At the CBC, Janet Davison, noted the “longstanding debate and questions over the role and relevance of the organization” without coming to any strong conclusions.
The article on Open Canada, by community advocate Spencer van Vloten, called for Ottawa to abandon the club altogether.
Van Vloten argues that even as the Commonwealth claims to be dedicated to promoting “equality, diversity, and shared values,” it includes as members a number of states well-known for their human rights abuses.
Canada gains little economically from the association, most of which is with Great Britain anyways.
As for our historical Commonwealth ties, Canadians are growing increasingly detached from the monarchy, and contemporary Canadian values are “at odds with a system of hereditary privilege” that forms its basis.
The article concludes as follows:
“When it comes to the Commonwealth, the tens of millions of dollars* Canada contributes each year to keep this ineffective, increasingly irrelevant club afloat could instead be spent improving the lives of Canadians in a time of great need.”
[*Canada actually contributes just over $10 million per year, hardly a negligible amount of money, but much less than “tens of millions.”]
It seems to me that there are at least three strong reasons to reject van Vloten’s argument, each of which speaks to the importance of understanding the role of diplomacy in contemporary Canadian statecraft.
First, and most important, the Commonwealth offers Ottawa a significant (54-country) venue for international negotiations that does not include the United States.
Put more practically, the Commonwealth’s biannual heads of government meeting provides Canadian prime ministers with a regularized opportunity to meet with their UK, Australia, and New Zealand counterparts (the other non-American Five Eyes members) without drawing potentially embarrassing attention to Washington’s exclusion.
Canadian prime ministers gain similarly privileged, unimpeded access to the heads of government of India, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, and Singapore, among others.
Second, at the operational level, Commonwealth membership provides Ottawa with regular access to nearly all of CARICOM, some of the fastest-growing countries in Africa, as well as a majority of the world’s small-island developing states.
In these latter cases, Canada’s status as the second-largest Commonwealth donor (along with its close relationship to the United States) makes it a country to which many of these smaller states will gravitate.
Such gravitation is what I suspect (and hope?) Foreign Minister Joly meant last week when she heralded Canada’s convening power: the depth and scope of our diplomatic network enables Canadian officials to assemble diverse groups of states with otherwise divergent interests on behalf of allies whose Rolodexes might be leaner.
Such convening power increases our international relevance, and occasionally allows Ottawa to shape the broader global diplomatic agenda in line with the national interest.
Finally, I wonder whether van Vloten has underestimated the strategic implications of a Canadian decision to unilaterally exit the Commonwealth.
Were the organization to lose its second largest donor, if it were to survive at all, it would be a shell of its former self, and Canada would be to blame.
Such negative international attention would be particularly harmful to a country whose interests are best promoted and protected in a multilateral system of rules and laws.
Once we make our own commitment to international organization conditional (and based solely on an overly rigid conception of 'what's in it for us'), we compromise our ability to criticize others for doing the same.
In sum, the practice of diplomacy in the modern era is significantly more complicated than a simple quantification of the measurable benefits and drawbacks of membership in an international organization.
For a country like Canada, that typically lacks the resources to effect drastic change in bilateral negotiations with the more powerful states, venues that allow for relationship-building with some of the international community’s smaller members – outside of the American shadow – should be welcomed, not nickel-and-dimed.
On the history of Canadian multilateralism, see the third edition of Tom Keating’s, Canada and World Order: The Multilateralist Tradition in Canadian Foreign Policy.
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