Obama: Citizen of the World

Experimental mosaic portrait of Senator Barack Obama made out of American State flags. Original photo taken by BarackObamaDotCom Flickr photo stream and could be seen here.Greg Ransom:

BARACK OBAMA IS A CITIZEN OF KENYA as well as a citizen of the United States, according the Rocky Mountain News and other sources.  There’s reason to believe that Obama is also a citizen of Indonesia.  He calls himself a “citizen of the world”, and in some sense, he is.

That’s a good line.  Whether Obama is actually a citizen of Kenya and/or Indonesia is interesting but ultimately irrelevant. There’s no reason to doubt his loyalty to the United States and, if he has citizenship elsewhere, it’s simply an artifact of their laws and not any choice he’s made.

If he had obtained passports from another country, it could have implications for his obtaining a security clearance, but there’s no reason to think this is the case.  (And, indeed, one presumes any such restrictions would be inapplicable to him in any case were he elected president.)

The larger subject of dual nationality comes up in other contexts on occasion, though, and it’s one that continues to intrigue me.  Here’s some background from the State Department:

Dual Nationality

The concept of dual nationality means that a person is a citizen of two countries at the same time. Each country has its own citizenship laws based on its own policy. Persons may have dual nationality by automatic operation of different laws rather than by choice. For example, a child born in a foreign country to U.S. citizen parents may be both a U.S. citizen and a citizen of the country of birth.

A U.S. citizen may acquire foreign citizenship by marriage, or a person naturalized as a U.S. citizen may not lose the citizenship of the country of birth. U.S. law does not mention dual nationality or require a person to choose one citizenship or another. Also, a person who is automatically granted another citizenship does not risk losing U.S. citizenship. However, a person who acquires a foreign citizenship by applying for it may lose U.S. citizenship. In order to lose U.S. citizenship, the law requires that the person must apply for the foreign citizenship voluntarily, by free choice, and with the intention to give up U.S. citizenship.

Intent can be shown by the person’s statements or conduct.The U.S. Government recognizes that dual nationality exists but does not encourage it as a matter of policy because of the problems it may cause. Claims of other countries on dual national U.S. citizens may conflict with U.S. law, and dual nationality may limit U.S. Government efforts to assist citizens abroad. The country where a dual national is located generally has a stronger claim to that person’s allegiance.

However, dual nationals owe allegiance to both the United States and the foreign country. They are required to obey the laws of both countries. Either country has the right to enforce its laws, particularly if the person later travels there. Most U.S. citizens, including dual nationals, must use a U.S. passport to enter and leave the United States. Dual nationals may also be required by the foreign country to use its passport to enter and leave that country. Use of the foreign passport does not endanger U.S. citizenship. Most countries permit a person to renounce or otherwise lose citizenship.

Does the U.S. Recognize Dual Citizenship?

It strikes me as bizarre that someone can have loyalty to two countries and pick and choose among them.  There’s a longstanding and widespread misconception that Americans are forbidden to hold dual nationality and must renounce any foreign allegiance.  As the above excerpt makes clear, though, the United States recognize duals citizenship as a fact of life and we only actively discourage it in rare instances.

In cases like Obama’s, for example, it’s a non-issue.  His father was a Kenyan citizen and that automatically conveys to his U.S.-born son.  He grew up in Indonesia and, apparently, that conveyed their citizenship on him, too.  But he’s not carrying their passports, serving in their military, or otherwise acting as a citizen of those countries.

Jack Kelly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted in the wake of the John Walker Lindh case that dual citizenship is rising fast and that,

Voting in a foreign election, serving in a foreign army, or swearing allegiance to a foreign government used to be automatic grounds for losing U.S. citizenship. But a 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 made it all but impossible for someone to lose U.S. citizenship unless he or she wants to give it up.

That’s still the law today.

Image credit:  Flickr user tsevis. (And, yes, those are U.S. State flags, not international flags.)

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Borders and Immigration, Law and the Courts, Supreme Court, US Politics, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    There are more than a few Americans who would serve stints in the Israeli Army, but would not serve in the armed forces of their own country. I haven’t heard too many fuss about stripping them of their US citizenship.

  2. James Joyner says:

    I’ve seen it, although mostly from anti-Semitic types. I must confess, though, to finding the concept troubling even though I know a couple of people who have done precisely that.

  3. SpySmasher says:

    Why are you so quick to rush in and to declare “this does not matter”? If it REALLY does not matter, why report it? It matters! Would Kenya elect an American? Never!

