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HomeGeopolitical CompassEurope, Russia, OceaniaSweden, NATO and the Role of Diasporas In Foreign Policy

Sweden, NATO and the Role of Diasporas In Foreign Policy

Authors: Lisbeth Aggestam, Isabell Schierenbeck, and Arne Wackenhut 

Affiliation: University of Gothenburg 

Organization: International Affairs 

Date/Place: November 6, 2023/ UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 19 



Keywords: Foreign Policy, Foreign Policy Analysis, Diaspora Groups, Swedish-Turkish Relations, NATO



This article examines the impact of diasporic actors on the foreign policy of liberal democratic nations, particularly in Europe where civil society is undergoing a shift towards transnationalism due to increased migration. Diaspora groups, both those recently formed and those more well-established, maintain economic, social, and political ties with their countries of origin. While existing research has explored the effects of these connections on policy areas such as development, migration, and integration, the literature has neglected their influence on foreign policy. The research employs a theoretical framework to examine the influence of the Kurdish diaspora on the diplomatic ties between Sweden and Turkey in the context of Sweden’s NATO accession efforts. Approval from all existing NATO member states is necessary for the acceptance of new members. Despite swift consent from the majority of NATO members to Sweden’s bid, initial objections arose from Turkey and Hungary, who stipulated their acceptance to Sweden fulfilling specific conditions. This sparked controversy both among the Swedish public and political establishment. In response, Kurdish diaspora groups in Sweden organized protests, including symbolic demonstrations against Turkish President Recep Erdoğan, intending to shape Swedish foreign policy and its relationship with Turkey.


The authors contend that diasporas are gaining increased influence in the West. These diasporas reflect a distinct sort of transnational civil society that transcends the state’s domestic and international boundaries. While liberal democracies have long focused on pluralism and the importance of civil society in domestic politics for representation and accountability, foreign policy has traditionally been considered a field of “high politics” dominated by elite-driven processes. However, the article contends that the growth of different cultures intimately immersed in transnational links has transformed the dynamic between domestic and foreign policy in novel ways. This move has the potential to limit the executive’s independence in foreign policy decisions. This paper attempts to examine when and how diasporas influence bilateral state relations, as well as whether diasporas are essentially passive factors in foreign policymaking or assume a more autonomous role.


Diaspora groups have become increasingly important in shaping the foreign policy of European democracies for various reasons. Countries with sizable diaspora populations residing overseas have special policies and structures in place to engage with their diasporas. Turkey is an excellent example of a country that carefully implements diaspora engagement policies. However, diaspora groups are not just instruments of state diplomacy, but can also affect foreign policy in their countries of origin and residence. Diasporas, particularly those forced to flee their home countries owing to armed conflicts or political repression, are highly involved in transnational politics. 


The current literature on the involvement of diaspora groups in foreign policy is fragmented and scattered through various disciplines. Political science has predominantly viewed the role of diasporas through the lens of ethnic interest-group lobbying, with a particular emphasis on U.S. foreign policy. Diplomatic studies, on the other hand, have explored how diasporas can serve as a tool of soft power, increasing cultural appeal in public diplomacy, or even acting as independent diplomatic actors, especially in the context of development policy. However, the wider area of migration and diaspora studies has presented the concept of transnationalism, which underlines the different settings and networks across borders but does not consider foreign policy. In order to bridge these existing gaps, the article uses several sources and constructs a theoretical framework based on the actor-specific theorization of foreign policy analysis (FPA). Within this framework, a triadic analytical model is presented to investigate the interactions between states and diaspora communities, while also identifying contextual factors that shed light on the extent and manner in which diaspora groups influence the foreign policy of liberal democratic host states.


The research presented in this study made significant contributions in three key areas. Firstly, it provided theoretical perspectives on how the openness of the political system and the characteristics of diaspora groups shape foreign policy. Secondly, it presented empirical data on the mobilization strategies and demands made by the Kurdish diaspora during Sweden’s NATO accession process. Finally, it offered important insights for policymakers and diplomats on the influence of transnational state-society relations on foreign policy. The study employed a single case-study approach, allowing for a comprehensive examination of the factors at play and their significance. The chosen case holds broader implications beyond its specific context as it delves into the dynamics of influential victim diaspora groups in liberal democracies who attempt to influence interstate relations on issues of crucial political importance.


The role of diaspora groups in international relations and their impact on foreign policy challenges conventional views of agency and sovereignty. Different theoretical perspectives discuss the matter differently. Realist theory minimizes the role of diasporas, emphasizing state interactions at a systemic level; liberal theory acknowledges the influence of non-state actors, including diasporas, in shaping foreign policy; and constructivist theories focus on ideational factors, highlighting how ideas, identities, and norms shape foreign policy. The constructivist perspective sees both the state and civil society as social actors guided by norms and rules, with interests viewed as endogenous, potentially influencing cooperation between civil and state actors in foreign policy.


