, and ultimately to find solutions to a real issue that affects us all.

The global migration compact process will proceed with or (as is the current state of affairs) without the United States. Without U.S. leadership, though, China and Russia will undoubtedly attempt to fill the void, as Germany, Sweden, Japan, and other friends lose a powerful allied voice and/or look elsewhere for leadership. The resulting compact will have significant impact on the global governance architecture surrounding migration and, for the first time, create a comprehensive way for the other 192 countries in the world to bring migrants out of the shadows and under the auspices of the rules-based, liberal international order. Because of the December 3 decision, the United States will not be part of those discussions and will have no influence on the ultimate framework. A loss of global influence means less control away from our borders and thus less safety within them. It is yet another example of how, as General Ikenberry so aptly put it, “the world’s most powerful state has begun to sabotage the order it created.”

After pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accords, this action is another indication that the Trump administration is challenging U.S. leadership of multilateral initiatives and institutions and straining the trust of our allies. The administration is right to call for reforms in international financial and trade institutions, and it is reassuring that the NSS states that the “United States will continue to play a leading role in institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and World Trade Organization (WTO).” Emphasizing “shared responsibility” at the United Nations is also appropriate. But these organizations and their initiatives—like the global migration compact process—require active leadership, or at least participation. None of them is perfect, but reforming them requires a seat at the table.

The NSS includes the following powerful and relevant statement:

“No nation can unilaterally alleviate all human suffering, but just because we cannot help everyone does not mean that we should stop trying to help anyone. For much of the world, America’s liberties are inspirational, and the United States will always stand with those who seek freedom. We will remain a beacon of liberty and opportunity around the world.”

Irregular migrants often leave home in pursuit of better lives and opportunities for their families. The United States is indeed a beacon of liberty and opportunity to irregular and regular migrants alike. U.S. leadership on intractable global problems from helping Europe rebuild after World War II to combatting HIV/AIDS and beyond has had huge positive impacts since the dawn of the republic. But being a beacon of liberty and opportunity, without a seat at the table where collaborative efforts to move people from irregular to orderly and safe migration are being discussed, puts the United States at a strategic disadvantage. It also fails to see that the most radical element of the global migration compact is not a challenge to sovereignty, but a collective agreement that migrants should be treated like human beings.

In pulling out of the global migration compact process, strategic “opportunities to shape developments that are positive for the United States” will indeed be lost, as will yet another opportunity for the United States to be a force for good in the world.

Erol Yayboke is deputy director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Erol Yayboke
Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program