Swearing loyalty: Should new citizens pledge allegiance in a naturalisation oath?

Pledges of Allegiances and Historical Contexts

Zara Goldstone (University College London) and Avia Pasternak (University of Toronto)

Lenard’s thoughtful defense of mandatory naturalisation oaths is located within a broader liberal view which, while sympathetic to lifting immigration restrictions in Western liberal democracies (the states which Lenard focuses on), also assumes that newcomers owe duties to the states that welcomed them. As Lenard explains in her opening paragraph, “the context for the adoption of citizenship ceremonies is the worry that immigrants may not be integrating effectively, and that more work has to be done to ensure that they do.”

According to Lenard, naturalisation ceremonies serve this integrative purpose in three correlated ways. First, they communicate that newcomers have consented to the state’s authority. Given they have consented rather than were forced to be part of the state, they can be expected to respect its rules. Second, the ceremony “signals to current citizens that incoming citizens have done the work they need to warrant citizenship status, and that […] they can be trusted to take their role as citizens in their new state seriously.” Third, the ceremony generates and deepens “the feeling of belonging experienced by new members”.

We agree with Lenard that some newcomers have duties of thin integration, and that some have a duty to publicly demonstrate this commitment. However, we also believe that many Western states lack the standing to demand such public expressions, at least from many of the individuals who choose to make them their new homes. In our view, whether a state has the standing to demand such public declarations very much depends on its history. As we will argue, in focusing on the integrative duties of newcomers, Lenard’s argument does not pay sufficient heed to such histories, and to the responsibilities they generate for Western states towards many of their newcomers.

State wrongdoing and standing to demand loyalty

To better understand our concern, consider first the case of Mr. Abdul Khan (a fictive character). Khan was born in Afghanistan and immigrated to the US with his family in 2020, after winning in the Green Card lottery. Khan left Afghanistan reluctantly. He is attached to his homeland, but he and his wife agreed that, despite all the hardships of relocation, they must resettle, as they do not see a viable future for their daughters in Afghanistan. The year is 2023, and Khan is finally eligible to become an American citizen. May the US demand that he participates in a public oath ceremony as a condition of being granted citizenship? In our view, it may not. As even a cursory glance at the history of the US foreign policy in Afghanistan indicates, the US bears much responsibility for Khan having to make the painful decision to leave his homeland. In the first instance, the US shares responsibility for the rise of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. The US is also responsible for the war it waged on Afghanistan between 2001 and 2020, and for the return of the Taliban to power in 2021, which sealed Khan’s decision not to return there, given the abominable rights violations against women the Taliban reinstated.

Given this history, we believe that the demand that Khan publicly declare his loyalty to the US is inappropriate. Our concern here is with the symbolic meaning of the mandatory oath as identified by Lenard. She argues that the oath signifies Khan’s consent to become a US citizen, and his consequent loyalty to its laws. Ashwini Vasanthakumar, Daniel Sharp and David Owen have all questioned in their responses the extent to which mandatory oaths signal consent, given the “high-stakes context” in which they are given, to use Vasanthakumar’s phrase. Nevertheless, all three authors seem to agree that the very process of migration and integration to a new country is often consensual. Our concern is different. We would like to suggest that, in seeking to symbolize Khan’s consent through the oath, the US obscures the very fact that this “choice” to migrate to the US was made under highly unfavourable circumstances, brought about to a large extent by the US’s morally irresponsible foreign policy. The US policy pushed Khan to make a choice he would not have made, had it not wreaked havoc and devastation in his homeland. Obscuring this fact is, in our view, wrong. It underplays the historical responsibility of the US for the situation, and what it owes Khan, given that responsibility.

Lenard could respond by pointing out that mandatory oaths convey more than the oath giver’s consent and acceptance of their duties. As she notes “while the oath appears to be one sided – newcomers take on the responsibilities of citizenship, while the state itself is not required to pledge allegiance – naturalisation, as represented by the completion of the oath, immediately gives rise to the obligation by the state to protect the oath taker’s citizenship right”. But while this may be the case in principle, it is hard to deny that in practice, as Christine Hobden notes in her response, the citizenship ceremony revolves around the newcomers’ oath to the state rather than the other way around. Furthermore, if the core element of the ceremony is the expression of loyalty of the state to its new citizens, it remains unclear why the state may demand that they participate in the ceremony, as a condition for their naturalisation.

