By Sue Onslow
Director, Institute of Commonwealth Studies
After a delay of two years, the Commonwealth heads of government are meeting in Kigali this week. The organisation itself is at a crossroads: leading Commonwealth civil society organisations have voiced their concern about the association’s relevance and direction. The current Commonwealth Secretary General, Baroness Patricia Scotland, whose term is ending, is facing a strong challenge by Jamaican Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson Smith for the post (the outcome looks increasingly close). These developments are taking place against the backdrop of the economic fall-out from the international crisis in the Ukraine, itself coming hard on the heels of massive disruption caused by the global pandemic. In the UK, the Commonwealth has also been caught up in the heated controversy about the separate bilateral migration deal between the UK government and Rwanda. The Commonwealth has repeatedly seemed to ‘punch below its weight’ – seen in dismissive comments such as ‘dear old Commonwealth’. Those outside Commonwealth networks have asked, as they always do: “What does it do? Isn’t the Commonwealth as an international organisation past its sell-by date?”
Given that it has faced multiple crises in the past, the extraordinary thing is that the Commonwealth has survived at all. This isn’t simply because of inertia. But the voluntary association needs to reform and do a much better job demonstrating its relevance.
The challenges are considerable. The current optics around the modern Commonwealth – an association of 54 states, most of which are former British colonies – certainly aren’t great, to put it mildly. There are multiple tensions confronting the association. The current contest for the position of Secretary General points fractures within the Caribbean community, CARICOM. There are deep worries over the future cohesion of the Commonwealth as the beloved ceremonial head, Elizabeth II, moves into great old age. The Queen has been an astute discrete diplomat and devoted champion of the association since 1952. The edgy choice of Rwanda as the host of the biennial heads meeting was originally made in 2018; since then, questions around the wisdom of this choice have been made even more stark by growing concerns about the country’s human rights record. (The UK government’s announcement of a cynical bilateral deal with the Rwandan government to deal with the growing problem of ‘illegal’ economic migrants and asylum seekers crossing the Channel, in return for a £120 million education and development allocation) damages the Commonwealth ‘brand’). The recent blast of press stories of controversies around junior royals visit to Caribbean countries, to commemorate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, clearly demonstrated the general mystification and misinformation about the meaning of ‘Commonwealth’ in the mainstream media.
The Commonwealth as an organisation is facing multiple strains stemming from its increased membership, a leadership deficit, and limited financial and capacity resources. These constraints have played out in the Commonwealth’s minor and largely invisible role in response to the public health emergency of the COVID pandemic, and now the current international crisis. The differences between Commonwealth member states in terms of their geopolitical interests have been evident: individual Commonwealth diplomats have spoken out strongly in UN fora, but the association does not vote as a bloc in New York, despite bilaterals and corridor discussions which always go on behind the scenes at the UNO. This lack of Commonwealth cohesion was obvious in the UN General Assembly vote in March 2022 condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where nine Commonwealth countries abstained. Individual countries’ foreign policy agenda and interests were clearly to the fore. India has been described as being in the ‘hot seat’ because of the dichotomy between its foreign policy and defence interests which underpin its close ties to Moscow, and its longstanding support for the rule of international law.
Are these issues simply headlines? Or, worse, are they a fundamental distraction from the hard-core realities confronting individual Commonwealth countries dealing with the continued fall out of the COVID pandemic, and new economic upheaval stemming from the Russian/Ukraine war? What does all this say about the future Commonwealth as a viable association of states, based on shared values set out in its 2013 Charter?
Dealing with these issues in order:
The challenge to the political headship of the Secretary General is nothing new. However, there are other dynamics in play. There are long-standing criticisms of Britain’s past failure to engage effectively in the Commonwealth. After the hoped for ‘new beginning’ of the Commonwealth, in 2015 with the successful Malta summit and election of Scotland, Britain’s subsequent exasperation with Scotland has developed into open antagonism towards the Commonwealth Secretary General, and British encouragement of the political ambitions of the capable Jamaican Foreign Minister. Leaving aside the shortcomings of Baroness Scotland’s administration, this British antagonism suggests a more fundamental problem, namely an implicit political mindset in London which continues to believe that the UK is primus inter pares in the Commonwealth, something which other member states contest. (This contrasts with a much more nuanced understanding in the diplomatic mindset of FCDO officials of the sensitivities around Britain’s former colonial position, and the need for Britain to ‘lead from behind’.)
