Could a New 'Commonwealth of Nations' Lead the Developing World?

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Formally led by the Queen of England, this collection of former British colonies could reconvene into something new and powerful.

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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani hold a joint news conference at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth / Reuters

India, once considered the jewel in the crown of the British empire, is a member of the fossilized skeletal remains left behind, the Commonwealth of Nations -- but is also a member of the BRICS, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the G-20, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit, IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa), the NAM (or Non-Aligned Movement), the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization.

Most big nations -- and even small ones -- are increasingly enmeshed in lots of overlapping global clubs. In part this is hedging, not wanting to be left out, not knowing what will eventually happen to the old-US fashioned, post-World War II structures that just don't align with global power realities today.

Brazil, Australia, Turkey, South Africa, and China today are among the world's leading innovators in engineering even more new associations that let some nations in and keep others out -- all as potential economic or security buffers particularly in a world that is  pulled away from over-arching, one size fits all, global institutions, to increasingly powerful regional structures and associations.

The Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary association of 54 independent countries (though one is suspended at the moment) -- "nearly all of which were formerly under British rule" is not a cluster of countries that one would think of as the potential forefront of a globally agile growth club.  Just the acronyms of BRICS or IBSA sound much more hip.

But Michael Ancram, also known as Lord Lothian -- a former conservative party shadow defense minister and foreign minister -- has proposed a 'Neo-Commonwealthianism' to kick-start the hopes and aspirations of both elder powers (like the UK), rising powers like India and South Africa -- and powers like Nigeria that matter but are flagging.

In a provocative paper titled "Farewell to Drift: A New Foreign Policy for a Network World", Ancram notes that the Commonwealth -- whose 'head' remains today the Queen of England -- covers 30% of the population, has members on every continent, and strong representation of the world's most significant religions.  Ancram believes that this left-behind infrastructure, that appears arthritic and worn out to most, could be revitalized into "a dynamic vehicle for proactive and constructive diplomacy."

He notes that:

Too often the Commonwealth is scorned internationally as antiquated and irrelevant. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Over half of its 1.7 billion members are under 25 and the principles it espouses are those that modern and progressive leaders the world over seek to propagate and support.

Ancram then slides into the touchy subject of what these clusters in part are about -- which is to in part promote like-mindedness among the members and their interests vs an outside set of national players.  He notes that today's government in Russia and the Communist regime in China are still occasionally uncomfortable for fast growing democracies like Brazil, Turkey, South Africa, and India.

While the BRICS has Brazil, India, South Africa and does include China and Russia -- it is also interesting to note that IBSA gives India, Brazil and South Africa room to coordinate and engage with each other without Russia and China on occasion.

Ancram writes about democracy promotion opportunities via the Commonwealth as well:

While problems of fostering democratic states in the Middle East and South Asia have left a vastly diminished international appetite and capacity for similar exercises, there is still a need for budding democracy in developing countries to be encouraged and supported. Other initiatives seem to be withering on the branch. 'Dropping democracy from 10,000 feet thankfully seems to have run its course. Extending EU membership appears almost to have reached stalemate. The global community in any event cannot be dogmatic or squeamish about democratic principles as often the most pressing matters of international business involve un-democratic nations such as Russia and China. The disagreements that so regularly paralyse the Security Council would afflict any group of leading democracies.

The quiet promotion of democracy is therefore one of the major roles that the Commonwealth can undertake. The exclusion of both Fiji and Pakistan from the Commonwealth provided much-needed incentive and momentum for a return to democracy in those countries. The "badge of respectability" that Commonwealth membership bestows can add to internal pressures towards democracy.
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Some of the obvious leaders in Commonwealth 2.0 arrangement would be India, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Singapore, and Malaysia.  Oil-rich Nigeria is also a key tone-setter on the African continent.

I asked Michael Ancram whether he really thought that these countries would be ready for the push of reset on one of the world's old colonial artifices -- and he quickly said, no -- not headquartered as the Commonwealth is today in London.   Ancram stated that the capital of Commonwealth 2.0 had to be based in India.  "India needs to lead this," Ancram said.

Whether or not he convinces India, and South Africa to tilt more of their attention to revitalizing an old global network that includes states like the UK and thus de-emphasizing the time they put into the BRICS and IBSA, the proposal is a novel one. 

Like old designs on museum pieces and costumes from Tokugawa era Japan, or the early Renaissance in Europe making their way into the trendiest fashions today, Michael Ancram may be on to something important in revitalizing a network that once was the most powerful in the world.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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