Is There Still A Role For The Commonwealth In Global Politics?

This summer the Commonwealth of Nations is undertaking two major events: the 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kigali, Rwanda and the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, UK. Both events have been accompanied by questions over the continued relevance of the Commonwealth as an institution and what role the organization should play in international politics. As the Commonwealth faces questions over its membership, its purpose, and its connection to the people it represents, the future of the association continues to be up for debate.

The Commonwealth is a voluntary political association of 56 countries, created in its modern form in 1949 as Britain decolonized. As countries became independent from Britain, they were offered a place in the Commonwealth, and as a result, most countries in the Commonwealth are former British colonies. Together, the members of the Commonwealth have a combined population of 2.5 billion and span all areas of the globe. The association is supposed to act as a network that allows members to cooperate on common goals, such as promoting education, democracy, and conservation efforts, and host events, such as the Commonwealth Games, the Commonwealth’s version of the Olympics. As such, the countries have no legal ties or obligations to one another, but are instead linked primarily through shared values and history.

As the British Empire fades further into history, the importance of the Commonwealth has been repeatedly questioned. This has been brought into the limelight by the two events this summer. The Commonwealth Games, as reported by The Guardian, has struggled to find hosts, with potential host cities unwilling to burden the economic costs. There are even plans to reduce the scale of the event going forward, with this summer’s event in Birmingham potentially being one of the last to be a major event. The CHOGM, while being attended by most heads of government of Commonwealth countries, has also seen notable absences such as the prime ministers of Australia, New Zealand, India, and Pakistan, and the President of South Africa. At the same time, the Commonwealth has seen some success this year, such as when over $4 billion was raised at CHOGM in pledges to fight against tropical diseases like malaria, and in the announcement that two new members would join in the form of Gabon and Togo. Even then, the fact that neither country has historical links to the British Empire once again raises the question: what is the point of the Commonwealth?

The problem that the Commonwealth faces is that the Commonwealth means different things to different people, and to a great number of people it means nothing at all. One reason this problem persists is that the Commonwealth has a great diversity of members. The 56 members of the Commonwealth cover a range of different cultures, histories, economic situations, political structures and so on. Oftentimes, these countries do not necessarily have the best relations with each other. South Africa, for example, has political differences with CHOGM host Rwanda, which some argue contributed to the President’s non-attendance. Pakistan and India, two other countries whose heads of governments did not attend, also frequently have diplomatic spats. Crafting an association and finding common ground with all these differences would inevitably be a challenge, and one that the Commonwealth often struggles to overcome.

One effect of this diversity is that the Commonwealth has limited power, with a lack of legal obligations. The wide economic and cultural disparity between countries, for instance, means that any kind of freedom of movement or economic union along the lines of the European Union is out of the question, and would be widely unpopular in many member states. Similarly, something like a military alliance would never happen, not least due to the many political differences that countries have with each other. The wide range of countries in the Commonwealth thus precludes of legal integration between its members to any relevant degree. This goes quite far to explain why the Commonwealth exists as a voluntary association and as more of a network than a unified legally binding body like the African Union or United Nations, and why it focuses more on talk of shared values and goals.

Even in this context though, the Commonwealth struggles to come to agreement on controversial issues. One contentious issue has been gay rights, with many Commonwealth member states banning homosexuality. For an association that espouses human rights and tolerance, some have argued that the Commonwealth should be doing more for promoting gay rights. This view was expressed notably by Tom Daley, an Olympic gold-medal winning diver, who said after winning gold at the Commonwealth Games in 2018 that “you want to feel comfortable in who you are when you are standing on that diving board and for 37 Commonwealth countries that are here participating that is not the case”, referring to the 37 countries at the time that outlawed homosexuality. He further argued that: “I feel with the Commonwealth, we can really help push some of the other nations to relax their laws on anti-gay stuff”. Yet with such a large number of countries having issues with homosexuality, it is unsurprising that the Commonwealth has not taken a strong stand in favor of gay rights, and in so doing illustrates the limitations that the Commonwealth has even for promoting common values.

Without the ability to have a clear impact on people’s lives or to advocate for issues many feel strongly about, the lack of enthusiasm for the Commonwealth is understandable. However, dismissing the Commonwealth as a powerless imperial relic overlooks the real value that the Commonwealth can provide. This can be seen in the motivations for Gabon and Togo in joining the Commonwealth this year. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Nima Yussuf, a senior project manager at a fund investing in Gabonese entrepreneurs, described the reaction in Gabon by saying that “people are extremely excited… they are excited about investment, visibility and partnerships”. Both countries were motivated by the exposure they could get to the English-speaking world, and by the prior example of Rwanda, also not a former British colony, gaining economic benefits as part of the Commonwealth. Their attitude also has empirical support, with Commonwealth members finding it 19% cheaper on average to export to other members, though this in part due to pre-existing commonalities in areas like language and legal systems.

Joining the network also brings the advantage of having a space for countries to interact with each other and, particularly for smaller countries, have a place where they can lobby powerful governments like the UK and India. Former Ugandan Foreign Minister Martin Aliker once said that “the beauty of the Commonwealth is that its member states feel that they can approach each other [when serious tensions arise between them].” Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Johnson has talked about the Commonwealth as an “amazing group of 54 countries that share values and in particular, the idea of democracy”, and that “people are looking more and more to this institution, more and more countries want to join it, they see the value of it”. This therefore seems like the direction that the Commonwealth will focus on in the future: advocating for democracy and promoting its role as a space for small and developing countries to gain political influence and economic development. In this context, its decision to accept countries that were not part of the British Empire makes more sense, as a move away from an emphasis on shared history towards an emphasis on shared values.

Even with these advantages, however, people clearly remain unconvinced on the value of the Commonwealth. Going forward, the Commonwealth needs to better articulate its advantages if it wants to stay relevant. The closed-off nature of the backroom dealings that leaders undertake in the Commonwealth, while useful for those involved, do little to dissuade people of the image of the Commonwealth as an old boys’ club or social gathering rather than a legitimate political forum. More announcements such as the one announcing money raised to combat malaria are the type of action that makes the Commonwealth seem more useful, and will help the Commonwealth genuinely work to improve the lives of its members.

Most importantly, though, the Commonwealth needs to gain a sense of radicalism. For an organization that places values at its center and talks about raising awareness as one of its key missions, it needs to take a stronger line in speaking out against controversial issues and condemning its members when they stray away from the values of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth has done little to criticize actions like the electoral fraud in Uganda in 2021, and in choosing to hold CHOGM in Rwanda, a country whose president is accused of committing war crimes and numerous human rights violations, are currently demonstrating a lack of commitment to their ideals. The Commonwealth needs to embrace transparency, cooperation, and activism, if it wants to avoid being simply an anachronistic relic in a world that has long since moved on.


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