The Realm may decline, but the Commonwealth will live on
Predictions of the imminent end of the Commonwealth are legion, with major events such as the death or ascension of the British monarch provoking especially dire warnings of the Commonwealth’s certain and justifiable collapse.
In the public mind, this sounds reasonable. Isn’t it true that Barbados jumped ship, and other countries, including Australia, Canada, and Jamaica, are heading in that direction? Isn’t it true that the very idea of the Commonwealth is a tragic, deluded artifact of a world we’d all prefer to leave behind?
Well, actually, no. Like Barbados, the countries mentioned above – and many more besides – are indeed likely to leave the ‘realm’ over the next few years; in other words, they will remove the British monarch as their official Head of State. But none of them, not one, is abandoning the Commonwealth.
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Rather than diminishing, the Commonwealth’s list of Member States and aspiring Member States is growing at a rate not seen for decades. Most are from Francophone Africa, and it is worthwhile to reflect on what they want from their association – and reasonable to ask what they might be expected to contribute. But such questions do not distract from the reality of a strong trend of steady growth that runs directly counter to much of the mainstream narrative about the health of the Commonwealth.
And what about the charge that the Commonwealth is not much more than a sad relic of a bygone and best-forgotten era, some kind of British Empire 2.0? While this is a bit more difficult to untangle, similar misunderstandings have clouded the debate.
The Commonwealth is indeed a successor to the British Empire. But the association is voluntary. No country is compelled to join or to stay. Every member can be presumed to be making a rational calculation of costs and rewards. It has been argued that some of the small former colonies of the UK cannot exercise a meaningful choice to leave the Commonwealth because they need it to thrive and be noticed. That the Commonwealth is useful to its 32 small states is undoubtedly true. But this can hardly be turned into a credible argument for ditching the organization. None of these countries are claiming they would be better off without it.
Understanding why independent states have chosen to remain in association with their former colonizer is also made easier by appreciating that the Commonwealth owes its origins as much to ideas of anti-imperialism as imperialism. When the modern organization was formed in 1949, India rejected the notion that formal allegiance to the British crown should be a condition of membership, paving the way for the majority-republican grouping we see today. In the 1960s – and again in the 1980s – the Commonwealth agenda was dominated by debates regarding overturning the white-settler regimes in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa.
Today, the Commonwealth is again being used to challenge colonial ills, including a legacy of antiquated and inhumane laws. It is the Commonwealth’s unique relationship with – and sensitivity to – issues of imperialism that gives it such an important role to play in this work – and it’s why attempts to instrumentalize the Commonwealth in favour of narrowly Western foreign policy goals are misguided and doomed to fail.
The fact that the Commonwealth isn’t a neo-colonial enterprise – as its critics often claim – doesn’t mean it is OK. Like counterpart intergovernmental organizations established in the mid-20th century, its inclination lies heavily towards complacency and stagnation rather than genuine innovation. And, just as I experienced during a lifetime of service to the United Nations, the Commonwealth’s Member States sometimes forget, often in a fog of mutual recrimination, that this is their organization, established and owned and funded by them. If they really want a different, better Commonwealth, then they have the power to make that happen.
Any renewal or reinvention will have to start with a new story of what the Commonwealth is and what it is striving to do. The old story, which spoke to the idea of a voluntary grouping of like-minded, independent countries united by ties of history, law and language, is no longer fit for purpose. A new story could reaffirm the Commonwealth as a values-based organization – one that elevates principles of human rights, democracy and equality in ways that resonate for the Commonwealth’s 2.5 billion citizens.
In practical terms, that would require the organization to pay closer and more careful attention to what matters for its people: issues such as environmental degradation; inadequate health care; public sector corruption; economic underdevelopment; and the slow, inexorable erosion of personal liberties we see right across the wider Commonwealth.
Second: Member States should appreciate that the benefit they derive from being part of a values-based organization will naturally diminish the more this aspect of the Commonwealth’s identity is eroded. The Commonwealth used to be better at demanding (if somewhat unevenly) a certain standard of conduct from its Members. It famously stood up to South Africa (and the United Kingdom) over apartheid. Suspension has also been occasionally used, especially in response to military coups. But the timidity that has marked its more recent years is disappointing. Members should be prepared to demand from each other a basic standard of governance and human rights. To be paralyzed in the face of egregious violations of the Charter reflects badly on everyone.
Third: the Commonwealth could do much more to walk the talk of familial solidarity. It is frankly an embarrassment that its smallest and most vulnerable countries remained unvaccinated through the worst of the Covid pandemic, especially when fellow Member States were stockpiling greater supplies than they could ever have needed.
And there are missed opportunities when it comes to climate change. The Commonwealth is home to most of the world’s small island developing states, for whom global warming is a genuinely existential threat; it should be leading the charge on the world stage when it comes to basic issues such as loss and damage compensation. Instead, it appears constrained and muted.
Finally, while the Commonwealth should never be mistaken for the British Empire, we cannot afford to ignore the history that intimately connects both institutions. The King of England is the ceremonial Head of the Commonwealth, and many of the countries that suffered terribly under British colonialism are members of the organization he leads.
While I am unsure that the Commonwealth is the right forum to take on issues such as reparations, I do know that most Commonwealth countries will be rightly dissatisfied with confident assertions that unpicking history around slavery and exploitation is ‘not the right way forward’. It is naïve and dangerous to turn a blind eye to resentments that are bubbling very close to the surface. Ignored, they will eat away at the heart and soul of this ‘family of nations’ until there is little left but a hollow shell. The Commonwealth must remain open to dialogue and determined to find unity in diversity.
Its survival has always depended on both.
Dr. Anne T. Gallagher, AO, is Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation.
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