THE Commonwealth has always been somewhat of a mystery to those outside it; today it seems also to puzzle a great many who are within. What is the point of an association, ask right-wing conservatives, which shares no common allegiance to the Crown? How can the Commonwealth have cohesion, demand left-wing liberals, without common ideals, openly professed? Both groups, for different reasons, tend to interpret the recent Prime Ministers' Conference as the smile on the face of the Cheshire cat, lingering long after the Commonwealth has ceased to have significance to its own members or to the international community.

Yet those closely in touch with the Commonwealth as a whole and with the meetings of last July in London believe the conference to have been eminently worthwhile. As another in a long series of exchanges between the working heads of far scattered but specially associated states, it provided neither a change nor a climax, but simply the most obvious expression of that continuous process of consultation which is the chief distinction of the Commonwealth, and its strongest bond. Yet it is not without reason that in the British press in mid-1956 there was unusually extensive discussion of the nature and future of the Commonwealth.

The major change which the Commonwealth has undergone so far in its long history resulted from the decision of India, Pakistan and Ceylon to combine independence after World War II with membership in the Commonwealth. As a result, an association predominantly British became essentially multi-racial in character, with its Asian people far outnumbering those of Anglo-Saxon, or indeed of European, descent. Within the next few years the Commonwealth will be asked to admit other new members: the Gold Coast, the Malayan Federation, the Caribbean Federation when it is consummated, the Federation of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland when its present direct British safeguards of native interests come to an end, and probably Nigeria. These new members, when they are admitted, will further weaken the British character of the Commonwealth. Still more important, these new states (except for Southern Rhodesia, only a part of the Central African Federation) lack the experience of parliamentary institutions and, even more crucial, of administrative efficiency and integrity which had been so well planted in the Indian subcontinent and Ceylon. Thus their independence and their Commonwealth membership will be, in a sense, more of a gamble than was true of the Asian dominions.

Quite apart from the prospect of new members is the extraordinary variety of backgrounds, aspirations and policies already represented in the Commonwealth. Each Commonwealth country has its distinctive reasons for continuing within the association; each hopes for something different from it. Each is viewed in different lights by its fellow Commonwealth members.

To the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth is an important, perhaps even a vital element in maintaining itself as a major international force. The vast network of Commonwealth communications is still centered firmly in London. Despite the professed intention after World War II of building more direct links between the overseas members of the Commonwealth, these are still slight compared to the channels that each maintains with the United Kingdom. Their exchanges of written information and views are made particularly meaningful through constant personal contacts both in the Commonwealth Relations Office and other ministries in London, and in foreign and Commonwealth capitals, as well as at international gatherings.

The presence in the Commonwealth of the Asian members, particularly India, is of major significance to the British in this elaborate network of exchanges. By virtue of its numbers India is potentially a Great Power; it is by far the largest of the so-called uncommitted countries in Asia. Pandit Nehru's obvious regard both for the United Kingdom and for the Commonwealth relationship (expressed most eloquently in his speech at the Mansion House of the City of London, July 3, 1956) may not often have resulted in a common view on policy or on military necessities, but it has produced frank interchanges not unlike those which have long distinguished the relations of the older members of the Commonwealth. The United Kingdom has no need to worry about the closeness of its contacts with Canada, Australia and New Zealand since they exhibit a common approach to most problems, implicit confidence in each other, and extraordinary frankness. But it has been a major satisfaction that so much of the same relationship has been established with the Asian Commonwealth members, including India. Perhaps one of the ways in which British policy is most sharply distinguished from American is that the British are more patient in awaiting results. They do not seek commitments, at least within the Commonwealth. They have the patience--often well justified in the long run--to trust that the cross-fertilization of intimate exchanges produces both understanding and influence.

Of all the older members of the Commonwealth overseas, it is Canada which best understands and agrees with British policy in this regard. Economic growth, geographical position and willingness to assume international responsibilities have combined to make Canada one of the three most important countries within the Commonwealth today. Not only significant for Canada itself but equally for the Commonwealth has been the way in which Canada has developed its own distinctive relations with South Asia, and particularly with India. Before World War II, Canada virtually ignored Asia and the Far East despite its Pacific seaboard. But its participation in the Korean War, its active share in the Colombo Plan and, perhaps even more, its willingness to act, along with India, on the Control Commission for Indochina bear witness to its postwar acceptance of responsibilities in that area. As a corollary, Asian participation in the Commonwealth makes that association particularly attractive now to Canadian leaders, eager as they are to understand Asian points of view and to work with the new democratic states of that continent.

