FROM time to time an event occurs that reminds us in our US-centered world that there are other important players on the world scene. The latest concerns South Africa's most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela. Last week he was permitted for the first time -- at least in many years -- to receive a visit of ``eminent persons.'' The persons were not United States officials or even members of the US Congress. They were representatives of the Commonwealth, the unique group of independent nations that has preserved the ties and associations of the British Empire. They came from a diverse group of countries: Britain, Nigeria, Tanzania, India, Barbados, Canada, and Australia.
We in the US have never fully appreciated the Commonwealth. For one thing, this group of countries is hard to describe -- and Americans are not comfortable with imprecision. It includes countries such as Tanzania and India with which we have not always had the easiest of relations. And the United States is not a member.
Our view of relations between a former colony and its former mother country tends to be stereotyped. We are surprised at the close ties that continue to exist.
We can, perhaps, understand this phenomonon better after the recent events in the Philippines, when our ties with that nation turned out to be a source of common strength at a difficult time.
Whatever the differences and even bitterness that may have prevailed during the final days of a colonial struggle, the ties of education, administration, military service, and common allegiance that prevailed for several decades seem to have been the foundation for ties of a different kind in the post-colonial era. The Commonwealth is an example. The French ties to its former colonies in Africa are another. Even the ties of the Portuguese to their former colonies in Africa are being reestablished after the trauma of decolonization.
The conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, clearly had reservations about the stand of some members of the Commonwealth, particularly on the issues of Rhodesia and South Africa, when she came into office. In a remarkable Commonwealth meeting in Lusaka, Zambia, in 1978, her views were changed. She appreciated the opportunity the Commonwealth provided, because of its diverse membership, to play a significant role in the solution of the Rhodesian problem. An independent Zimbabwe emerged after the Lancaster House conference. The United States played a helpful role on the sidelines, but the credit goes to the Commonwealth.
Prime Minister Thatcher is under heavy pressure to agree to sanctions against South Africa, both from Commonwealth members and from groups within Britain. British governments, whether Labour or Conservative, have been most reluctant to take such steps because of the substantial economic relationships between Britain and South Africa. According to reports, Mrs. Thatcher has promised to attend a further Commonwealth meeting in June to hear the report of the group that met with Mr. Mandela and to ``assess the possibilities for peaceful change.''
As Americans wrestle with policy toward South Africa, they should keep in mind the special entree of the Commonwealth as an institution. Its membership in-cludes not only front-line African states such as Tanzania and Zambia, but also significant nonaligned states such as India. The Commonwealth is not burdened with the same polarized East-West confrontation as is the United Nations. A South Africa puzzled over the complexities of a US policy that is, in part, conditioned by domestic contradictions might prefer to deal with the Commonwealth.
The United States will continue to be important in any progress toward greater peace in southern Africa, but, as in the case of the Zimbabwe settlement, it may find that others can exert a greater influence.
Whatever the outcome of this latest effort, it should help Americans realize that there are other highly relevant players on the block: the Commonwealth in southern Africa, France in Chad, and ASEAN in Cambodia. As Americans, we may not always agree fully with the approaches of others, but when they generally parallel our objectives in a region, we should be prepared to stand aside and applaud.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.