Britain is also part of the problem of limited funding to the Commonwealth’s international bureaucracy. Since 2016 Conservative governments’ investment in the Commonwealth has been overwhelmingly on a bilateral basis to other Commonwealth countries, rather than directing money into the Secretariat’s coffers and the agreed programmes, decided by member states. Contrast this with the largess of the French government towards the Francophonie, and British government support looks decidedly stingy and lacking a strategic vision. Again, there is nothing new here – the decision to amalgamate the Department for International Development within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office again shouted a mindset that the primary objective of aid is to support British foreign policy goals. The Economic and Migration Agreement with Rwanda follows the same logic. Setting British financial support in context, the Commonwealth’s programmes have always relied heavily on funding from ABC countries (Australia, Canada and Britain), all of whom reduced funding to the Secretariat in the period 2012-2022.
Another predictable crisis of the soul for the Commonwealth looms as the highly respected ceremonial leader, Elizabeth II, gracefully moves into great old age. There has been succession planning – at the London CHOGM, Commonwealth heads responded to the Queen’s ‘sincere wish’ that her son become next ceremonial head of the association. There was a logic to this: Prince Charles has actively represented his mother at a succession of Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings, dating back to the summit in Kampala in 2007. He has long championed causes which are close to the Commonwealth’s heart – protection of the environment, sustainability, young people. Having a royal head also gives visibility to the association. However, Prince Charles has had a variable press. Frankly idiotic ideas of alternatives have been floated – skipping a generation in the ceremonial headship, or that Duke and Duchess of Cambridge relocating to a Commonwealth country. Should the ceremonial headship rotate around members? Should it be done away with completely? The debate continues.
The Commonwealth is not alone in facing a critical period of internationalist thinking and planning. Many other multilateral institutions are in trouble. In the Russia/Ukraine crisis, the United Nations’ failure to check Russia’s invasion of an independent sovereign neighbour demonstrates the international organisation’s limitations when dealing with a P-5 member determined to use military force in pursuit of conceived national interest.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine represents the first post-Covid case of the pursuit by a major power of geo-political interests through the application of military force, and there are other potential situations waiting in the wings which may erupt depending on the outcome of Moscow’s efforts at redrawing international borders. (For example, China’s sabre rattling about Taiwan). The Putin government’s actions have raised intense debate about the reordering of the international system, and the forms and norms which have sustained it. It is an assertion of naked military power, rather than ‘soft power’, the latter supposedly the preferred and effective currency of the Commonwealth. The Russian/Ukraine crisis constitutes an attack on values and norms at the heart of the Commonwealth Charter, which are not Western but universal. 
Furthermore, after the strong anti-multilateralist stance of the former Trump administration (and in particular its persistent questioning of the continued relevance of NATO), the Russian invasion of Ukraine has breathed new life into NATO and the EU, as the advantages of working together in pursuit of common objectives have become clear. The UNGA’s ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution can also be seen as an indication there is still life in the ‘old dog’ UN, and a strong belief amongst many member states in its continued relevance as a multilateral organisation.
It would be foolish to pretend there are not existential worries about the Commonwealth.
If it disintegrated, would this matter, and would anyone miss it? I go back to my first point: these worries are nothing new. There are also enduring pluses within the Commonwealth, which benefit its members: ‘voice’, expertise, access. These are not easy sells in a 24/7 news culture that brutally operates on the philosophy of ‘If it bleeds, it leads’. The Commonwealth provides a platform for small island developing states (SIDS) in today’s fraught international environment, enabling SIDS to access the upper echelons of the UN system, UNSC and G-20 deliberations, and get their views heard. Access is an international political currency, and hidden capital for small states.