  4. Richard Gardner says:

    In a Michael Totten post a few years back about Turkey he talks about meeting a couple of Turkish-Americans serving their mandatory military service. Also, 20 years ago France was known to snag visiting American service members whose parents were from France but had immigrated to the USA for draft evasion. So a dual citizenship sometimes bears obligations.

    As for voting, in much of Europe if you are legal resident in a country (but not a citizen) you can vote in the local elections (mayor and local tax rates) but not in the national elections.

    I have seen a service member have to formally renounce a dual citizenship to get high level security clearances (in this case it was Canadian).

  5. anjin-san says:

    This is in piece with the McCain strategy to keep the focus on Obama, and to keep that focus on trivia and plain old made up crap. Clearly, McCain feels he cannot win on his own merits…

  6. Whether Obama is actually a citizen of Kenya and/or Indonesia is interesting but ultimately irrelevant.

    If he had obtained passports from another country, it could have implications for his obtaining a security clearance, but there’s no reason to think this is the case. (And, indeed, one presumes any such restrictions would be inapplicable to him in any case were he elected president.)

    If, and I recognize this is an if at this point, he has done something that would ‘have implications’ for him obtaining a security clearance, why wouldn’t that be relevant to whether he should be elected. Either the rules on security clearance should be changed or his transgressing those rules is relevant to the question of whether B.O. should be trusted as president.

  7. TLB says:

    Of course it’s relevant. The only question is whether it’s true or not, and I haven’t seen any proof. As for how dual citizenship is used by foreign countries against the U.S., see this for an example.

  8. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Only you, Anjin would consider it trivial as to whether or not Obama’s loyalty is to this country. We know that unless he gets to change it to whatever evil plan he has, it is not a fit place for his children. We know that in his opinion it is no longer what it could be, what it once was. That is the most idiotic statement by a potential President in my memory. He gets a pass on loyalty, but actions speak louder than words, and his words are empty. This cretin removed the American Flag from his campaign plane. It its place is an Obama emblem. I can think of but a few others in history who developed their own insignia. Obama’s friends and associates speak volumns to who he is and where his loyalties lie. The Communist Frank Davis to America fan, Jeremiah Wright and on to William Proud to be an American while stomping on a flag Ayers. People he went to school with in Indonesia say he is Muslim. I do know we know little about the want to be President. Having read his books, I know his is not suitable, qualified or fit to be President of the United States.

  9. anjin-san says:

    III… how are things at “nutjobs for McCain” HQ?

  10. Michael says:

    Does Panama give automatic citizenship to children born in Panama? Google had failed me on this question.

  11. Richard Gardner says:

    Does Panama give automatic citizenship to children born in Panama? Google had failed me on this question.

    McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone, not in Panama proper AT THE TIME. You would have to research the stacks of treaties on The Zone, not on Panama, to determine the citizenship status. I expect if it is anything like the various post-WW II military Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA) the children of military and diplomatic personnel are not considered citizens of the country of birth. I expect in the Zone this also covers all US citizens, but in other places it would only apply to military and diplomatic personnel.

    There are lots of gray areas here. If the Chinese Ambassador has a child in the US, is that child a US citizen? I think one of the Vienna Diplomatic Conventions says no, but some would argue the US Constitution says yes.

  12. John says:

    “There’s no reason to doubt his loyalty to the United States”

    First off, he’s a politician, THAT is reason enough to doubt his loyalty to the AMERICAN PEOPLE.

    Second, the Constitution says he must be a US CITIZEN. It mentions not whether an individual is trustworthy. US CITIZEN. Period. If we are to remain a Republic, we MUST follow our own laws. Not continually reason why its ok to bend it a little. Bending a little leads to bending a little bit more next time, and a little bit more, a little bit more…until there really is NO law. Which is EXACTLY why our country has gotten itself into such a mess.

  13. MR says:

    His Indonesian citizenship was automatically revoked. There are residency and allegiance requirements to having Indonesian citizenship – not to mention a requirement to revoke your foreign citizenship at age 18 and formally re-apply for Indonesian citizenship at age 21.

    Obviously, Obama didn’t denounce or revoke his U.S. citizenship, which means it is impossible for him to have Indonesian dual nationality. He also never met the minimum residency requirement (minimum 5 continuous years – Obama only lived in the country for four years).

    There is a residency requirement for Kenya, too. You must live in the country continuously for four year (Obama never lived there). The person must also formally apply for Kenyan citizenship at age 21.