The Commonwealth - the challenge and the opportunity
Politicians and those who advise them always face a fundamental challenge when grappling with problems. We can say ‘fundamental’ because it presents itself at the very moment they recognize a problem and resolve that something must be done about it.
The choices boil down to three options. One is to devise approaches that aggrandize one’s power and prospects, whilst offering enough of a philosophical rationale as to make the pursuit of personal gain seem altruistic and generous. The second is to genuinely want to fix the problem but do so by designing ever so intricate – and complicated – measures that, in theory, will work splendidly if only each and every soul abandons their preconceived notions and signs onto the grand project. The third option is to take as full a measure of the problem and the environment it inhabits, and dispassionately devise a plan that fixes the issue without sacrificing the very values that define the people you are sworn to protect and serve.
The first approach is borne of greed and avarice, cynically rebranded to make the bitter taste sweet. The second is borne of ego and hubris, meant more as a monument to arrogance and pride of a leader than as a real relief to their people.
The third approach, whilst not perfect, seeks to divorce itself from human frailties and simply “get on with it” in the most economical fashion. Not coincidentally, it tends to give rise to the solutions that have the best chance of success.
At present, the world finds itself in a similar confluence of challenges that beset it through the 1920’s and 1930’s – although not in the exact sequence. A global pandemic, economic disruptions, social strife, the rise of radical political movements, and the rise of totalitarian regimes that attack locally and threaten globally.
Of course, we survived those crises and paroxysms, but it was not easy, and it did not come without a steep price. But the magnitude of the price that would be paid was a factor of the interest accrued on the principal – interest racked up through years of inaction and failed policies.
We began with the first approach by crafting egocentric policies that would do nothing more than radicalize whole populations into becoming as petty and vengeful as the hidden motivations of those who pushed the plans. The payoff was not only no solution, but the radicalization of whole populations and the rise some of the most repugnant regimes in human history.
We then tried approaches that were more of a monument to personal ambition than practicality – global accords that sought to herald a new age of enlightened cooperation under the belief that their mere existence would transform hearts and minds. As evidenced by the eventual and tragic outcome, they did nothing of the sort.
The third approach – that of seeing the world for what it is, and the dangers for what they were – began as marginalized voices. It is no coincidence that one of the great figures of the 20th century and of British history referred to this period as his “wilderness years.” While the political, economic, and social momentum favoured appeasement and isolation, Winston Churchill was one of the scant few voices that sounded the alarm over the rise of fascism and its danger to the world. If we even remember those who advocated the first and second approaches, it is only in the context of those like Churchill who preferred the third. Despite their motivations and desires for glory, they exist in our world as mere bit players to the ones they marginalized and opposed.
So, what of our time? What is the answer for today?
While the specific challenges differ, the enduring answers lay in the same approach – to see the problem for what it is, the situation for what it is, and pursue a solution without thinking first of the money to be made or statues to be erected.
As with the past, the world is deciding its future in a million different ways each and every day with the choices made by governments and advisors, corporate leaders, academics and lecturers, and people from all walks of life. Those choices – once made in the calming light of ease and comfort – are now being forced under the duress of increasing difficulty and anxiety about the future. Like our predecessors, we make harder choices today because we neglected them when they would have been easier.
Our salvation in the last crisis was a resolute commitment to freedom, liberty, the rights of the individual, and a resolute opposition to tyranny and terror. It came in the form of a coalition between neighbours and nations, where peoples of good will and good intent set aside their ambitions and desires for personal glory to rise to the challenge.
I have spent nearly two decades as part of the movement to build a new liberal democratic consensus among nations and peoples, founded on the existing platform of the Commonwealth. It is by no means perfect, but it is less flawed than the alternative schemes offered by its detractors. Research for the last three decades has borne out the propensity of Commonwealth jurisdictions to trade with one another, and more specific measures of reciprocity – measured in the size of merchandise trade balances – shows that for Canada in 2018, trade with CANZUK was more profitable ($0.28 per US$ of bilateral trade) than with either NAFTA ($0.13 per US$) or the EU minus Britain (-$0.39 per US$).1
Even with the large surplus Canada enjoys with CANZUK being driven largely by British trade ($0.28), when one considers that 75 percent of the $15.64 billion in merchandise exports to the UK that year was in precious metals, stones and minerals2 – most of which is processed and refined locally, then sold internationally through London’s precious metals and commodities exchanges at a premium – the deficit incurred by the UK is largely reversed through re-exporting those imports. Consider that in 2019, the UK earned £18.7 billion from exports of gold3, and yet the total production of British gold nationwide that same year was only 50 kilograms.4 50 kilograms of gold in 2019 - at £1,489 per troy ounce – would have only fetched a total of less than £4 million. Either Britain was able to sell its own production at over £11 million an ounce, or it successfully imported, processed and re-exported the metal at a profit, with a good share of it originating from Canada.
Despite the enhanced quality and quantity of intra-Commonwealth trade, the more reciprocal nature of internal CANZUK trade, and the pressing need to capacity build among like-minded liberal democratic states, the critics and naysayers are numerous and vocal. But if those voices provide a surplus of criticism, they also incur a deficit of workable alternatives.
Indeed, the current state of the world is largely a result of the policies who see both CANZUK and broader Commonwealth network-building as a naïve pipe dream. Our critics were given a world liberated from the threat of Communism and nuclear annihilation in the late 1980s and what have they done with that? A global pandemic? A war in Ukraine? A global economy at the mercy of totalitarian regimes that could never have held us ransom had it not been for our naïve eagerness to build it up to be a challenge? Those who sneer at our modest proposals do not have the luxury of pointing to their own legacy as a superior way.
