[These are excerpts from an article commissioned by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies earlier this year. It is being shared with the kind permission of the ICwS.]
In recent years, Britain’s position in the modern Commonwealth has had a high degree visibility, with the late Queen as ceremonial head, the British credentials of current Secretary General Patricia Scotland (notwithstanding her stress on her Caribbean heritage), and Britain’s position as chair in office from 2018-2022. Since the Brexit referendum and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, the Commonwealth has received far greater emphasis in Conservative governments’ and politicians’ public rhetoric. The idea of shifting immigration towards ‘old’ Commonwealth countries featured in right-wing Conservative discourse during the referendum campaign. During its time as chair in office, Britain directed £500m in bilateral assistance to Commonwealth countries whilst reducing British funding to the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Commonwealth’s bureaucratic organisation; and former Prime Minister’s Boris Johnson led a campaign in support of Jamaican Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson Smith’s bid to be SG, against Baroness Scotland. However, there is an extraordinary gap in the knowledge of the British public about empire and the decolonising process, let alone the modern Commonwealth. Authors such as Kris Srinivasan implied in the past that the viability and vitality of the Commonwealth depends on British leadership; without this, in their view, the Commonwealth will continue to dwindle and fail. However, there are enduring sensitivities within the Commonwealth if the British, as the former imperial power, appear to be taking too strong a stance. Others have argued that the enduring links between the British monarch and the modern association perpetuate a perception of the Commonwealth as ‘empire 2.0’, particularly in the minds of young people. Yet, as ceremonial head, King Charles III has already firmly signaled that he wants to support the Commonwealth as a progressive association, supporting developmental states and assisting small, especially small island states. Can the circle be squared? If so, how?
To answer some of the questions, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies offers three opinions from eminent geo political thinkers on this issue from diverse parts of the Commonwealth.
Do We Need The Commonwealth? Sanjaya Baru
Sanjaya Baru has been editor of major Indian newspapers. He was an advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He was Director for Geo-economics & Strategy, International Institute of Strategic Studies, London, and a member of India’s national security advisory board.
Global North, Global South and Global Commons
In a rapidly changing world divided between the East and the West and the Global North and the Global South, the Commonwealth may still retain its relevance as a ‘bridge’ but it is less and less obvious as to what kind of a bridge it seeks to be in the 21st Century. At any rate, this ‘bridging’ role can only be played if Britain and the other developed economies are not merely investing in the Commonwealth, offering access to knowledge, technology and employment, but are able to work with the developing countries of the Commonwealth on such issues as global trade, climate change and migration.
The fact is that on many issues pertaining to the ‘Global Commons’ the interests of the Global North and the Global South are increasingly at variance. Can the Commonwealth arrive at a shared vision on such issues of vital importance to all member nations? Given North-South divisions on each of these issues, the Commonwealth could have played a far more pro-active role in bridging differences on these global challenges. It has not.
Does the Commonwealth have the capacity to bridge these divisions and this diversity? To my mind, this is a key question that will determine the relevance of the Commonwealth given the geo-economic and geopolitical shifts underway. At a time when the United Nations itself is becoming anachronistic with its out-dated governance structure, can the Commonwealth seek relevance without altering its own governance structure?
Can the Commonwealth re-invent itself as a geopolitical and geo-economic Anglosphere? In a such an association of mutual interest the developed member countries like UK, Canada and Australia will have to share power with emerging markets and rising powers like India, South Africa, Nigeria and Malaysia.
This is not the first time that the Commonwealth has had to reflect on its relevance, rethink its role and plan for the future. However, this is the first time it would be doing so at a time when there are fundamental shifts taking place both within the global balance of power system – between East and West, North and South – and within the Commonwealth’s own membership, as Britain recedes and India rises.
Should Britain try and take a lead in the Commonwealth? If so, how? Ross Robertson
Ross Robertson was a member of New Zealand Parliament (Labour) from 1987 to 2014 and held important roles during the 26 years of his parliamentary position. He also served as president of Parliamentarians for Global Action.
Leadership is difficult to define, yet look at British leaders Queen Elizabeth I, the Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth II and you know it when you see it.
