Bilateral and multilateral relationships in the Commonwealth
Formalised relations of Commonwealth countries, including economic, political and cultural, run along bilateral or multilateral lines – ‘bilateral’ referring to ties between two states and ‘multilateral’ referring to relationships of more than two states, often within an intergovernmental organisation such as the UN.
Bilaterally, by virtue of their shared past Commonwealth countries maintain strong ties with one another, with every one of the 53 member countries having at the least a high commission* in another Commonwealth country. Commonwealth countries have also established lasting partnerships with other countries in their respective regions and beyond, some of which have resulted in embassies, trade treaties and aid.
Multilaterally, such is the extent of the Commonwealth that not only is its membership involvement evident in various closed and issue-based institutions such as the G8, G20, Security Council, OPEC, OECD and BRICS but also in virtually all regional-based institutions worldwide from ASEAN in Asia to CARICOM in the Caribbean. Naturally, extensive Commonwealth member involvement is found in global organisations such as the UN, WTO and IMF.
* High commission defines an embassy of a Commonwealth country in another.
Bilateral relationships in the Commonwealth
It is impossible to sum up the full extent of bilateral relationships in the Commonwealth. However some characteristics remain apparent such as the continued and evolving existence of Commonwealth, regional, trade and aid links.
Commonwealth countries have bilateral ties with each other founded on strong historical links – in most the common use of the English language, common standards and culture inherited from their colonial past. Today, each Commonwealth country maintains permanent diplomatic ties with at least one other Commonwealth country. There is evidence of these links even in economic matters. Commonwealth countries traded around US$4 trillion worth of goods in 2008. Intra-Commonwealth trade accounts for about one-sixth of total Commonwealth trade, with an average for each member state of around one-third.
Bilateral relations with a neighbouring country often form the most significant part of any country’s forays into the international arena. This is also true for most Commonwealth countries who naturally maintain close political, cultural and economic ties with their neighbouring counterparts, whether they are Commonwealth or not. In the Caribbean, East and Southern Africa, the Pacific and South Asia, Commonwealth membership concentration is very high. This means that Commonwealth countries in these regions are mostly surrounded by other Commonwealth countries – a point which highlights the ties that bind the Commonwealth.
For many Commonwealth countries, many of which are developing, international markets present opportunities for them to trade their way into prosperity. When discounting regional trade links a select list of countries are of importance to Commonwealth countries in matters regarding bilateral trade. These countries will often feature in the top five trading partner lists of Commonwealth countries. They are, in no particular order China, Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
Aid is of strategic importance to most Commonwealth member countries, developed and developing. Aid has helped strengthen bilateral ties along diplomatic, cultural, developmental, humanitarian and commercial lines. Most donor countries channel bilateral aid through an aid agency. The most recognisable aid agencies in Commonwealth countries are AUSAID (Australia), USAID (USA), SIDA (Sweden), DFID (UK), CIDA (Canada), NZAID (New Zealand), DANIDA (Denmark), GTZ (Germany) and JICA (Japan). Other donors not necessarily known through a recognisable aid agency include the EU, the Netherlands, Finland, Norway and China.
Multilateral relationships in the Commonwealth
Multilateralism, with respect to Commonwealth countries, can be divided into four themes*, which are regional, economic (excluding trade), trade and political.
Regionally there are eight groupings of varying significance to Commonwealth member states: the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Southern African Development Community (SADC), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), East African Community (EAC), South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), European Union (EU), Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). SADC, CARICOM, EAC and PIF are almost exclusively Commonwealth in terms of composition. Notably, the EU has its own elected parliament and EU members operate under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights in matters regarding the European Convention on Human Rights. All these regional organisations could be considered geographically as sub-continental – even the EU excludes significant parts of Europe. The continental bodies which are relevant to Commonwealth countries in terms membership are the Council of Europe, the African Union (AU) and the Organization of American States (OAS), which are in any case all the continental bodies in the world.
