[l-r] Patricia Scotland, Kamalesh Sharma, Prime Minister Joseph MuscatMatthew Neuhaus in 2015 on the new Secretary-General countering radicalisation - 'The Commonwealth must now respond — and urgently'. [CHOGM 2015 Malta photo]


A delve into the Round Table’s archives shows that tackling violent extremism and terrorism has been on the agenda for over a century, albeit with different causes and perspectives.

As the Commonwealth Secretariat prepared to launch its Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Unit in 2017, a follower of the Round Table’s vast archives suggested that it was time to delve back into the Journal’s vaults to look at the use of force and other strategies to defeat force over the ages, as reflected in the Journal.

The Round Table Journal has been analysing British international developments and then Commonwealth affairs since 1910. Its archives include editorials, peer-reviewed analysis and opinions from academics, former Commonwealth officials and those who have influenced the Commonwealth agenda over the decades.

Pax Britannica

On the fight against terror, articles and comment indicate that there has been a war on terror more than a century before the naming of the so-called ‘war on terror’.

Writing in 1990, then Professor of History at Wilfred Laurier University in Ontario, Barry M. Gough, commented in his Round Table Journal article Pax Britannica: Peace, force and world power that the idea of the use of force and strategy to impose peace goes back as far as Pax Britannica.

PAX BRITANNICA, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means the peace imposed by British rule. Put differently, the Pax was a system of force from which, it was argued by its practitioners and propagandists, devolved the benefits of peace. Peace for the purpose of profit was one such benefit, and hastened the free-trade movement. Humanitarian advancements, the attempted elimination of piracy and slavery and the propagation of Christianity and education, also derived from the Pax.

The term Pax Britannica was first uttered publicly on 12 July 1886 by the Rt Hon Sir George Bowen during a protracted discussion of defence matters at the Royal United Service Institute in Whitehall, London. The occasion was an address by Captain J. C. R. Colomb, a retired officer in the Royal Marine Artillery, who at the time was standing for election to parliament in the Conservative interest (successfully as it turned out). Colomb, known as an author of a work on naval protection of commerce, had offered to the Institute a critique of imperial defence under the heading ‘Imperial Federation—Naval and Military’. Colomb, Bowen and 20 other commentators were concerned whether Great Britain could face the challenges being raised to her by rivals. The rhetoric was not ‘for war’. It was for protecting the state and its responsibilities on and over the seas. And among those duties were securing sovereign territories, protecting seaborne trade, and fulfilling the various obligations of the British people.

In the classic era of its existence, 1815 to 1914, the Pax Britannica was a seaborne operation. The British Empire owed its existence and wellbeing to the sea; so too did its security rest on the force of the Royal Navy whose duties were many and various, not the least of which were to maintain garrisons overseas and to protect regimental transports during their marine passages. The Britannic peace also was predicated on a European equilibrium, on skilfully nurtured alliances, and with a British realization after the rise of Bismarck and the Schleswig-Holstein crisis that Britain could no longer, as she had in the days of Marlborough or Wellington, unilaterally land an army on continental shores to redress an imbalance. The failure to maintain that equilibrium in the years immediately leading up to 1914 lay beyond British control, and signalled the end of the old order. This early collapse of British power and influence announced the end of the Pax and indicated the commencement of its long if unsteady decline.

Gough’s article moved on from Britain’s so-called ‘splendid isolation’ in the 1880s to relying on others to secure peace and bolster its own dwindling powers.

Britain’s power also rested on alliances with certain new states. British influence in the early nineteenth century had secured Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire, and afforded security to the new nation states of Latin America from external intervention by the old power Spain. Even then British pre-eminence was never universal, for it did not prevent France or Austria from asserting a presence in the affairs of the Americas nor did it control Russia in her Alaskan holdings. The British were reminded daily of their limitations of authority and of their inabilities to intervene in every circumstance. In addition, the Suez Canal had modified British strategic thinking in remarkable ways, led to further territorial obligations and commercial dealings in the Near East, and resulted in increased British commitments on the Asia subcontinent, in the Indian Ocean and in the China Seas.

World disorder

A look at more recent attempts to counter violent extremism brings us forward to this 1998 Round Table Journal editorial by Peter Lyon, then Editor of the Round Table, on the topic of The Current World Disorder.

Lyon identified modern terrorism as one of the three ingredients of world disorder in 1998, alongside ‘faltering political leadership’ and ‘proliferation’.

He wrote: Contemporary terrorism is often stateless, without sovereign territory or official sponsorship. Friendly governments around the world—especially those with large Muslim populations such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Gulf States, and the newly emerged republics of Central Asia—share a need for internal and regional stability. Terrorism is violence that threatens all civil authorities; it is inimical to civil society.

The various militant Islamic movements around the world roughly share a common theology and many similar grievances, but they are not a monolithic international band. Recent US attacks, unfortunately, may have inflamed their common zeal and increased their actual co-operation—while probably adding many new volunteers to their ranks. Deep rooted historic rivalries, meanwhile, remain a prominent feature of the world’s and of many regional strategic patchworks. These rivalries will ensure that many countries will continue to invest heavily in seeking to improve their military capabilities, even if on a more qualitative than quantitative basis than in the past.

South Asia study

Formerly with the Pakistan army and then a freelance consultant based in Islamabad, Shaukat Qadir, wrote for the Round Table Journal in 2001, before 9/11, on The concept of international terrorism: An interim study of South Asia.

Qadir wrote that ‘while writing a chapter on Pakistan’s experience of terrorism and counter terrorism that I realized just how ineffective the current approach to counter terrorism actually was’.

