November 30, 2012 5:22 pm

The born identity

How about a debate among US leaders about the prospect of a foreigner running the Fed
An illustration of a baby with the US flag on the background©Shonagh Rae

Earlier this year, I was chatting with Richard Haass, the esteemed head of the US’s Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), when I casually asked him how I could become a member. After all, I have spent much of my life travelling around the globe and love participating in international debates of the type that the CFR think-tank stages so well.

The answer from Haass, however, was politely firm – and negative. “You can’t join, since you’re not American,” he observed. Never mind that the CFR prides itself on promoting international dialogue, or makes a point of welcoming journalists. Since the CFR was founded nine decades ago, its rules have insisted that “membership and term membership is restricted to US citizens (native-born or naturalised) and permanent residents who have applied to become citizens”. Someone like me, who has been living in New York as a British citizen on a work visa, does not qualify. To attend a CFR debate, I must be invited by a “proper” American citizen.

It is a thought-provoking little cultural wrinkle, particularly in a week when Britain has just appointed Mark Carney, a Canadian citizen, to serve as governor of its central bank. As it happens, I don’t have any objection to being (politely) excluded from the hallowed ranks of CFR membership. CFR friends invite me to events and any society has a right to set its own rules.

But it is notable that in London the nearest equivalent to the CFR think-tank – namely Chatham House – does not impose a citizenship requirement in its rules. On the contrary, it accepts anybody solvent enough to pay their dues, and earnest enough to attend meetings to discuss international issues. Indeed, a Chatham House spokesman says it “would completely go against the grain” to even consider the issue of citizenship when granting membership; to them, the idea seems laughably bizarre.

More striking still, many British government offices are almost as blasé about nationality. This week, global financial circles are abuzz about Carney. But while he is the first “foreigner” to run the Bank, his arrival is not out of place: there are plenty of non-British nationals holding positions of varying levels of seniority in institutions such as the Bank of England, the UK Debt Management Office and the Financial Services Authority. Indeed, one British representative to the IMF is not British at all. And if you go into any large “British” company today, you will find lots of non-British citizens, many of whom are operating at a senior level.

In the US it is notably different. To be sure, there are non-Americans working in senior private sector roles. But not in government. American civil service rules specifically state that “only United States citizens and nationals (residents of American Samoa and Swains Island) may compete for, and be appointed to, competitive service jobs.” And although “with Office of Personnel Management approval, agencies are permitted to hire non-citizens when there are no qualified citizens available,” such people “may only be given an excepted appointment”. A few non-Americans might slip into government roles, mostly as advisers, but these are rare. And when it comes to the highest positions of all – namely president and vice- president – the posts can only be held by citizens born on US soil, not naturalised. Hence the endless rumours around whether Barack Obama was really born in the US.

What explains this difference in attitudes? Some American friends of mine – such as the CFR’s Haass – point to the fact that the US is an immigrant nation, and thus its citizens are far more diverse in origin than in Europe. Others might point to the fact that America is a “creedal” nation (ie a nation based on a constitutional creed, not shared history of ethnicity). There is also the legacy of cold war fears about a “foreign” (ie communist) infiltration.

. . .

However, the other point that stands out – at least if you have lived in both places – is the oddly slippery nature of “belonging” in modern Britain. In the US, the concept of citizenship is perceived in binary terms: you are either in or out of the group. In Britain, there is no single line: identity is multilayered, defined in both concentric and overlapping circles. Nationality is not black and white (let alone red, white and blue), but often rather grey.

This unusual level of ambiguity partly reflects Britain’s imperial past, when London was a global crossroads and millions in the Empire were partly-but-not-totally British. However, it has been reinforced by the creation of the European Union: these days anyone with an EU passport can work in the UK – and in British government jobs. Thus while rural Britain is still fairly homogenous, many parts of London now feel markedly – and surprisingly – more diverse than even the self-styled melting pot of America.

In pointing out this distinction, I am certainly not making any moral judgment about which pattern is better or worse. Both Britain and America have challenges with racism and intolerance, albeit of a different nature. But if nothing else, it would be fascinating to stage a debate among America’s leaders today about whether they could imagine a foreigner ever running the Federal Reserve – and if not, why that idea would seem so utterly taboo. Who knows? Maybe the mighty CFR could even organise that discussion – and invite all those non-Americans (such as me) along as “guests” to listen.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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