At present there are two seemingly contradictory things that are true – that the authoritarian regime in Beijing has increased its influence in many Commonwealth countries through its promises of trade and access to infrastructure money, and that nations with no British colonial history, and where English is not spoken regularly, are eager to join the Commonwealth. Gabon and Togo are following the path that Rwanda, Mozambique and Cameroon have already journeyed.
But the contradiction makes sense. Smaller nations that are economically vulnerable go to China because they have to, but they come to the Commonwealth because they want to.
Consider the situation in Sri Lanka - hit hard by economic and social upheavals that have manifested themselves in violence:
“China's economic stakes in Sri Lanka are in focus as the bankrupt South Asian nation scrapes the last of its usable foreign reserves. By late April those funds had shrunk to $50 million, a government minister revealed to parliament in a rare moment of candor.
The admission by then Finance Minister Ali Sabry inadvertently exposed the strings attached to a Chinese financial lifeline the government of ultranationalist President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had hitherto concealed to boost the official reserve figures, which were hovering over $1.5 billion during the first quarter of this year.
Nearly all of that was thanks to a hefty $1.5 billion swap by the People's Bank of China. But Sabry's revelation confirmed what had been whispered within private banking circles in Colombo, the commercial capital: Sri Lanka cannot readily dip into the Chinese cash to pay for desperately needed food, fuel and medicines, or even to settle its maturing foreign debts.”5
Freed of the desire to build bank accounts or accrue accolades, decision makers could clearly see the way forward as an earlier generation of leaders did.
Proponents of CANZUK will rightly point out that the level of compatibility needed for such an accord is too great and too demanding for many Commonwealth members to meet. This cannot be denied. The rigours of free trade coupled with free movement and mutual recognitions among various sectors and activities demands much of its signatories to be successful.
And yet, can we not demand more of the Commonwealth itself? Can we not expect more in the way of trade, investment, and capacity building? If China, of its own accord and initiative, can establish its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, is it so ridiculous to suggest that Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Commonwealth economies like Singapore establish our own alternative? Can we not create a Commonwealth competitor to Belt and Road that seeks to capacity build in partner states rather than cynically tie them in a debt trap cycle, effectively re-colonizing them?
And what if through this combination of investment, truly reciprocal trade and capacity building within those nations they can meet the requirements of a more enhanced partnership? In other words, if we declare that smaller Commonwealth nations are not ready for such partnerships, can we not aid them in the process of being ready?
Critics will say it is a monumental task, hard to do, and with the final result not assured. All true – but it can benefit from seeing the world for what it is and not what we fantasize it to be, or directing our actions mainly to generate titles, commissions, awards, and expensed junkets. It can work if we see that building a true partnership where the average person in London, Toronto, Wellington, Mumbai or Colombo can point to a tangible improvement in their current position and in their prospects.
Those who share this vision must do things differently as well. They must counter the critics with their own record. Many who dismiss and deride both CANZUK and greater Commonwealth capacity building gave us the current climate of angry politics, vacillation in the face of totalitarianism, economic decline and weakened institutions. In fact, it is hard not to believe that the attacks on alternatives are meant to serve as a diversion from their own failures.
Proponents of CANZUK and Commonwealth networking should take the initiative and demand of our detractors to declare their alternatives and how they would work. Just as important, we should pointedly ask them why their plan should be any more successful than the dysfunctional state of affairs their schemes have produced thus far.
The challenge is thus - if you are happy with the status quo, do nothing. If you believe that liberal democracy’s best days are behind it, do nothing. If you believe that our current predicaments are some form of karmic justice that must be borne for past sins for an indeterminate amount of time, do nothing.
On the other hand, if you believe things can – and should - be better; that we all must sacrifice our egos, arrogance, and conceit in favour of real, sustainable solutions, then do something.
I leave the final word to my friend and mentor, Lord David Howell, the former minister and chair of the UK House of Lords International Affairs Committee, who said it best this past week when he led off debate on the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda:
“But this [Commonwealth] family needs to move from being seen sometimes by British officialdom as marginal and a slightly tiresome legacy to being a central component of our strategy, direction, role fulfilment and future security. That is the assurance we need from Ministers: that they understand what is happening and where we are going. As to the vision and presentation of our story in this new world we have entered, I admit that that needs some brushing up, but the time for doing that is now—before it is too late.”6
British Canadian Chamber of Trade and Commerce, “Canada’s Merchandise Exports to the UK,” updated 2019 August 09, https://www.britishcanadianchamber.com/post/canada-s-merchandise-exports-to-the-uk
Statista, “Value of gold exported from the United Kingdom (UK) from 2009 to 2020 (in 1,000 GBP),” 2022 July 01, https://www.statista.com/statistics/470385/gold-export-value-in-the-united-kingdom-uk/
Statista, “Precious metals in the UK - statistics & facts,” 2021 November 29, https://www.statista.com/topics/5597/precious-metals-in-the-uk/#dossierKeyfigures
Macan-Markar, Marwaan, “Sri Lanka meltdown exposes China loan policy: 5 things to know,” Nikkei Asia, 2022 May 13, https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Sri-Lanka-crisis/Sri-Lanka-meltdown-exposes-China-loan-policy-5-things-to-know