He continued:

Even while attempting to list Pakistan’s achievements, it was quite clear that they did nothing to treat the disease, but only, temporarily, treated the symptoms, as also appeared to be the worldwide approach. Whereas ‘international terrorism’, as a concept, might be centuries old, the term, which was coined in the 1950s, related principally to Soviet policies of promoting instability in the West. It did not take long, however, for the base of ‘international terrorism’ to shift from Soviet territory to the Middle East and Africa. Today, South Asia appears to have joined these and might well be the greater cause for international concern in the future.

Quadir’s study focused on South Asia, in particular Pakistan and Afghanistan.

If this, in fact, is true, the road to elimination of ‘international terrorism’ is not through combat, threats and retaliation, but through education and elimination of poverty, a laudable goal, which the world, at least ostensibly, claims to seek. In Pakistan’s case, I am convinced that governmental efforts to combat the menace of this genie are doomed to failure, if they persist in taking it on directly. Without providing an alternative, they will only succeed in solidifying the religious opposition, and strengthen them with the popular support of those who view themselves as beneficiaries of this system.

It is my considered opinion that, in the desire to seek a ‘quick fix’ solution, which always attacks the symptoms rather than the disease, the world quickly took to counter terrorism as the solution.

Commonwealth role

In 2008, Rongvald Leask of the Université Marc Bloch in Strasbourg, wrote about the value of the Commonwealth’s approach in his Journal article “The Commonwealth Walks Alongside You”: Supporting Democracy in the South-West Pacific.

As I pointed out in an article in the SAES/SEPC publication Cultures of the Commonwealth (Leask, 2007–2008), the Commonwealth works very discreetly, often behind the scenes, in order to achieve its results. Patronizing, or worse, overtly critical public statements, are rightly seen as counter-productive, in that they are not conducive to cooperation between parties. The discretion of the Commonwealth is one of the characteristics that contribute to the respect in which it is held in the region.

Another is the appropriateness and the effectiveness of its aid. This is largely due to its policy of listening to local advice, rather than giving it from on high and, most importantly, its talent for networking with regional groups, most notably the Pacific Islands Forum.

 Leask praised the Commonwealth’s softly-softly approach in the Pacific region:

In recent years, the Commonwealth’s integration of civil society into its planning and its programmes has led to a greater local implication in the work on the ground—democracy in action, if you like. The patience with which the Commonwealth goes about its work, its refusal to overreact, the respect which it invariably shows to all, its avoidance of head-on confrontations with autocratic leaders, are sometimes decried by the more strident politicians, the press and even some of the people of the ‘big’ countries of the region, New Zealand and Australia. Conversely, patience, calm, respect and discussion are positive qualities in the eyes of the Pacific island populations.

Its emphasis on empowering citizens with the objective of letting the people eventually take control of their own destinies as far as possible corresponds to the Pacific way, one aspect of which involves considerable discussion of events and projects of common interest. Thus, in spite of the existence of quite rigid hierarchies, local people have the habit of debating at length any projects that they plan to put in place. It can be readily understood, then, that the respect, the adaptability and the pragmatism displayed by Commonwealth advisors and support teams contribute to the high standing of the organization in the region.

A Commonwealth cause

Using the Commonwealth’s unique networking and best-practice tools is the approach recommended by Cambridge University’s Matthew Neuhaus in his pre-Malta 2015 summit article Renewing the Commonwealth—A Reform Agenda for a New Secretary-General.

In the section, Fresh Issues—Countering Radicalisation, Neuhaus wrote: ‘The Commonwealth also needs again to find a big cause to project itself internationally and make a substantial impact, as in the days of the anti-apartheid movement. Such a cause is at hand—the issue of radicalisation, or violent extremism’.

Neuhaus concluded that:

Nearly a decade ago, in response to the rise of terrorism and the failure of the Iraq intervention, the former Secretary-General Don McKinnon convened the Commonwealth Commission on Respect and Understanding, chaired by Nobel Prize winner Professor Amartya Sen, and with a diverse range of prominent leaders from across member nations. It produced a report entitled Civil Paths to Peace, which looked in depth at issues of identity, grievance, humiliation and conflict which feed radicalisation, and provided ways forward. The report was adopted by Heads in November 2007 in Kampala, but little has been done with it. In 2011 the report was reissued in book form, with a fresh preface by Professor Sen on ‘Violence and Civil Society’ and plans for extensive activities. The Ramphal Institute in London was ready to help. But this was not followed up. Radicalisation is one of the most pressing issues of our time. The Commonwealth, which embraces all religions and communities but lacks great power tensions, is a relatively safe space to explore this issue and the solutions, and so assist the wider world. It should be bold—as the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth urged it to be at the 2011 Perth CHOGM—and begin engaging again on this issue, which is central to the implementation of its values. Kenya recently asked the Secretariat for help on it at this year’s pre-CHOGM Board of Governors meeting. The Commonwealth must now respond—and urgently.

The Commonwealth Secretariat announced its dedicated facility to advance the Commonwealth’s role in international efforts to counter violent extremism (CVE Unit) in April 2017 with details to be made public later on in the year.

Related articles

From the Round Table Archives: Accession Day.

From the Round Table Archives: Commonwealth Day.

Pax Brittanica: Peace, Force and World Power

The Current World Disorder

The concept of international terrorism: An interim study of South Asia

“The Commonwealth Walks Alongside You”: Supporting Democracy in the South-West Pacific

What is countering violent extremism? Exploring CVE policy and practice in Australia – Journal, Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression.

The Guardian (2015) – Britain to fund team of counter-extremism experts in Commonwealth

Round Table (2016) – Universities to help the Commonwealth fight radicalisation