Time for America to Join the Commonwealth

Article excerpt

IT IS TIME FOR THE UNITED STATES to join the Commonwealth. Membership in the Commonwealth would facilitate the kind of globalization that is in the American national interest, and it would serve as a hedge against the emergence of a less benign international order based on civilizational power politics. In return, United States membership would offer the Commonwealth a much-needed shot in the arm in terms of resources and ideas that could transform it from a persistent underachiever into a leading model of transcivilizational co-operation.

At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM) in Durban, South Africa, in November 1999, Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair, called for new thinking about modernizing the Commonwealth to make it more effective. A critical element in this new thinking should be a discussion of United States membership, so that it can be on the agenda of the next CHOGM in Australia in November 2001.

Before any such discussion can take place, however, two important emotional roadblocks have to be clared out of the way. On the American side is what may be termed '1776 and all that.'

The Commonwealth, like the Empire before it, is seen as a British operation, and a monarchical one too. Much as they enjoy the activities of the British Royal Family as a spectator sport, for the citizens of a country conceived in liberty and republican virtue, bowing, scraping and dressing up at their behest is out of the question. There can be no going back.

On the Commonwealth side are fears about their own version of le defi Americain. The United States, it is suggested, would become impatient with the consensual and pragmatic way in which the Commonwealth moves towards modest achievements. Americans have never known an international organization they did not create or aspire to own, and their tendency to deal in moral absolutes, of both right and left, would lead them to wreck the Commonwealth by trying to get their way. The Commonwealth, say its keenest supporters, is really a self-help organization of developing states that, for historical reasons, just happens to have some medium-sized developed members. The United States is too big and rich to be one of the former and lacks the historical links and experience to be one of the latter.

Doubts on both sides are fuelled by strong emotions, but they lack foundation in the world of facts. The Commonwealth is not a British operation and no one, including Britain, wants it to be. British influence in the Commonwealth today rests on the wealth and power that it, as one of several wealthy members, is prepared to commit to the organization. The Foreign Policy Institute, a think tank close to the present Labour government, has suggested that the Commonwealth secretariat might be moved from London, and the British government has severed its final links with the Commonwealth Institute, making the latter fully independent.

Nor is the Commonwealth a monarchical organization in any significant sense. The CHOGM in Durban celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the London Declaration, which, prompted by India's decision to abandon its dominion status and become a republic, made it possible for republics to retain their Commonwealth membership after independence. From that point on, the British monarch served only as a 'symbol of the free association' of its independent members in what is known as the modern Commonwealth.

Membership has not compromised the identities of the 33 republics that are already members of the Commonwealth, many of whom had a much rougher experience than the United States at the hands of British colonialism. Similarly, membership would not entangle the United States in the monarchial intimacies and imperial ambitions of London. On the contrary, Commonwealth membership would place it in an organization in which it was equipped to do well.

For this very reason, Commonwealth insecurities are harder to dismiss. While United States membership would change the Commonwealth, it is clear that, in the words of one writer in the Commonwealth journal, Roundtable, the United States 'undoubtedly qualifies under the IGCCM criteria. …