The authors argue for a comprehension of state-diaspora interactions in foreign policy, highlighting a three-way relationship involving diasporas, the country of origin, and the country of residence. They argue that while major international relations theories touch on diasporas in foreign policy, the actions of diaspora communities in democratic host countries have not been sufficiently explored in scholarly literature. To address this gap, they draw from civil society research, diaspora studies, and Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA), aiming to explore how diaspora groups’ connections and interests influence international relations. They start by examining the globalization of politics. Civil society is portrayed as a political arena where non-state actors, acting outside formal state institutions, strive to affect societal rules and policy outcomes. Although various transnational entities play significant roles in shaping international policy through the construction and embedding of norms, diasporas have been relatively overlooked in these discussions. This neglect may stem from their unique position at the intersection of domestic and international politics and their hybrid identities that encompass both particularism and universalism.


The authors propose a triadic relationship involving the diaspora, the country of origin, and the country of residence. While existing research has explored the transnational aspects of diaspora communities and diplomatic studies recognize them as new diplomatic actors, their role in their countries of residence has been overlooked. The current literature on diasporas often focuses on their ties with home countries, but little research has delved into how countries of residence respond to diaspora diplomacy. To address this gap, the authors turn to Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA), aiming to expand research on diasporas in foreign policy beyond the predominantly U.S.-focused scope. They seek to understand the contextual factors influencing the impact of diaspora groups on European foreign policy, moving beyond lobbying to explore the nature of interactions between policymakers and diaspora groups and their outcomes on specific issues and events.


The authors aim to develop a theoretical framework to explain the influence of diaspora groups on the foreign policy of their host country. Emphasizing the multifaceted nature of foreign policy, which is impacted by domestic, transnational, and international factors, they propose a middle-range theory in the context of liberal democratic foreign policy. Their framework introduces two pivotal concepts—identity and interests—alongside structural and agential contextual factors. Identity, viewed as dynamic and multifaceted, plays a crucial role in shaping state-diaspora relations and can either encourage or discourage diaspora involvement in foreign policy. The concept of interests, closely linked to identity, arises from interactions among civil society and state actors, with the authors exploring whether diaspora interest claims are universalistic or particularistic. Success in diaspora claim-making is thought to hinge on alignment with the host country’s strategic interests and public support, considering factors such as issue salience, public perception, and the nature of the interests at stake.


There are two key contextual factors to understanding the effect of diaspora groups on foreign policy: opportunity structures and the characteristics of the diaspora group. Opportunity structures refer to the level of openness and access points in the political system, enabling societal participation in policymaking. Variations in political systems explain the differing influence levels of diaspora groups on foreign policy. For instance, the accessibility of the Congress in the U.S. federal system has shown significant openness to diaspora influence. The framework categorizes states as ‘strong’ or ‘weak,’ indicating executive autonomy and institutional openness. The agential attributes of diaspora groups are crucial, explaining the scope and impact of civil society actors on foreign policy. There are four attributional factors to analyze: group cohesion, legitimacy, competition with other diaspora groups, majority or minority status in the country of origin, and organizational strength. While these factors do not determine diaspora influence success, they offer a foundation for assessing potential explanations for differences among diverse diaspora groups.


The article employs a conceptual framework to investigate the influence of diaspora groups on Sweden’s foreign policy in the context of its NATO membership application. The study comprises two parts: the first establishes the context of state-diaspora interactions, and the second concentrates on the Kurdish diaspora’s role in Sweden’s NATO application by analyzing four pivotal events between November 2021 and February 2023. Sweden’s historic non-alignment security policy, rooted in small-state realism, embraced liberal internationalism, earning global leadership recognition. Its commitment to humanitarian values, democracy, and international cooperation, garnered wide political and public support, as evident in generous migration policies. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 challenged Sweden’s non-alignment stance, leading it to submit a NATO membership application in May 2022. Despite broad bipartisan support, opposition from the Left, Green parties, and pacifist groups highlighted the difficulty of departing from the country’s longstanding tradition of non-alignment.


