Sharing values more effectively: a new approach for the Commonwealth?

The Commonwealth is a collection of states that claim to be united by shared values, such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Recent examples demonstrate, though, that those values might not be shared very well within the Commonwealth. What could be done so that happens more effectively? Aim to influence societies, as well as governments, I argue.

To show its relevance in the modern world, the Commonwealth is indeed trying to ensure its key values are shared. It has developed significant arrangements to influence governments of member-states. These include suspending or even expelling members in violation of its values. It employs softer methods, as well, for example having its officials observe elections. However, I mentioned examples in an earlier blog post that suggest it isn’t great at ensuring governments share its values.

Indeed, recent episodes demonstrate the limits to the Commonwealth’s approach. Some governments, such as the one in the Maldives in 2016 or in Zimbabwe in 2003, simply remove their country from the Commonwealth, when threatened for breaching values. The Commonwealth itself recognised concerns about it effectiveness when it appointed a group to advise on possible reforms. The group published its report in 2011, A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform. In spite of its title, though, its recommendations would keep the Commonwealth focused on influencing governments. When the governments of members couldn’t agree how they should be influenced, some of the report’s key recommendations went unfulfilled. If that’s the way to get a Commonwealth for the people, it will only happen when governments permit it.

Even in more neoliberal areas like free trade, the key method to achieve change remains for the Commonwealth to influence governments. For example, the 2005 Commonwealth meeting in Malta endorsed the idea that the governments of members should pursue free trade agreements with each other. Yet, in India, the member with the highest population, attitudes at the upper levels of society aren’t well disposed to free trade. What hope is there of governments to introduce neoliberal reform, if the societies they represent aren’t themselves keen for it?

I started my series of posts on this blog by discussing how neoliberalism would be strengthened if societies shared their experiences of different policies. I then identified that the Commonwealth might provide a network of countries to make such sharing worthwhile. In this post, I’ve reviewed the Commonwealth’s record of upholding its key values and identified that it too could do with greater focus on societies. If both neoliberalism and the Commonwealth might be strengthened by societies sharing policy experiences, how could this actually be achieved? This subject I’ll tackle in my final post in this series.