Who Needs Citizenship?

by Peter Spiro

Thanks to Ken for injecting the Ignatieff observation, with which I emphatically disagree! Nation-states are useful handmaidens to the superclass, but the real elites could do just fine without them, thank you very much. It’s nice to have safe streets in places New York and London, but that’s the business of local governments, not national ones. In locales where things are dicier, there’s always private security. As for the other forms of order that elites depend on, like financial order, again states are useful, but an increasing number of transnational institutions are just fine running on their own non-governmental steam. In any case citizenship in a particular country isn’t an issue for elites: the SEC, for example, works for Singaporean, British and Mexican elites, too.

The tougher (and more typical) challenge is whether non-elites need citizenship. As Alex notes, “the transnational trends that Peter identifies may be working on behalf of but a small—and privileged—slice of humankind.” For her part Cristina asserts that “[e]veryone needs a citizenship, whether because citizenship is, in Arendt’s formulation, the ‘right to have rights,’ or the primary security we have that we cannot be banished from at least one place on earth, or the mechanism for ensuring that everyone belongs somewhere such that every person is the ultimate responsibility of some government.”

At some level that is obviously still true. If you’re not a transnational elite, citizenship is a very nice thing to have, and it’s nicer to have US citizenship than, say, Mexican citizenship. But it’s not what it used to be. We’ve left behind the Arendtian world in which the lack of citizenship left you completely exposed to the sovereign elements. That’s what the human rights revolution is all about.

As for US citizenship, it gets you absolute locational security and the right to vote, and not much else. Wherever the overall naturalization rate is going, there are lots of permanent residents who don’t bother to naturalize, even after decades of territorial presence (more than 25% of those in the country for more than 20 years have yet to acquire citizenship). Why not? Must not be worth that much to them.


One Response

  1. I might switch this the other way – having spent some 17 years in France without asking for French citizenship. One main reason was that for most of those years making such a request would lead to me possibly losing my US citizenship which would complicate enormously coming back to see family back here. As years went on I did feel more invested in France, but I knew I was not “French”. And I did not need French nationality to do the kind of work I was fortunate to be able to do. So the risk of loss of coming home privileges as compared to the marginal benefit of French citizenship was a disincentive for me. My wife and kids in various ways got both nationalities automatically so there was no downside risk for them. When it became easier to not be considered as renouncing US nationality, I remember feeling I would not think of applying for French nationality until my kids had their US nationality – something that I thought the quirk in the US laws that we got corrected did.

    Applying that to a permanent resident in the US – the downside risk of trying to go home (having no place to go if it does not “workout” in the US) may be the same while the permanent resident burden less significant.

    Very interesting discussion.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. There are no trackbacks or pingbacks associated with this post at this time.