Analysis - Political Transformations

Visa Diplomacy

More Openness or Isolation?
Wednesday، March 22، 2017
Visa Diplomacy

Kevin Stringer quoted Peter Rodino, former American Congressman, in his article “The Visa Dimension of Diplomacy,” stating that “the exercise of those powers, duties, and functions conferred upon consular officers relating to the granting or refusal of visas has far reaching effects on the lives of persons seeking admission to the United States; it affects our foreign policy and foreigners’ perception of this nation; and most importantly, it affects our national security and national interest.”[i]

This argument expressed the core significance, which entry visas now occupy in the contemporary international context, as characterized by the global trend of  increasing human flows among countries, resulting from globalization and its implications, and how through this the features of relations of among countries are formed, in addition to relations with non-state actors. Thus, the “visa diplomacy” approach is one of many enabling states to cope with modern global variables.

Visa Diplomacy, a Tool of Sovereignty

Visa Diplomacy refers to the process through which an entry visa becomes a mechanism, either by issuing visas to groups or citizens of other countries, refusing to issue visas, or prohibiting entry, for the goal of affecting the policies and behaviors of other actors. Visas, according to this approach, have become a tool of foreign policy for countries through which their goals and interests can be implemented without resorting to violent, more costly means.

The visa diplomacy approach has been associated with the outcomes of interaction between sovereignty and globalization despite the challenges faced by the nation-state in recent decades. The basic component of the global system has continued to be the idea of sovereignty, a prerequisite for the continuation of the state. The concept of sovereignty has endured by granting visa diplomacy its vitality and effectiveness as a space through which the state’s authority and sovereignty may be practiced.

The literature on entry visas remains a form of regional control over state territory, because it allows the latter to practice a type of “remote control”, according to Aristide Zolberg in his book, A Nation by Design. [ii]

For this reason, these visas provided nations with advanced and preventive control over movement within their territories. A state has the ability to prevent the entry of undesirable persons to the state, while simultaneously allowing others to enter.

Sovereignty forms the primary feature of visa diplomacy, and globalization, as well as its opportunities and challenges. It also establishes the fundamental factor in influencing how visa diplomacy is practiced in terms of countries’ foreign relations.

On the one hand, globalization has created, according to Eric Neumayer in his study entitled “Unequal Access to Foreign Spaces,” a borderless world[iii] characterized by a large degree of overlap between societies and increasing mutual movement and migration, the growing importance of economic relations, and experiments in economic integration.

On the other hand, the global shifts resulting from globalization have involved major challenges, perhaps most notably the emergence of new types of non-traditional threats such as global terrorism and organized crime. Nonetheless, growing divisions between developing and developed countries has rendered the latter a pole for attracting great numbers of legal and illegal immigrants.

Such transformations prompted many countries to invoke the negative side of visa diplomacy and tighten visas restrictions in many cases to preserve domestic security.

Ruling Entry Points

In his study on visa diplomacy[iv], Kevin Stringer argued that the post-Cold War context and new globalized system witnessed an increasing interest in the fields of what are referred to as low politics, represented in trade, tourism, immigration, and otherwise in terms of conventional forms that fall under the scope of consulate work of the state. Accordingly, entry visas have become an important political tool for the state’s foreign policy.

Based on Stringer’s premise, it appears that a number of variables governs visa diplomacy, in its positive and negative manifestations. These variables are the basis on which the nation governs its foreign relations.

1. Strengthening the state’s role: The state may be striving, through loosening the entry visa system (the positive aspect of visa diplomacy) or even facilitating procedures, to strengthen its regional and international role, market itself and its values politically, and formulate a perception of their country as an attractive nation capable of being open to the outside world. This approach also may include economic gains, especially for countries that rely significantly on tourism revenues.

The importance of this idea can be elucidated through the lens of the European Union’s efforts following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the communist bloc. The EU, particularly after applying the Schengen agreement and abolishing visas between member states, managed to extend relations with countries that previously formed a vital part of the Soviet Union, such as Georgia and Ukraine.

Negotiations were made with the two countries in order to loosen the entry visa system for EU citizens. In addition, the EU adopted similar steps with the Western Balkans states. This resulted in easier visas allowing smooth accessibility for citizens of these countries. It is important to note that these steps were aimed at strengthening the EU’s role and its competitive capabilities in the contemporary world order.

2. International competition: In the midst of international competition currently underway between a number of powers to lead the international system, entry visas have been employed as a tool of competition and conflict between those forces due to their symbolic connotations and their capacity to achieve the desirable foreign policy goals.