One of the enduring philosophies of the Commonwealth has been as a non-racial organisation – this is as important now, as in the 1960s when race was the most important issue in international politics. This is not to pretend that histories of imperialism and racial exploitation do not matter in the association – quite the contrary – and these and their lasting consequences need to be honestly addressed. The Commonwealth represents an antidote to geopolitics, and an English-speaking association which does not contain a superpower. This alters the power dynamics inside the organisation. Its attraction to outsiders remains a mystery to larger outside powers: Zimbabwe looks set to rejoin, Togo and Gabon are set to join. It begs the question ‘Why??’, when the annual budget of its international bureaucracy, the Commonwealth Secretariat is a mere £23million, its heads meet only every two years, and ministers every 2-3 years. But do its 34 small states members use it effectively? The evidence suggests some do, some don’t. The same is true for other Commonwealth least developed countries (LDCs). So is the constraint in terms of the provision of policy-relevant knowledge and facilitating access a supply-side problem (the Secretariat), or a demand one (member states)?
The Commonwealth as an idea – international collaboration between West/South, and South/South- is certainly under threat. There is an attitude in LDCs and SIDS in the Commonwealth of ‘What’s in it for me’ – and the Commonwealth is not awash with development funds. But multiple networks of human expertise can boost capacity, if leaders use the Commonwealth wisely. Also, in isolation, Commonwealth meetings can seem hidebound by process and generalities. For example, the recent Commonwealth Education Ministers meeting declared an ambitious agenda to share ideas and best practice of how to rebuild education provision after the COVID pandemic. Although the CEM allocated only seven hours to eight themes (which was a very ambitious agenda), this overlooks how and where these meetings link with other discussions and get-togethers – offering a ‘daisy-chain’ of ideas, policy and best practice. Then there is the value of ‘bilaterals’ at meetings – the public doesn’t see discrete private corridor discussions and encounters, which are hugely beneficial. (This is yet another reason why Zoom diplomacy has its limitations, notwithstanding President Zelensky’s highly adept communication strategy in Ukraine’s struggle against the Russian army.)
The growing international economic crisis comes hard on the heels of the disruption and damage of the COVID pandemic and climate change. This poses potentially enormous risk to the internal stability of Commonwealth countries: in addition to the disruption to food supply, the hike in oil prices affecting energy and domestic transport costs (including aviation fuel – a important consideration for those Commonwealth countries seeking to revitalize their tourism sector which has been so battered by COVID pandemic); increased costs in manufacturing and imported goods; the damage to Commonwealth’s support for the global climate change agenda with the likely shift back to coal as the principal source of energy; disruption in financial markets with the increase in interest rates. Individual Commonwealth countries are increasingly stressed by rising levels of indebtedness and the demands of servicing international debt, exacerbated by the considerable dependence on market rather than simply multi-lateral or bilateral loans, or China as preferred lender); the strong possibility of a contraction in development aid flows because of EU, UK and US increased military budgets; the knock on effect on imported goods of world shipping insurance increases; greater food insecurity through rising fertilizer costs and shortages. The commodity price spikes will benefit some Commonwealth countries in the short term, but the current fluctuations make long term budgetary planning more difficult. If the EU economic bloc is pushed into recession, this will constrain demand for goods from the Africa-Caribbean-Pacific group.
This is on top of the vulnerability of many Commonwealth countries to climate change, and the overwhelming majority are not the ‘big emitters’: the frequency and intensity of weather events, and damage to infrastructure, shifting rainfall and impacts on agriculture, as well as rising sea levels. Yet at the same time, with a likely shift back to coal as the principal source of energy given the disruption to oil and gas markets, collateral damage will also be inflicted on the support of Commonwealth members for the global climate change agenda.
As central banks raise interest rates in an attempt to dampen inflationary pressures, individual Commonwealth countries are increasingly stressed by rising levels of indebtedness and the demands of debt servicing, a problem exacerbated by their increasing dependence on international capital markets rather than concessional multilateral or bilateral loans. This has been partly driven by a marked contraction in the volume of aid flows, a development which was already evident before the pandemic and the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, and which will likely continue as development assistance competes with the priority given to increased military budgets in the EU, UK, US and other members of the OECD.
