Lord Howell of Guildford. President of The Royal Commonwealth Society.

RCS International Forum. New Zealand House , Wednesday October 5, 2016. 9:30.

The former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said that this is ‘a can-do moment’ both for Britain and for Australia – and indeed for the whole family of Commonwealth nations. With Brexit in clear prospect it is indeed a time for making both new links and refreshing old ties.

This is why today’s and tomorrow’s Commonwealth Network of 53 Nations has to be viewed in the CONTEXT of current and developing world events.

Last year, in 2015, a little noticed but profound London School of Economics report was published called ‘Investing in Influence’ backed by the high expertise and authority, reminded us of some new home truths about the world , namely:

  • That the processes of globalisation have eroded both the dominant role of the Western core and of states writ large

  • That we are in the process of a shift from an industrial world to an information world

  • That this will be a world of network relationships and not of superpowers

  • That relationships are not born, they are made, but that the Commonwealth network offers enormous opportunities for mutual trade, influence and business that have yet to be fully capitalised

  • That for too long British foreign policy has been the preserve of ‘grandees’ with an understanding that reflects their own reading of history

  • That the UK now operates in a world that is networked, interdependent and with power diffused across a wide-range of state and non-state actors

  • That large scale military force does not have the same importance that it did 60 or 70 years ago, and that the tools of international diplomacy need to be renewed

They could usefully have added that trade and exchange are becoming dominated by information flows, data transmission and process-sharing. As a matter of record almost half the export earnings of a country like the UK come not from actual goods shipped but from services of every kind , and this proportion is rising fast.

Also, it must be added that huge new supply chains now wind across the world and that business relationships between states now only flourish in a powerful framework of ‘soft power’ connections at all levels, governmental and non-governmental , including common language , common values, cultural and sporting links, educational links, common standards (especially in relation to gender and racial equality),and trust and friendship to an unprecedented degree of trust, intimacy and connectivity. The English language in particular has now become the protocol of the cyber-entwined planet – a binding force par excellence with its own internal DNA.

It is in this completely revolutionary world context that we should be analysing and reviewing the Commonwealth system today .

It cannot be emphasised too strongly that the Commonwealth today is tailor-made for this new kind of milieu. It may have become so by accident, not by design. But it is nonetheless now the perfect platform for business and relationships the digital age .

H M the Queen presciently observed just this almost seven years ago, although I fear that few of her Ministers cottoned on to it, and still haven’t.

The focus now has to be on strengthening the values which bind us and the potential, both social and economic , for advancement for each and every Commonwealth member, large and small. And remember that in a world of networks, unlike a world of exclusive trade blocs, the interests and welfare of the smallest community or island state, become just as important, and just as influential to the whole system, as the largest .

And it is in this context that the call of the Secretary General for the Commonwealth trade advantage to be ‘turbo-charged’ can be realized .

There is one caveat. Values on paper, fine speeches and calls for more trust, become weak and impotent unless underpinned by security, physical and political, by good and honest governance and by the rule of law. Thanks to the information revolution it is an age of people power, but also an age when good governance is demanded more strongly than ever.

That is why in this ‘very unsettling and rather dangerous world’ (the Secretary-General’s words again recently to the Lords International relations Cttee) the security dimension of the Commonwealth network, long rather ignored, should now be brought to the fore in foreign policy.

In South-East Asia, I believe that close Commonwealth co-operation, both maritime and military, is going to become of increasing relevance. We may all admire and seek to do business with the massive Chinese economy, but we do not want to see an Asia entirely Chinese dominated. Nor do we necessarily want to see the region grow into a confrontational battle-ground between American super-power ambitions and rising Chinese power – what has been called the Thucydides trap.

That kind of stand-off, full of conflict escalation potential, is inherently unstable and a danger to world order. A better pattern in Asia has to be between the Commonwealth powers of India, Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, maybe with Japan in alliance, not to challenge but to BALANCE the Chinese titan. Britain can play a supportive role. There is plenty of past experience on which to build.

Of course there are flaws in this new tapestry. Tension is high again between two Commonwealth members, India and Pakistan. Other countries are lagging badly in good governance, human rights and treatment of women. But at least within the Commonwealth family the pressure is on them night and day.

But despite these problems I see the Commonwealth network of today and tomorrow, and I ask you to see it, not as a fading association bound by memories and history, but as a uniquely relevant and immense network in today’s transformed international order –and one to which every member, large and small, should vigorously subscribe and from which every member benefits increasingly. It is also a network with which several other countries seek to be associated, and my own view is that they should be welcomed into suitable forms of association, if not full membership, without delay.

That should provide a safer berth for states and communities who do not seek full Commonwealth membership but do want honoured and close friendship with the club and its non-governmental agencies . I have in mind the Republic of Ireland , a number of Middle East and African nations and even the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong.

In a chaotic and uncertain world, with even the United Nations struggling to bring order, the Commonwealth milieu is the sort of association that more and more countries find valuable and supportive.

So these are some of the objectives for which the Royal Commonwealth Society is working , and in doing so can set a pathway for governments, statesmen, international institutions and societies to follow .


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