In this context, Florian Trauner indicated that EU negotiations with Ukraine on liberalizing visas “The EU is prepared to lift visa requirements for Ukrainian citizens, for instance, because it hopes this will deliver tangible results for Ukrainians at a time of increasing competition with Russia over Kiev’s strategic orientation.[v]

Entry visas have been employed in the conflict between the United States and China through Washington’s policy regarding the issue of Taiwan. The most prominent moment in this policy came in the year 1995, when the United States issued an entry visa to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui.

This has enraged China because it represented a formal US recognition of Taiwan, which Beijing considered an act of interference in its domestic affairs. China views Taiwan as part of its territory and seeks to reunite the two.

3. Actors Altering Behaviors: The state used visa diplomacy to bring about change in the behavior of other actors. Here, visas have become a tool for communicating certain messages to others in order to convince them to change their behaviors.

The models proposed here include how the US handled the issue of Gerry Adams, president of the Sinn Fein movement, the political arm of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, and approved a visa for him in 1994 after years of being denied entry to the US.

Allowing Adams to enter the United States hinted at the possibility of the US accepting and recognizing the IRA, and represented a shift in US policy toward the conflict in Northern Ireland. The move was an attempt to enhance negotiations and a peaceful settlement for the conflict that had drawn on for many years without any party being able to resolve it in their favor. Thus, visa diplomacy played a crucial role in persuading the IRA to implement a ceasefire at the time and initiate peace talks.

4. Penalizing States: According to this approach, entry visas are used as a tool to penalize the state as a retaliation for various behaviors, which are rejected by others. In this regard, Kevin Stringer invokes Western countries using Indian nuclear experiments to utilize the punitive role of diplomatic visas.

In the wake of nuclear tests conducted by India in May 1988, some Western countries moved to punish India and expressed their rejection of this experiment by restricting the entry of various officials to their territory.

Following the tests, in May 1998 Britain refused to issue entry visas to four Indian scientists scheduled to attend a meeting for editors of the Encyclopedia of Science at the University of Oxford.  Similarly, the US announced it would resort to the idea of “smart sanctions” to suspend issuance of visas to Indian scientists specialized in the field of nuclear energy belonging to government research institutions in order to reduce the likelihood that nuclear technology could be transferred abroad[vi].

5. Countering Criticism: This concept relates to employing visa diplomacy to combat criticisms faced by governments, and thus moving to restrict entry for parties responsible for the criticisms. This model came to the forefront recently when in February 2017 Israel refused to issue a visa to the Israel and Palestine Country Director at Human Rights Watch, Omar Shakir, to enter the Palestinian territories. This measure was taken against the backdrop of the organization’s reports documenting Israeli violations of Palestinian rights.[vii]

6. Political Bargaining: Past decades have witnessed the use of visa diplomacy within a larger framework of political bargaining among states.

Perhaps the most prominent example of such is that of Turkish-European relations. For decades, Turkey has wanted to join the EU, and its entry point was the negotiations to liberalize visas with Europe, which were launched in December 2013. However, the EU continuously imposed conditions on Turkey and demanded political, economic, and security reforms to ensure it would be qualified for the privilege of entry visa abolition.[viii]

Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlut Cavusoglu’s remarks in an interview with the German newspaper Bild, last August, revealed that Turkey could abandon its promise to stem the flow of illegal migrants to Europe, if the EU fails to grant Turks visa-free travel in October.[ix]

The issue appears more difficult from the European side, as the situation is more complex and has been disputed based on two main approaches. The first approach pragmatically addresses abolishing visas for Turkey, since the European Union needs Turkey to control the main entry point for illegal immigration into the EU at the Turkish-Greek border. The other, however, rejects the abolition of visas for Turks, arguing that such a measure would increase the risk of terrorist attacks in European countries.

7. Security Isolation: This isolation was based on a growing sense of security threats in many Western societies, the first precursor to which were felt following the events of September 11 2001. Many countries, primarily the United States, were pushed to take new measures with respect to their visa programs, where the US stipulated that citizens of participating 27 countries in the visa waiver program carry biometric passports so that they would be able to enter the United States.[x]

In recent years, the changing leadership of Europe and the US played a critical role in enhancing the notion of security isolation. This was in light of the growing influence of far-right currents and anti-immigrant slogans, increasing demands for “security isolation”, crises resulting from the abolition of visas for Western Balkans states, and the growing number of asylum seekers from those countries. These phenomena prompted various nations such as Germany to request a stop to the flow of citizens of the Western Balkans.

