David Howell looks again at the Commonwealth, and after admitting that his own Commons Committee report ten years ago may have been overly optimistic about the future success of the international body, it does offer some food for thought. Particularly in terms of promoting trade with the developing world. Certainly the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting did itself no favours two years ago in Nigeria by managing the press over the Mugabe controversy, by telling them little of the many billateral agreements struck at the five day event. He points out:
Intra-Commonwealth trade appears to be expanding steadily, as are intra-Comonwealth investment flows. This is hardly surprising, given that 13 of the world’s fastest growing economies are in the Commonwealth and that six of the leading countries in information technology and e-commerce – India, Australia, the UK, Canada, Singapore and Malaysia – are Commonwealth members. Shared legal procedures, lack of language barriers (there are no interpreters at Commonwealth gatherings) and many common business “habits” make life easier for direct investment flows between members. More than that, the Commonwealth offers – at least potentially – the kind of forum in which richer and faster growing countries and poorer nations can speak on equal terms, in which the faiths can discuss their problems calmly (there are 500m Muslims in the Commonwealth) and in which nearly all members are committed to contributing to global peace and stability, rather than pursuing vendettas against the “west”.
None of this may amount – at least yet – to the case for a Commonwealth free trade area (an idea attempted twice in the twentieth century, although in very different conditions). But it does suggest a pause for thought as to how this extraordinary network, stretching across regions and embracing a third of the world’s population, might, if it were strengthened imaginatively, do a better job than the existing battered international institutions. In particular it is surely time to think how a more ambitious Commonwealth of Nations could become a real force in both opening up the world economy and uniting the more well-intentioned countries in facing up to the ugly dangers of the age – such as terrorism, pariah nations, entrenched poverty, inter-ethnic wars, corruption and rotten governance – to name a few. But although countries continue to queue up to join the Commonwealth as it is – which must say something for it – the question is whether in its present form it could ever carry enough clout to perform this wider role.
A possible way forward might be to offer a much closer association, if not actual membership, to some other important countries outside the existing blocs or uncomfortable within them, but which plainly belong in the “good guys” camp. The obvious candidate is Japan – a nation that is at last returning to what it terms “normal country status”, engaging actively in world affairs after decades of pacifism.
Global good guys, eh. What price Irish re-entry?