Politically, a number of organisations have played a major part in the international affairs of Commonwealth countries. They include the UN, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the regional groupings mentioned above and of course the Commonwealth itself. Since the end of the Cold war and the emergence of a new economic order a number of Commonwealth member countries have agglomerated into newer groupings. The G8 which is made up of some eight large economies includes Commonwealth member states UK and Canada. The BRICS which is made up five of the most significant emerging economies includes Commonwealth member states India and South Africa. BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) are also collectively campaigning for permanent seats on the UN Security Council for all their members. Notably, the UK is the only Commonwealth member state on the Security Council.
Along with the regional bodies that have been mentioned, numerous international organisations coordinate widely on economic matters; the most prominent of which are the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. On a continental level, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the African Development Bank (AfDB) are also of measurable importance to developing Commonwealth economies in Asia, the Pacific and Africa. Australia, India, UK, Canada and South Africa are part of the G20 grouping which brings together 20 systemically important industrialised and developing economies which coordinate on the international financial system. There is also the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) which includes in its 21-strong membership seven Commonwealth countries; the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA); the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which includes industrialised members of the Commonwealth; and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) of which Nigeria is the only Commonwealth member. A number of economic forms of multilateralism are institutionally based on monetary unions. The EU has the most prominence worldwide with its common monetary system and currency, the euro, which is used by Commonwealth member states Cyprus and Malta. African state Cameroon is a member of the Coopération financière en Afrique centrale (CFA) which uses the CFA franc as its currency. In the Commonwealth Caribbean, six countries fall under one monetary and currency union administered by the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank: Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, St Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, St Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Virtually all Commonwealth countries are members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) which supervises and liberalises international trade. A number of Commonwealth countries have formed coalitions with other non-Commonwealth countries in the WTO. These coalitions often speak with one voice using a single coordinator or negotiating team. The most active coalitions of relevance to the Commonwealth are the EU, the Cairns Group, the least developed countries group, APEC, G-33 the African Caribbean and Pacific group and the two Small, vulnerable economies (SVEs) groups working on fisheries and non-agricultural market access. Commonwealth countries also exist to an extent within eight regional trading blocs which follow the structure and composition of the regional bodies discussed above. Additionally, Canada is a member of a regional trade organisation which includes non-Commonwealth members Mexico and the United States, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
* These distinctions are not hard and fast but mainly for illustrative purposes.
In November 2007 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kampala leaders agreed that the current architecture of international institutions such as the UN, World Bank and IMF no longer responds adequately to the challenges of the 21st Century. This culminated into the 2008 Marlborough House Statement on Reform of International Institutions. The statement challenges its members to accelerate initiatives to reform the way in which international institutions respond to climate change, security, political, humanitarian and global financial crises. The Statement ends declaring “We intend, individually and collectively, to carry forward our reform agenda to relevant international forums. We will seek to enlarge the breadth of international commitment to our Commonwealth reform agenda, and call on others to join us in this endeavour.”
Commonwealth office at the UN
The Joint Office for Commonwealth Permanent Missions to the United Nations is a base for envoys from eleven Commonwealth countries to work out of and represent their respective states at the United Nations (UN).
Located on 800 2nd Avenue, The Joint Office for Commonwealth Permanent Missions to the United Nations is made up of small countries from Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean. Three Secretariat staff members and representatives from each of the eleven small states share the nineteen thousand square foot office.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when several of the small states in the Pacific and Asia became independent, one of their objectives was to join the UN. Commonwealth countries in those regions suggested a single office for representatives from these small states. This was seen as an alternative to those countries setting up new Missions – representations to inter-governmental agencies – in New York. Therefore, in 1983, Australia provided the initial funding for the Secretariat to establish the New York office.
The benefits to smaller states like Samoa and the Solomon Islands soon attracted other countries. In 1985, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Nassau, Bahamas, Heads of Government requested that the Secretary-General explore the possibility of extending the facility to other Commonwealth small states.
The eleven small states that currently have emissaries working from the New York Office are Dominica, The Gambia, Grenada , Maldives, Nauru, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, The Seychelles, The Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. Read more here