This multi-faceted economic disruption threatens Commonwealth countries’ resilience, sustainable development and political stability. It will affect those who have opted for authoritarian development, (with host of the Commonwealth summit and next Chair in Office, Rwanda, as a prime example), as much as those with more liberal governments and accountable institutions. There are sharp echoes of the crises of the 1970s, with its oil price shocks and rising levels of indebtedness among Commonwealth low-income countries. But there are also opportunities, again learning from the past: in the early 1980s a series of major Commonwealth reports drew together experts from across the Commonwealth, precisely to provide alternative policy recommendations appropriate to Low Income Countries and Small Island Developing States and provided thought leadership on debt management and debt relief. It is equally possible that current multiple challenges facing Commonwealth members, and which require coordinated efforts, could have a similar effect in terms of them turning to the Secretariat for support/guidance/leadership. The Secretariat could step into the gap left by the stalled Doha round of trade negotiations to support negotiations to lower trade barriers. However, this revitalization of well-planned and relevant programmes, and the Secretariat’s wider credibility, demands considerable work.
What does all this say about the future and viability of the Commonwealth? It has evolved and continues to do so, thanks to informality and flexibility, despite frequent attempts to emphasise conventions, process and a supposed rule book. It is a very different organisation from the post-imperial version of the late 1940s. However, it still suffers from an image problem in the minds of too many British people (another argument for curriculum reform) as well as being the target of a lot of silly and ill-informed comment in mainstream media. To smaller and less developed states who are members, it boosts their ‘voice’, enhances access, and gives networks to share expertise and platforms for policy agenda. It has a lot going for it, even in today’s turbulent international relations and the brutal reassertion of geo-politics and the use of military force. However, like all organisations, it needs constant work and continued commitment. The Conservative government’s attempt to use Rwanda to solve a domestic policy problem, wrapping up the controversial and undoubtedly unworkable deal under a supposed cloak of Commonwealth respectability, is transactional foreign policy at its worst. The Commonwealth as an organisation had nothing to do with the policy, but its declared raison d’etre as a values-based association has been damaged by this bilateral deal by two of its members. There is also the crisis of democracy in Rwanda; Britain as the country’s largest and long standing major international donor has been made complicit in President Paul Kagame government’s brand of authoritarianism.
So, the association is yet another cross-roads. It remains to be seen whether the Commonwealth can rejuvenate itself, and whether there is sufficient political will to do this. ‘Is the Commonwealth Working?’ offered a number of important and practical suggestions for change and reform.
A great deal depends on leadership. The association needs a clearer vision, developmental purpose and communications strategy – the signs are positive that the Secretariat is listening. The Commonwealth has to demonstrate its value as a progressive organisation to young people. It should emphasise development anddemocratic values as developmental states need both.
The institutional architecture of the Commonwealth comprising its economic development and political pillars must stand together. In terms of the ‘political pillar’, Governments need to take its 2013 Charter more seriously, and be robust in calling governments to account – the Commonwealth has the mechanisms to do this in the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group. The Eminent Persons Group argued over 10 years ago that CMAG should have enhanced powers and use them. In recent years, it has failed to do so, but the possibilities are there.
The Commonwealth must reform its funding model which relies too heavily on the major donors, the UK, Australia and Canada. The Secretariat must have well designed programmes, provide thought leadership and be properly resourced to be effective. It has done great work in the past on trade, economic policy, and debt relief; it can do so again, if adequately funded.
So much hangs on the perceived leadership deficit. It is not obvious which way the outcome of the Secretary General challenge will go – there are no planned hustings (unlike at the Malta summit in 2015) and the vote will be behind closed doors. There is much to be said for holding future votes in between CHOGM summits, so precious time is not taken up with the politics around this contest. President Paul Kagame as Chair in office is controversial and will stay so. The position of Chair in office should be abolished, and Commonwealth heads must pay greater attention to the way summit hosts are chosen. Commonwealth heads would all benefit from carefully re-reading the Eminent Persons Group Report and taking its recommendations seriously, and taking the 2013 Charter seriously.
Whether or not the Commonwealth regenerates itself as an effective, progressive organisation which represents and serves the interests of its developmental small states and young people depends on the commitment of its leaders and its leadership, renewed vision and strategy – and critically, the ability to communicate this.
 Much has been made in the Western press of the generosity of Ukraine’s neighbours in supporting refugees, and not enough attention paid to the hypocrisy of ‘Fortress Europe’ when it comes to accommodating refugees and asylum seekers from elsewhere in the world. Such immediate and long-term humanitarian and economic challenges are not new to many Commonwealth countries who have had to address substantial migrant and refugee flows, with the inevitable stress they place on local economies and communities in situations of scarcity.