Deep in the afterglow of an incredible Olympic Games and a rekindled British spirit, there’s talk around the campfire that maybe the Commonwealth isn’t just a quaint affectation of a used-up Super Power. In fact, no less an illustrian than ex-Canadian and convicted felon Conrad Black has run the idea of a resurrected Commonwealth up the international flagpole to see if anybody bothers to salute. It’s a curious notion that isn’t going to get a lot of attention, but maybe it should.
In theory, The Commonwealth is the natural devolution of the British Empire – a collection of states bound together by (if nothing else) a common colonial experience. These states share a tradition of British law, parliamentary democracy, education and language. They are, in reality, and according to Commonwealth doctrine “not [entirely] foreign to each other.” So much for theories. In truth, the Commonwealth is an organization (and I know I’m going to get some emails about this) badly in need of a purpose. What good it does do around the world goes largely unnoticed, and most people assume it’s just a holding tank for stodgy old colonials, with a few dusty monarchists congealing on the side. Realistically, the Commonwealth simply does not swim where the big boys feed. It has neither the infrastructure, the management nor the common direction to heft any weight internationally. It’s only raison d’etre seems to be to voice a few high-minded principles and host the Commonwealth Games.
The weird thing is, however, an invigorated Commonwealth actually makes a lot of sense. Look around. Who takes the United Nations seriously anymore – aside from guys like Chavez and Mugabe? Even Obama works around them when he feels the need. OPEC is permanently attached to their petro-dollars, and the Arab League isn’t interested in anything beyond the Middle East and whatever anti-Israeli rhetoric is flavour-of-the-week. Meanwhile, the European experiment is rapidly turning brown, and the Euro itself is on the verge of folding up like a cheap lawn chair. If Merkel and Hollande can’t find some common ground soon, this time next year, this planet’s largest economic unit might be slowly sliding into the Mediterranean.
On the other economic hand, four of the sixteen largest GDPs in the world belong to Commonwealth nations. In total, the Commonwealth has a combined Gross Domestic Product of over ten trillion dollars. That’s second only to the EU and the USA. It has a population of 2.1 billion — which makes it the largest single organization in history. Folks, that’s enough purchasing power to get a discount outta WalMart! Merely turning the Commonwealth into a Free Trade Zone without any other added economic attractions — would be like hitting the world economy with a double dose of adrenalin and a Red Bull™ chaser. Whatever recession the IMF had in mind – forget about it. It would be over instantaneously. Individually, the Commonwealth states have enough natural and human resources to feed, clothe and power the world. As a single economic unit with proper development and a little imagination, there is simply no limit to what it can accomplish.
Actually, the idea of a super-economy, built out of the British Empire, is an old one. It’s a 19th century philosophy that found its voice in Joseph Chamberlain, a Victorian Era politician. His idea was to form the Empire into a closed shop, eliminating trade barriers within the British Empire but erecting tariff walls around it. Forged as a single economic unit, the Empire would generate immense internal wealth and secure Britain’s position as the world’s only superpower for another century.
Unfortunately, Chamberlain never convinced the British government to step away from its policy of free trade. As early as 1910, the balance of British trade was beginning to tilt away from the Empire in favour of America (with a corresponding outflow of cash.) Four decades of that — and a couple of expensive world wars — and Britain simply couldn’t afford its empire anymore. A simplistic view I’ll grant you, but true all the same.
Very soon, empires will no longer be political; they’ll be economic. The Commonwealth has the potential to be history’s greatest superpower, but don’t hold your breath. There are too many national egos involved. But mostly economists don’t make policy; politicians do. Unfortunately, they have neither the imagination nor the political will to make something as radical as a non territorial political entity work.