‘At Home in Two Countries’

Peter J. Spiro’s At Home in Two Countries explores how globalization has turned dual citizenship from an anomalous and potentially dangerous condition into something almost commonplace, writes Scott McLemee.

January 25, 2017

A monograph of long gestation, Peter J. Spiro’s At Home in Two Countries: The Past and Future of Dual Citizenship (NYU Press) is clearly not aimed at the readership of Americans who are considering an exit strategy right about now. A number of handbooks are already available, should that be your interest.

The author, a professor of law at Temple University, is more concerned with the logic of dual citizenship -- its evolution as a juridical concept and a practical option over the past 300 years or so -- than with the logistics involved in obtaining it. That said, Spiro notes that he and his children, while all born and residing in the United States, now also hold European passports. It’s a reminder of his larger point: that the tide of globalization in recent decades has turned dual citizenship from an anomalous and potentially dangerous condition into something almost commonplace -- or at least no big deal. Whether it will remain that way is another question.

The historical narrative in At Home in Two Countries has a fairly well-demarcated beginning, middle and end -- with each phase defined by how much strain dual citizenship places on the relationship between the individual and the nation-state. (Also by the potential for conflict it creates between the nation-states involved, but let’s leave that to the side for a moment.)

In the beginning, everything is reasonably straightforward. You were not the citizen of a nation-state but the subject of a sovereign. God had placed you in your respective positions -- tying you together on this earth for what were, presumably, good reasons that, in any case, were not up for discussion. It was “not in the power of any private subject to shake off his allegiance, and to transfer it to a foreign prince,” as the U.K.’s House of Lords declared in 1747, nor could “any prince, by naturalizing and employing a subject of Great Britain … dissolve the bonds of allegiance between subject and crown.”

Implicit in such an official statement of the doctrine of perpetual allegiance is the reality that it was being violated in practice. And within 30 years came the virtually unthinkable developments in the American colonies, where British subjects began “shak[ing] off … allegiance” to their sovereign without “transfer[ing] it to a foreign prince” but to their own republic instead.

Emigration was a constant drain on the sovereign’s human capital -- especially on military resources, since it provided a way to avoid conscription. So a variant of the doctrine of perpetual allegiance remained in effect even after the secular nation-state took over from divinely installed royalty. Becoming the naturalized citizen of another country did not necessarily bring an end to expectation that you should meet the motherland’s obligations and obey its laws. Nor would your children be exempt. That could make visiting family in the old country a risky enterprise. Dual citizenship of this sort was involuntary and unintentional, and it had potentially grave diplomatic consequences if the government of an individual’s adopted country tried to intervene.

The legal and political fights so occasioned throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries make for the most interesting pages in At Home in Two Countries. Laws and treaties took shape that made expatriation, naturalization and election (i.e., the choice of nationality by someone born to parents of different citizenships) more routine and less volatile -- as much as that was possible, anyway, amid wars and international tensions.

But the other side of this stabilizing trend was -- at least, until fairly recently -- a strong sense that dual citizenship itself was something to be avoided and prevented as much as possible. At best it would be a temporary condition, to be cured with the proper paperwork and no delay.

“On the one hand,” Spiro writes, “dual nationals represented a potential spark in the tinderbox, as issues relating to their protection or responsibility for their actions could readily escalate into interstate conflict. On the other hand, in a world premised on the fact of some level of interstate conflict, dual nationals could only be presumed to do an adversary’s bidding from within.”

In the United States, the peak of what Spiro calls “the consensus opprobrium” regarding dual citizenship came in the early 1950s, with Cold War nerves at their most taut. The timing is interesting, because it coincides with a rapid decline of the issue driving much of the 19th-century debate: the concern with foreign sovereigns trying to conscript naturalized citizens traveling abroad. It was no longer a problem routinely facing the American diplomatic corps, and by the 1960s, European and Latin American countries adopted conventions to end it as a source of friction among themselves.

“As states stopped fighting over dual nationals,” Spiro says, “there was much less incentive to combat the status.” What followed was the slow and uneven normalization of dual citizenship, as some countries ceased to require emigrants to renounce citizenship upon naturalizing elsewhere and others reaped benefits from absorbing immigrants who maintained their birthright citizenship. (“To the extent that a renunciation requirement deters naturalization,” writes Spiro, “society’s loss from the reduced rate of naturalization plainly overshadows the benefits of enforced renunciation.”)

So from the era of perpetual allegiance (in which dual citizenship was more or less a contradiction in terms) to the long decades of reducing the strains of expatriation and naturalization (when dual citizenship became an anomaly to avoid), we’ve reached the epoch of high globalization, with dual citizenship an established if not quite ubiquitous mode of transnational life. With dual citizenship “normalized as an incident of globalization,” Spiro devotes a chapter to the case for “the emergence of an articulated, protected right to the status” recognized by international law.

Here the author hits a note of expectancy that implies something almost historically inevitable: the result of forces moving in certain identifiable directions. For the course Spiro identifies moves in a recognizable direction. From epoch to epoch, the individual gains power in determining his or her status vis-à-vis instituted authorities. At the same time, conflict among those authorities tends to subside. Nationalism will grow kinder and gentler, to be replaced in time by a higher stage of cosmopolitan citizenship, as envisioned by Immanuel Kant or Thomas Friedman, albeit in somewhat different ways.

It will take much work and goodwill, but there’s no reason why things can’t keep moving forward in a virtuous circle. The potential for retrogression is not really a part of the scenario. It figures the normal global citizen of the future as someone choosing among citizenships -- rather than as a refugee without the option of claiming a single one, caught between nationalisms out for blood. In Spiro’s long-term perspective, the evolution of dual citizenship seems destined to keep on advancing, while at the moment it feels like we are at the edge of something, possibly a cliff.


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