The Commonwealth of Nations is a paradox in many ways. Nominally, for instance, this association of Great Britain and 48 of its former colonies or dependencies, is powerless.
Yet it exerts a considerable influence, usually constructive, on world affairs. Its diplomats -- black, white, brown, and every shade in between -- gather before many important international meetings to discuss the issues and sometimes adopt informal positions.
But it didn't always function this way.
From the 1600s to the early 1900s, Britain and its colonies were generally designated the ``British Empire.'' Then the less imperial title, ``British Commonwealth of Nations,'' was gradually substituted. In 1949, when India and Pakistan became independent, the term ``Commonwealth of Nations'' was adopted.
Today's Commonwealth, says Secretary-General Sir Shridath S. Ramphal, is the only international institution where a genuine dialogue continues between the well-to-do industrial nations and the developing countries (see accompanying interview).
A Canadian diplomat describes the Commonwealth as ``a bridge'' across vast differences of race, wealth, and cultures.
The British monarch is the symbol of the Commonwealth's unity and acknowledged as its ``head.'' Yet many Commonwealth members are republics that do not give allegiance to the British Queen.
The Commonwealth has no formal or written constitution. When the heads of the 49 Commonwealth nations meet every two years, they never vote on an issue, nor do they pass resolutions. Says Sir Shridath: ``Everything must be done by agreement, acquiescence, sometimes consensus.''
Meetings of the Commonwealth receive considerable attention in the press of member nations but the news media are not allowed to attend. Heads of government meet ``in camera'' with only two advisers per prime minister or president.
A few Commonwealth member nations had to fight for their independence from Great Britain. Yet today they and the other members who obtained nationhood more peacefully are generally bound together by common ideals and interests and a shared history and political heritage.
Today the Commonwealth embraces a third of the world's nations, roughly one-fifth of the land surface of the earth, and a total population of around 1.2 billion, or one-fourth of the human race. Its peoples belong to all the major races of mankind. They speak hundreds of different languages and dialects. Some live in extreme poverty, some in great wealth.
Their governments, too, are varied. Many are parliamentary democracies, most with two-chamber legislatures. In a great majority of member nations the rule of law prevails. But a few are authoritarian (e.g., Uganda, Ghana, and Zambia). Some members have governors-general who are representatives of the Queen. A small number have their own monarchies (Lesotho, Malaysia, Swaziland, and Tonga). Others are republics. Several are federal states (e.g., Canada, India, Malaysia, and Australia). Oth ers are unitary states (e.g., Britain and New Zealand). Sir Shridath holds that the Commonwealth achieves some of its strength from the enormous variety in its members.
The Secretariat of the Commonwealth marks its 20th anniversary this year. Its staff of under 400 is headquartered in Marlborough House, the former home of Queen Mary. The staff come from a sizeable number of member nations. One of Ramphal's deputies is from Nigeria; the second is British. One assistant is Indian, another Canadian. The Secretariat has a budget of merely about $6.5 million.
One task of the Commonwealth's Secretariat is to manage a small fund (around $25 million) for technical assistance. It supports experts helping out in developing member nations and sponsors training programs for 1,500 to 2,000 managers and technicians each year. Most of the experts come from other developing countries rather than the industrial member nations.
The Secretariat also organizes the Commonwealth meetings of government officials and encourages through a foundation the activities of around 300 other Commonwealth organizations.
``Relations of Commonwealth countries go back many years,'' says Sir Shridath. ``Out of that shared experience . . . a common colonial status, have come quite spontaneously a whole range of unofficial contacts, networks, [and] collaborations, within the Commonwealth.''
When Britain entered the European Community, many opponents charged that it would thus be turning its back on the Commonwealth.
But Sir Shridath says that perception was unfortunate and inaccurate.
He says that the Queen has helped in this regard ``because of the tremendous amount of enthusiasm that she has demonstrated for the idea of a modern commonwealth and the respect and esteem in which she is held by Commonwealth leaders.''
Queen Elizabeth II has also commanded ``tremendous affection and popular acclaim'' in visits to India and to several African nations, Sir Shridath says.
Because the Commonwealth's membership includes a large majority of poor countries, much of its attention is devoted to economic development.
The secretary-general says the International Monetary Fund is too tough in the conditions it imposes on developing countries when they seek loans when in balance-of-payments trouble.
Similarly, he holds that the World Bank should have more resources to make development loans to poor countries.