In the same context, a new travel system has been launched under the name the European Travel information and Authorization System (ETIAS), which the EU is set to apply by the year 2020. Under this system, citizens of visa-exempted countries will need to obtain an automatic license before travelling to the EU and pay a fee. The countries of the Western Balkans considered these measures to undermine the privileges associated with exemptions from visa requirements they received just a few years ago.[xi]

In the US, President Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency also contributed to the idea of promoting security isolation in the West. During his electoral campaign, Trump promoted slogans that rejected the other and called for US borders to put more restrictions on immigrants. After entering the White House, he passed an Executive Order prohibiting the entry of refugees for 120 days as well as citizens of several Muslim-majority countries including Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen for 90 days.[xii] Yet, the decision faced judicial disruptions, which pushed Trump to amend the decree in March 2017, considering the new order for softening of the travel ban that extends only to six countries and excludes Iraq.

Persistent Openness and Isolation

Visas will continue to represent an important foreign policy tool in light of the associated connotations of sovereignty and the ability to react to the opportunities and challenges of globalization. States’ persistence will range between the positive and negative aspects of visa diplomacy, governed by the nature of the interaction between openness and isolation.

Whenever trends toward openness and regional integration among countries that are geographically, economically, and culturally close expand, there is a growing call for the positive side of visa diplomacy to be employed by loosening visa restrictions and facilitating the mutual transfer of citizens.

On the one hand, isolation will continue to invoke the negative aspect of visa diplomacy. States will be locked into the trends adopted by elites and leaders that grant priority to restricting entry for citizens of other countries based on the nature of the current global context, which has been characterized by a large wave of violence, trans-border terrorism, and extended conflicts that have created huge numbers of migrants and refugees. This scenario is supported by the isolationist vision that has spread throughout many developed societies based on the need to separate their moral commitment to developing societies and freedom of movement between countries.

Paul Collier touched on this issue when he said: “If we say that the poor have the right to immigrate anywhere, this involves a mixture of two issues. It is preferable for each to be separate from the other: the rich’s commitment to helping the poor, and the freedom to move between countries. The first does not imply commitment to applying the other”.[xiii]



[i] Stringer, Kevin D.,  "The Visa Dimension of Diplomacy," Netherlands Institute of International Relations, March 2004, p.5, available at: https://www.clingendael.nl/sites/default/files/20040300_cli_paper_dip_issue91.pdf

[ii] Zolberg, Aristide R., "A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America," (Harvard University Press, December 2008), p.p.443-444.

[iii] Eric Neumayer, "Unequal access to foreign spaces: How states use visa restrictions to regulate mobility in a globalized world,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 2005, p.4, available at: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/715/1/Transactions_of_the_BIG%28FINAL%29.pdf.

[iv] Stringer, "The Visa Dimension of Diplomacy".

[v] Trauner, Florian "The EU visa suspension mechanism," European Union Institute for Security Studies, February 2017, available at: http://www.iss.europa.eu/uploads/media/Alert_2_Visas.pdf

[vi]. Stringer, "The Visa Dimension of Diplomacy".

[vii] Al-Hayat, “Israel escalates against Human Rights Watch and refuses to grant its director and employees a work visa,” 2/25/2017. 

[viii] European Stability Initiative, "Trust and travel. Easing the visa burden for Turks in five steps," 24 February 2014, available at: http://www.esiweb.org/pdf/esi_document_id_147.pdf

[ix] Reuters, “Turkey: Either Exempt Turkey from Visas or Cancel the Immigration Agreement with Turkey,” Reuters, 15 August 2016, available at:: http://ara.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idARAKCN10Q0KI?sp=true

[x] Silk Road Regional Programme (SRRP), "A Strategic Approach to Visa Facilitation in the Silk Road Countries," available at: http://www.e-unwto.org/doi/pdf/10.18111/9789284409242

[xi] Western Balkan Countries Voice Concern over EU Travel System, February 9, 2017, available at: http://www.independent.mk/articles/41245/Western+Balkan+Countries+Voice+Concern+over+EU+Travel+System

[xii] BBC, “Trump’s decision: Who will be impacted by the US travel ban?” 30 January 2017, available at:  http://www.bbc.com/arabic/world-38798596

[xiii] Paul Collier, “Immigration: How It Impacts Our World,” Translation: Mostafa Nassar, (Kuwait: The National Council for Culture, Arts, and Literature, World of Knowledge, August 2016), p. 23.

Keywords: TrumpIsolationImmigrationVisa