Sweden and Turkey previously enjoyed strong political, economic, and cultural ties, with Sweden supporting Turkey’s EU ambitions and recognizing its strategic importance. However, relations soured as the Turkish government, led by the Justice and Development Party, adopted a more authoritarian stance. Issues such as treatment of  the Kurdish minority, the 2016 coup attempt, and Turkish military actions in northern Syria strained ties, prompting Sweden to criticize Turkey’s measures, particularly in terms of human and minority rights, with potential implications for Sweden’s NATO membership. Despite Turkey actively engaging with its non-resident population, offering consular services and voting rights, certain groups like Gülen movement supporters and Kurdish diaspora activists have faced transnational repression. In Sweden, the Turkish diaspora has evolved into one of the largest migrant groups, shaped by waves of migration, including those fleeing the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Post-2016, individuals from diverse backgrounds, including academics and journalists, have joined the diaspora. The Kurdish diaspora, constituting around 1% of Sweden’s population, is politically active and organized, with significant representation in various parties, particularly the Left Party and the Social Democratic Party. Kurdish diaspora associations, like the Kurdish National Association and the Kurdish National Council, play varying roles in politics and maintain connections to the Kurdish independence struggle.


Between November 2021 and February 2023, four significant events played a pivotal role in shaping Sweden’s foreign policy. In November 2021, Amineh Kakabaveh, a parliament member of Iraqi Kurdish descent, forged an agreement with the Social Democratic Party, offering support to the incoming minority government after her exclusion from the Left Party in 2019. The agreement pledged collaboration and backing for various Kurdish groups, explicitly refraining from labeling the YPG a terrorist organization and emphasizing the group’s role in combating Daesh. It also expressed solidarity with the HDP in Turkey and called for the release of party leader Selahattin Demirtaş, showcasing the permeability of Sweden’s political system and the impact of identity factors. The second event, in May 2022, saw the Swedish Social Democratic Party expressing its desire for NATO membership, prompting Turkey’s demands for concessions, including the extradition of individuals such as Kakabaveh. The Kurdish diaspora strategically framed their interests during this event, emphasizing universal values such as freedom of speech and the rule of law, aligning themselves with broader Swedish societal values, and opposing compromises on these principles in the context of NATO membership.


In June 2022, an agreement known as the Madrid Agreement was jointly issued by Sweden, Finland, and Turkey, expressing a shared commitment to address groups perceived as threats to Turkey’s national security, including the PKK, PYD, and YPG/YPJ. Sweden and Finland committed to various actions, such as cracking down on these groups, amending counter-terrorism legislation, and refraining from imposing arms embargoes on Turkey. Amineh Kakabaveh criticized this agreement as a negative development for Swedish foreign policy. Subsequently, Turkey requested the extradition of 33 individuals suspected of terrorism, leading to additional requests for 73 more individuals. Swedish Kurdish politicians expressed apprehension but maintained confidence in the Swedish rule of law. Demonstrations organized by Kurdish groups occurred in cities like Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö, involving Kurds and Turks critical of Erdogan. The Turkish government opposed these demonstrations, with Erdogan labeling them as terrorist activities in a US television interview. The author’s analysis of this event focuses on the mobilization capacity of the Kurdish diaspora, considering both activism inside the political establishment involving pressure from diaspora elites with media and political access, and public activism encompassing public pressure through coordinated protests. The demonstrations in the summer of 2022 were not competing events between diaspora organizations but rather coordinated by diaspora elites to maintain credibility among the Swedish political elite and the public.


In 2022, Swedish political parties agreed to avoid the NATO question in the national election, resulting in a new right-wing coalition government that took charge of diplomatic relations with Turkey. This shift allowed the Kurdish diaspora to align protests with the left-leaning opposition. However, in January 2023, the bipartisan truce seemed to crumble when Foreign Minister Tobias Billström proposed a bill against terrorist propaganda, raising concerns about compromising civil liberties in negotiations with Turkey. A Rojava committee protest, including a controversial depiction of President Erdoğan, heightened tensions. Billström’s condemnation led to Turkey postponing a visit by the Swedish Speaker of Parliament and demanding more extraditions. Subsequent protests in Sweden opposed the Turkish regime and NATO membership, which the majority did not support joining until the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A January 2023 protest included diverse messages and participants, marking the breakdown of bipartisan consensus on avoiding NATO debates as diplomatic relations with Turkey became politicized. Billström’s decision to halt the Swedish NATO ratification process was seen as a response to grassroots protests by Kurdish diaspora organizations and an activist alliance against NATO membership.


To conclude, the article explores how diaspora groups impact the foreign policy of liberal democratic states, using a triad model to analyze state-diaspora interactions. The case study focuses on Sweden’s NATO membership application and the influence of the Kurdish diaspora. The article highlighted the diaspora’s engagement within the permeable Swedish political system, strategic shifts in interests aligned with democratic values, and leadership in mobilizing against NATO membership. The article emphasizes the diaspora’s role in domesticating foreign policy, thereby restricting executive autonomy. With a focus on identity, interests, political opportunities, resources, and organizational strength, the analysis concludes that transnational diaspora groups will play an increasingly influential role in shaping the foreign policy of liberal democracies.


By: Sara El Souhagy, CIGA Research Intern



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