Commonwealth: a bed of odd-fellows

The Commonwealth heads of government wound up their week-long meeting in New Delhi Tuesday, with a communique long on platitudes, short on proposals, and containing no new initiatives.

''We are not in the business of crisis management,'' a participant remarked wryly.

It is a view no one could challenge, if based only on the group's response to events in Grenada and Cyprus, both members of the Commonwealth.

The United States, which came in for the most vociferous criticism during 10 executive sessions, was ignored almost completely in the final communique.

There was no call for the ''immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces'' in Grenada, due to a last minute drafting hitch. Nor was there any censure of the US for its action or inaction in Namibia (South-West Africa), on which the Commonwealth is in a unique position to bolster new initiatives.

The only rebuke in the 18-page, 10,000-word document concerned Namibia. Using the the oft-repeated word ''consensus'' - signifying the clubbiness and urge to present a united front - the communique merely stated that the hopes that Namibian independence might be imminent ''had been frustrated'' when the US and South Africa insisted on the withdrawal of Cuban troops.

The document gave only scant attention to Grenada, after a heated debate on the subject which consumed nearly five days. Neither was there was any mention of a world monetary conference to redress differences between industrialized nations and the developing world.

''Seeking headlines is not important,'' New Zealand's Robert Muldoon told this reporter Tuesday night. ''But, finding out how you can get a formula for a North-South dialogue surely is. We have no weight in changing a Grenada or a Cyprus, and all this hassle on Grenada wasted valuable time. On the economic issues, I'm not euphoric, but we've made a first, cautious step.''

Muldoon was instrumental in drafting a Commonwealth document proposing steps towards a new economic formula to supercede Bretton Woods, which was presented to the conference, despite the reservations of Britain and Canada, and Australia to a lesser extent.

Perhaps inaction is one reason this unique grouping of nations has survived, defying the odds of pundits who view it as a last vestige of the empire, tattered and torn, yet representing the world's richest and poorest states.

There was a time when all Commonwealth eyes turned to Britain. That is no longer so. And, despite the conference's bland final communique, Margaret Thatcher, was the odd-woman-out.

She was the European leader of a Western nuclear nation - a dedicated capitalist. The Commonwealth, representing 25 percent of humanity, has become more and more of a third-world club, and Mrs. Thatcher was nearly always on the defensive, either arguing those very economic and political policies that she herself holds dear, or attempting to buffet the fury directed at Washington over the ''invasion'' of Grenada, over Namibia, and over cruise missiles in Europe.

But as biting as any, were references nearly every day to the ''insensitivity , and retreat from internationalism to national self-interest'' of the US.

Through Grenada, the US ''has thrown us all to the lions,'' Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda charged, ''making invasion an internationally accepted precedent. South Africa, with impunity, can swarm across our borders, never knocking at the door.''

Unfailingly espousing the third-world cause, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi stood in contrast to Mrs. Thatcher. But a surprise newcomer was Prime Minister Eugenia Charles of Dominica, chairman of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, who was stamped as a formidible political figure, as she presented the views of the minority Caribbean states which went into Grenada under US command.

Prime Minister Charles was also instrumental in gaining acceptance for the creation of a ''Caribbean security force with Commonwealth backing'' to replace US forces when they leave. It was a key victory, accepted most reluctantly by Mrs. Gandhi and a number of other chiefs of government from the nonaligned world due to its implications as a potential harbinger of a Commonwealth military pact or even a security force.

Acknowledging that there were no breakthroughs, one participant said, ''nothing was really solved by the meeting, but then again nothing has come unstuck.''

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