A conflicted Commonwealth: what the Queen’s passing means for member states

The Commonwealth has its roots in the previous colonial empire of Great Britain, where the monarch was regarded as the head of state of all colonies. But now, as debates on the UK’s failure to condemn its colonial history spark following Queen Elizabeth II’s passing, many wonder whether Commonwealth members will withdraw from the organization and escape the world’s largest colonial power. Despite Britain’s history of oppression, Commonwealth dismantlement isn’t likely as members remain dependent on the UK and withdrawing would deny them the benefits associated with membership and would prevent opportunities for political and socio-economic development.

Global relationships are vital for sociopolitical influence factored by prestige, networking and inter-governmental alliances, and are sometimes considered to be more important than military force. While global relationships are imperative for sociopolitical influence, defense treaties can determine a country’s place on the international stage. Although there aren’t many formal defense agreements between Commonwealth members, most would cooperate to defend one another in a crisis. Without New Zealand, the United Kingdom and other significant Commonwealth members expressing concern and, if required, taking military action, Tuvalu, one of the smallest members of the association, could be invaded with no fear of repercussions from an aggressor. Small Commonwealth members that have insignificant or nonexistent armies benefit the most from this unofficial arrangement. Each country wants to promote political autonomy and will therefore always work to defend its kin.

As an example of an informal agreement in post-colonial policymaking, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Malaysia and Singapore created the Five Power Defense Arrangements of 1971 (FPDA). Though it wasn’t officiated through the association, its implementation was thanks to the ambassadorial relationship between member states. Pek Wee Kian of the Journal of the Singapore Armed Forces argued that the FPDA offers Malaysia and Singapore a general amount of psychological deterrence ever since the establishment of the agreement. Any possible aggressors would be in the unfortunate position of guessing whether their actions would cause the other countries to respond.

In fact, any emerging geopolitical tension and warfare may strengthen the relations between Commonwealth members and better international perception of the association — especially as they aim for country preservation and prosperity.

Another important aspect to consider is the promotion of the English language and identity within the Commonwealth regions. All members have included English as their country’s official language. However, while established countries (e.g., Canada, Australia) have integrated the dialect as part of their school education system and daily lives, smaller, developing territories like Namibia, where today 3% of people identify English as their mother tongue, consider it as the dialect of the oppressor and a tool for neocolonialism. The promotion of the English language and identity by the Commonwealth could lead to a greater possibility of dialect rejection from developing countries and could further aggravate the membership-status discussion.

Despite many disrupting historical and public health events, Commonwealth members have seen monetary growth over time, altogether reaching $14 trillion in GDP. However, this figure conceals the disparities in economic strength. For example, India has approximately $3.5 trillion in GDP, while countries like Samoa, Dominica and Kiribati have roughly around $830 million, $600 million and $207 million, respectively. This wealth gap is a crucial issue, as nearly half of the 56 country members belong to the World’s lower third GDP rankings.

Nonetheless, the association takes action to assist in economic expansion by providing analyses and interpretations of world economic trends, as well as promoting development projects to reach domestic financial goals. The Commonwealth invests a certain amount of raised capital for small states to use at their disposal for attracting sustainable development. Furthermore, the organization introduced programs to reduce gender disparity in education. Other methods they use to grow the economies of their member states include endowing natural resources, stimulating free trading systems and elaborating debt-management plans. The ‘Commonwealth Effect’ in commerce and investment, where trade between Commonwealth members is about 50% higher than between non-commonwealth members, illustrates this economic leverage.

The Commonwealth offers a platform where issues from smaller countries may be brought up with bigger organizations for problem-solving through providing knowledgeable and thorough legal counsel. As a result, the international organization contributes significantly to the stabilization and defense of countries against unforeseeable events. The safest course of action for these countries, many of which have been made susceptible by exposure to external economic shocks, is to rely on the resources at hand in order to avoid endangering the population.

Although many sources report the rekindling of hot-debated discussions advocating toward decolonization, it would be far more interesting to know what safety nets and policies countries would create upon gaining autonomy — in light of their reliance on the Commonwealth’s resources and services. Once members leave the association, they no longer enjoy the well-suited benefits. But what if they instead leave their status as a ‘colony forever loyal to the English monarchy’ and still remain as part of the Commonwealth? Countries gaining sovereignty and not swearing allegiance to the crown don’t entail a formal separation from the association, as we’ve seen with India and Pakistan.

Above all, the future remains uncertain. The Queen’s death is yet to show signs of the association’s dissolution, but who’s to say it will not occur as a result of international dissatisfaction and distrust of King Charles III? And what about any emerging justifiable cause for extreme geopolitical crises between certain country members? Would the Commonwealth be ready once again to take a stance in political crises for matters of diplomatic engagement?

  • “Small States Development: A Commonwealth Vulnerability Index” The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs
  • “Economic Impact of a Potential Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the European Union and the Commonwealth of the Independent States” — SSRN
  • “Leaving the Commonwealth: explanations from different viewpoints” — Universiteit Leiden
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