The problem of colonial histories

Lenard might accept our argument in the case of Khan, given the US’s direct responsibility for his dire circumstances, but insist that cases such as this are marginal and rare. We disagree. In our view, history looms large in a wider set of cases and threatens to undermine Lenard’s defense of the very practice of naturalisation oaths. To see this, consider our second  hypothetical migrant, Ms. Delphine Soko. Ms. Soko was born in Senegal in 1990. Her first language is French, and she attended a French-speaking school in Dakar. At the age of 18, she was accepted to study at the Sorbonne. Whilst studying in Paris she fell in love with a French woman, and they got married. When considering where to settle as a couple, it was obvious to both that, given the less-than-ideal political environment in Senegal and its unstable economic situation, they should settle in France.

Soko could now choose to become a naturalised French citizen. Currently, the French naturalisation ceremony does not require a mandatory oath of allegiance. Should France follow suit and adopt such an oath? We believe it does not have the standing to do so. Our concern revolves, again, around the history of relations between France and Soko’s country of origin. This argument has implications for other states with a similar past to that of France’s, like Britain or Belgium, which currently do require oaths.

How does France’s history affect the question of the oath? France was a colonial occupier of Senegal from the 17th century to the mid 20th century. Over that period, France sold Senegalse people into slavery and extracted their land resources – mainly gold and gum. The French colonial occupation in Senegal, like elsewhere, was brutal and involved many atrocities, including the destruction of local cultures and the forcing of French language, culture, and customs on the local population. Senegal gained independence in 1960 but received no compensation for the centuries of colonial rule that left it depleted of economic and political resources. Today, Senegal enjoys relative political stability but, like many other former colonies of France, it struggles to prosper economically.

Does France bear responsibility for Senegal’s post-independence situation, which drove Soko, as well as many other Senegalese, to attempt to migrate to France? According to Léopold Senghor, a Senegalese and one of the 20th century’s important political philosophers, it does. Senghor (with his Caribbean colleague Aimé Césaire) advocated in the late 1940s and 1950s an integrative vision for France and its colonies. He believed that, given the depth of colonial rule and its devastating impact, full separation between France and its colonies was not possible. Instead, he called for the creation of a post-imperial and post-national federation, which would include France and its former colonies as equal and free partners. Such full political and cultural equal integration, which of course would have entailed open borders, was the only path for viable reconstruction of the French colonies.

If Senghor’s vision had come true, Soko would not have needed to apply for full citizenship in France. But this was not the course that history took. Senghor himself deserted this vision after realising that France was not planning to invest resources in its colonies. Given France’s attitude, Senghor moved on to support Senegalese self-determination and became Senegal’s first president in 1960.

While there may have been other reasons to reject Senghor’s federative vision, it nevertheless contains an important truth: France’s responsibility for Senegal had not disappeared after Senegal’s political independence in 1960. Senegal’s economic, political, and cultural institutions have been shaped by its colonial history. The multiple challenges it faces to this day, and its struggles to overcome them, are rooted in the history of its own colonial occupation and that of West Africa more generally. With Senghor, we believe that, given this bloody legacy, France has no right to close its borders to Senegalese individuals. But even if it had that right, we believe France may not demand that Senegalese migrants publicly demonstrate that they “have done the work they need to warrant citizenship status, and that […] they can be trusted”, as a condition for full naturalisation. After all, not that long ago – in Soko’s parents’ generation time – France and French citizens blatantly failed to respect Senegalese people’s  rights. France shoved its racism, religion, and language down the throats of its Senegalese subjects whilst depleting their country’s resources, and then left them to pick up the pieces. Given this colonial history, France, and French citizens, should be humbled that descendants of the victims of its atrocities are now willing to trust it enough to make it their home. Rather than demand that she takes further steps to  express her  loyalty, it is France that should “do the work” and give Soko a solemn promise that she will always be treated as equal and that it will try to correct the wrongs of its dark past.

Soko and Khan are two  among very many immigrants who may rightfully challenge the standing of Western states to demand that they publicly express loyalty, given their colonial history and other foreign policy exploits. As we have shown, such problematic histories challenge more deeply the liberal view’s tendency to focus on what it is that new migrants owe to the state that opens its border to them, rather than on what that state might owe them, given their past history. That said, we do not deny that if such newcomers wish to celebrate their formal acceptance to their new state, their new state should assist them and take part in the celebration. But such celebrations should be shaped by their shared history and its normative implications. When that history is tainted in the ways we explored, the ceremonies could include voluntary oaths, if the new migrants wish to make such public pledges of allegiance. However, where that happens, we believe the ceremony should also include a pledge of allegiance by the state to its newcomers, acknowledging its responsibilities to them in light of their shared past.