Historically Britain has spread its influence throughout the world particularly during the last few centuries. Many countries throughout the world were colonised by Britain and not all aspects of this vast colonisation were positive. However, the fact remains that the British colonisers were probably the most influential that the world has encountered in its long history. It is claimed that at one stage one quarter of the world came under British rule, thus prompting the well know phrase, ‘the empire on which the sun never sets.’ At its zenith, it was the largest empire the world had ever seen.
Within the framework of Britain’s governance there’s no doubt mistakes have been made; however, the saying ‘British fair play’ has been earned, not least, by its dealings with its colonial cousins. Fair play is a virtue and not to be ignored.
In the past citizens from all countries of the Commonwealth have tended to gravitate to Britain whether it be for vacation, overseas experience or to migrate and become resident. This paper suggests that this procedure is reversed, and that British knowhow and expertise is exported to these countries. This with the aim of progressing, advancing and developing targeted areas of their economies.
It should be emphasised that this venture should not be regarded as a ‘hand-out’ but a win for both parties.
It is critical that British representatives in these ventures are well versed in the cultural values of the countries, with which they deal.
That Britain is not perceived in a controlling or directing capacity but in an advisory and supporting role.
King Charles and the British Royal family are well placed to lead such an innovative and beneficial project, which can create a situation where everyone wins. In that respect, we need men and women who walk the walk as well as talk the talk. The British Royal family fit the bill.
Should Britain try and take a lead in the Commonwealth? Femi Otubanjo
Femi Otubanjo is, currently, a Research Professor of International Relations and Strategic Studies, at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos. In addition to nearly four decades of teaching in several universities, in Nigeria, he has also served as a Special Adviser to the Federal Government of Nigeria and as a Columnist/Member of the Editorial Boards, at two of Nigeria’s leading newspapers – The Tribune and The Guardian.
It is doubtful if there is anyone who does not regard Britain as the leader of the Commonwealth. There is general acceptance that Britain is the pivot around which the Commonwealth revolves; it is the undeclared leader of the organization, whose 56 Members and 2.5 billion have common historical roots in British colonial rule. Queen Elizabeth was the Head of the Commonwealth, from 1952 till her death on September 8, 2022 and her successor, King Charles III, has assumed the role, without any formalities. Britain’s leadership of the Commonwealth is neither a matter of choice or selection but of the dictates of history. No other country in the organisation can lay claim to that manifest destiny and none is, obviously, challenging it.
The interpretation of this question, therefore, cannot be whether Britain should take a lead in the affairs of the Commonwealth because she already plays that role; it can only be about the kind of leadership role Britain should play in the organization. Implicit in this interpretation is the assumption that Britain is not, currently, providing the kind of leadership needed to make the Commonwealth more cohesive, more effective in the international system and, obviously, more useful in the attainment of Britain’s own foreign policy objectives. Will the purpose of a change in Britain leadership engagement be to make the organization a more potent actor in the international system, a more productive partner in the existential concerns of member states and a more productive instrument of Britain’s foreign policy?
The major instruments available to Britain to effect a more robust leadership in the Commonwealth are the political, the military and the economic.
The onus is on Britain to make a play for a greater leadership role in the Commonwealth. If that role is, glaringly, beneficial, to its members, it would attract very little, if any, resistance. As a Yoruba (Nigerian) proverb teaches, if you want to walk on soft grounds, you must spread water ahead.
It is desirable that the Commonwealth is renewed, as a primary and popular platform of international interactions, with a more decisive and recognisable leadership. Such a leadership is desirable in an international system, in which the Hobbesian syndrome remains intractable. International Organisations are, generally, handicapped by a lack of clear leadership and a general paranoia about accepting one. Even those regional organisations that radiate some modicum of serenity and unity are, forever, plagued by fissiparous forces and owe their stability to relentless and strenuous diplomatic bargaining.
Ths full version of this article Should Britain try and take the lead in the Commonwealth? can be found on the website of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.
The Commonwealth’s global challenges – Commonwealth Round Table January 2023 conference [reports and videos]
Is the Commonwealth working? – June 2022 conference organised by the Round Table, the Institute of Commonwealth Affairs in partnership with the Commonwealth Foundation and the Commonwealth Association.
Find out more about the Commonwealth Round Table and the Round Table Journal.