FP Explainer

Obama’s Definitely American, But Could He Become President of Some Other Country?


Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

After weeks of grandstanding by a certain orange-haired reality show star, the White House has released copies of President Barack Obama’s long-form birth certificate. While Obama had already released his legally binding "certificate of live birth" during his campaign for president, the hope is that the full certificate will finally put to rest the suspicions of 1 in 5 Americans that the president was not born in the United States. But this does raise another question: If Obama is definitely, positively, absolutely, beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt, a natural-born citizen of the United States, does that put him out of the running to be president of any other country?

Not necessarily. Article II of the U.S. Constitution specifies that "No Person except a natural born Citizen" is eligible to be elected president. But not every country is quite so specific. Let’s take Kenya, for example, the country where Obama’s father was born, and where many "birthers," despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, believe the president himself was too. The Kenyan constitution specifies that the president must be a "citizen of Kenya," have "attained the age of thirty-five years," and be "registered in some constituency as a voter in elections to the National Assembly." Obviously, only one of those applies to Obama, but as the son of a Kenyan father, he is entitled to citizenship, so if he were willing to establish residency in the country, he could theoretically make a go of it. (Look out, Mwai Kibaki. Obama has a 95 percent approval rating in Kenya.)

On the other hand, if Obama decided he wanted to be president of his boyhood home, Indonesia, he’d be out of luck. According to article six of the constitution, the president must be a "native-born Indonesian."

In many countries, particularly those with large diaspora communities, foreign-born leaders are not unusual. Ireland’s most famous 20th-century president, Eamon de Valera, was a New Yorker by birth. In Israel, President Shimon Peres was born in Poland, and Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman — who would take Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s job if he were to become incapacitated — was born in Moldova. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was not only born in Riyadh but maintains Saudi citizenship.

In the countries of the Commonwealth, the technical head of state — the queen of England — is by definition the citizen of another country. Canada’s former Governor-General Michaëlle Jean — the queen’s representative to the government and acting head of state — is not only an immigrant from Haiti but was a dual French citizen until she took the job. 

In Germany, any citizen over 40 is eligible to be elected president. France’s constitution doesn’t specify that the president be born in the country. "Any citizen over 50 years" can be president of Italy.

Many Latin American countries — like their neighbor to the north — do specify that the president be native-born. Mexico’s president, for instance, has to be a citizen by birth with at least one Mexican parent and 12 years’ residency. Brazil’s president must also be born in the country.

Peru has even had its own birther controversy, thanks to media reports that former president Alberto Fujimori was born in Japan. The president produced his Peruvian birth certificate for analysis in 1997, but some doubts persist.

Iran’s president not only has to be of "Iranian origin," he must exhibit "trustworthiness and piety." Presumably, being a secret Christian would be a disqualification from that office.

It’s theoretically possible for someone who wasn’t born in Britain, or even a citizen, to be elected prime minister. The prime minister is a member of a parliament who is chosen by members of his or her party. According to British law, an MP must be "18 years of age, and a British citizen, or citizen of a Commonwealth country or the Republic of Ireland." It would probably be pretty tough for someone from Ireland or the Bahamas to get the job, but there’s nothing legally stopping them. To date, only one British prime minister — Bonar Law, originally of New Brunswick — has been born outside the British Isles.

In any event, if Obama decides he’s sick of being president of a country where 20 percent of the people don’t believe he’s a citizen, and he’s willing to go through the trouble of becoming a citizen and resident somewhere else, he does have a few options.

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