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Voices of the Commonwealth

Image-1-768x503Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies Dr Sue Onslow discusses the evolution of the Commonwealth and its effectiveness since the creation of the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1965

DESPITE THE MEDIA INTEREST surrounding the election of Baroness Patricia Scotland as the new Secretary General of the Commonwealth, as an institution the Commonwealth still remains a mystery to many. Conducted by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies over a three-year period, a series of extensive interviews with former Commonwealth leaders, diplomats and civil servants shines a spotlight on the modern Commonwealth’s varied record, and includes sharp observations relevant for today’s diplomats. These interviews include criticism and comment from political leaders and diplomats who did not always rate the Commonwealth highly, as well as those who clearly value the connections and policy space offered by the association. There are comments from ‘critical friends’ as well as those who were once on the receiving end of Commonwealth strictures.

This extraordinary library of diplomatic knowledge provides a clear-sighted and measured assessment of the Commonwealth as a quintessentially ‘soft power’ association. Has it been effective? Over the years, leaders within the Commonwealth have proved remarkably adept at using this soft power diplomatic platform, both to promote racial and social rights, and to effectively exploit the policy space offered by the association. During his time in office (1975-83), Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser deliberately emphasised Australia and the Commonwealth, to boost Australia’s standing as a middle-ranking power.

Successive Canadian Prime Ministers have utilised the Commonwealth dimension in their foreign policy to differentiate Canada from its superpower southern neighbour. As the Malta summit in November 2015 showed, the heads of small states were highly effective on the climate change issue, and able to use the summit to put forward a strong message to the Paris COP21 meeting.

In institutional terms, the inter-governmental ‘wing’ of the Commonwealth – the combined structures of the Secretariat, the Commonwealth Foundation and the Commonwealth of Learning in Vancouver – are remarkably small for an international association, yet the Secretariat has achieved remarkable policy influence at critical periods on much larger and highly visible global institutions. It took on the role of a think tank on development on debt management in the 1980s, then the Heavily Indebted Poor Country Initiative/Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative in 1990s/2000s, shaping World Bank and IMF thinking. It provided very able support to then Secretary General Don McKinnon in tackling the unelected bureaucrats of the OECD to defend the tax regimes of small island states. The Secretariat provided discernible policy input into the Sustainable Development Goals, and still does much of the preparatory work on development for the current G20 meetings. Not a bad track record for a small international institution with an annual budget ‘less than the annual expenditure of the UNO canteen’.

The considerable range of topics covered in these interviews help to expand understanding of the myriad of ways in which Commonwealth diplomacy has worked to promote change in the international system, but also importantly the limits on its leverage. But if the Commonwealth has made a difference, why then has it been so ‘invisible’? Is this a key element of effective diplomacy? It can be, but the Commonwealth’s past preference for operating below the public radar – a claimed ‘strength’ that it can do things quietly, and so achieve results – has been overstated. Where the Commonwealth does have ‘traction’ is away from narrow coteries of political elites, to today’s world of civil society activism and professional organisations, providing transnational representation for important domestic constituencies and interest groups.

This has created an image problem in terms of the effectiveness of Commonwealth diplomacy. The general public always wants a ‘quick fix’, rather than a ‘slow burn’ when it comes to diplomacy. Experienced diplomats know this happens very, very rarely, as promoting change is a laborious business. Indeed, achieving the formal end of apartheid in 1994, a political transition in which the Commonwealth did play a notable part in diverse ways, took over 48 years. Supporting democracy and good governance has long been a worthy Commonwealth cause,   but ‘good governance’ is not an easy sell for the media, and does not grab the headlines.

Furthermore, the complexity of the challenges facing governments today underline the bald fact that the Commonwealth has been overshadowed by other 
international summits, organisations and regional groupings. The ANC government, for example, has long preferred SADC because it is smaller, has a regional identity and meets more often to discuss issues of immediate and identifiable concern. Whilst the diplomatic landscape has changed dramatically since the Commonwealth was first set up, there is a continued role for the Commonwealth in today’s society. Its informality and humanity remains a trump card. The ‘social capital’ of contact between heads, senior officials, the High Commissioners networks in post, and the regular meetings of Ministers (Finance, Law, Education and Health) all provide valuable policy coordination going into other major multilateral meetings, such as the IMF and World Bank. States still need human skill capacity support, such as legal support dealing with multinational corporations.

So the Commonwealth offers extraordinary networks for information and collaboration. Furthermore, the longevity of the Commonwealth underlines its flexibility. It has gone through sine waves of activity and achievement, then lamentations of decline, not to mention genuine crisis. There is a 
discernible pattern of conviction of what the Commonwealth could do, and repeated disappointed hopes over where it seems to have failed to deliver. However, like other institutions of latent and lasting substance, the Commonwealth has demonstrated its ability to re-invent itself at times of crisis. In fact, arguably, the association – in terms of structure, multiple flexible channels of networking and influence, and current particular emphasis on youth – does now seem more appropriate for the twenty-first century than the embattled ‘hard power’ structures of the EU.

The interviews conclude that diplomatic networks remain a key element of the Commonwealth’s strength. The most visible part of Commonwealth diplomacy is arguably now on rights – economic, political and social rights; women’s rights; LGBT rights and to support the decriminalisation of homosexuality (most recently achieved by Mozambique), associated with calls for an independent Commonwealth Human Rights Commissioner. When it comes to peace-building and conflict resolution, the Commonwealth has always emphasised persuasion and ‘good offices’ as it has precious little ‘hard power’ leverage. As an association, it is particularly and peculiarly defined by the quality of its leadership, and the characteristics of the Secretary General; as well as the Secretary General’s ability to draw upon the support, and coordinate a clear strategy with, a core group of heads.

The overall message to take home from the interviews is that the Commonwealth’s greatest challenge is indeed to be proactive and imaginative in grabbing that much-needed media attention. For that, the Commonwealth needs a clearly defined cause, a moral good news story. As former Secretary General Sir Shridath Ramphal put it last year (himself a lawyer from the Caribbean):

“I think the Commonwealth could have a cause – could have causes – and fight for them and pursue them, but it seems to have lost [its] fight.”

Baroness Scotland’s emphasis on the importance of rights is a very good start in gaining back some of the Commonwealth’s fight. It would seem that the Commonwealth has also gained a formidable Human Rights Commissioner in its new Secretary General.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]


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