Australia, on the other hand, has established less close links with the Asian Commonwealth members, especially India, and views their membership in the Commonwealth with a somewhat less sympathetic eye. Australia, it is true, has contributed generously to the Colombo Plan and takes an important share in training Asians in its institutions. But Mr. Menzies has none of the close personal contact with Pandit Nehru of Mr. St. Laurent, or of Mr. Mackenzie King before him. The Australian Government has long been impatient with the Indian policy of aloofness; it is distressed at the growing republicanism which has caused Pakistan and Ceylon to join India in accepting the Crown only as the symbol of the unity of the Commonwealth as a whole. But perhaps a still more fundamental source of irritation is the awareness that for all of Australia's ties of blood relationship to the United Kingdom, Australia has no deciding influence on British policies. There is even a suspicion that India's size may give its words a greater weight than those of the far more loyal Antipodes.

While Canada has extended its international responsibilities to Asia, Australia has narrowed its sphere of action. Particularly since the British have withdrawn their troops from Suez, Australia has no particular responsibilities for the sea route through the Middle East. But within the area for which it has major concern, Australia has assumed new obligations. Thus Australia now has troops in Malaya, though not a great many. Realizing with regret that British power is relatively weak in the Far East, Australia has put an emphasis on SEATO equalled only by that of the United States. ANZUS it sees chiefly important as a consultative mechanism. Here, as elsewhere, the Menzies Government seeks to serve as a bridge between the United Kingdom, to which it is tied by indissoluble bonds of kinship, and the United States, with which it shares strategic interest and a common reaction to the threat of Communism.

Slightly though not essentially dissimilar is the approach of New Zealand. Perhaps more realistically than Australia, New Zealand sees the weaknesses of SEATO and does not share the Australian desire to emphasize its military function. New Zealand shares more nearly the United Kingdom view that Communist encroachment can best be thwarted by building up the Asian countries themselves rather than by military alliances. Like Australia, New Zealand has withdrawn from formal Middle East commitments; like that country it has troops in Malaya. Rather less than Australia does New Zealand see itself as a bridge between the United Kingdom and the United States in the Southwest Pacific but this is partly because it recognizes its own lack of strength. Toward the Crown, its attitude is also perhaps more realistic though essentially similar to that of Australia. Where Mr. Menzies was obviously chagrined at the last Commonwealth Conference over the determination of Pakistan and Ceylon to become republics, New Zealand quietly accepted their decisions as inevitable; immediately thereafter, however, Mr. Holland reaffirmed New Zealand's own loyalty to the monarchy by asking the Queen for permission to add the Crown to New Zealand's official coat of arms.

To the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, a Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference is commonly a source of strength. For South Africa, with its Afrikaner majority and its own republican aspirations, this is far from being the case. Yet the Commonwealth is not unimportant for South Africa. British territories flank it on the north; British sea power is still important to the Cape. Moreover, the Commonwealth remains the one international organization in which South Africa is still welcome; its membership therein, too, has been a major reason why the older Commonwealth countries have been reluctant to join in the chorus of censure levied at South Africa in the United Nations over its policies towards South West Africa, the Indians in South Africa and apartheid. The Commonwealth functions by disregarding the issues which divide its members: thus such matters never come up in its general sessions any more than does the Indian-Pakistani conflict over Kashmir, or the future of the High Commission Territories.

On the eve of the Prime Ministers' Conference, Father Trevor Huddleston, whose book, "Naught For Your Comfort," has awakened wide emotional sympathy in Great Britain for the native peoples of South Africa, called openly in the press for that country's expulsion from the Commonwealth on the ground that its racial policies impede good relations with other African states. But there is no disposition among the older Commonwealth members to take so drastic a step. They believe that to keep South Africa within the Commonwealth circle may help to relieve the sense of isolation which intensifies Nationalist fears, and hardens its racial policies. They realize that South Africa dropped from the Commonwealth might well absorb the High Commission Territories--Basutoland, Swaziland and Bechuanaland--for whose cession South Africa presses periodically but with marked restraint. Even the Asian members, bitter as they are at South African racial policies, found that country reasonable in its international views at the Prime Ministers' Conference, and they particularly welcomed Mr. Strijdom's implicit assurance that South Africa will not try to blackball the Gold Coast when it applies for membership.

Most interesting of all, perhaps, is the attitude of India to Commonwealth membership. In 1949, when India opted to remain in the Commonwealth despite its decision to become a republic (and was accepted as such by the rest of the Commonwealth), it was largely because of its leaders' sense of common heritage with Great Britain, reflected most obviously in similar parliamentary institutions, the common law and a respect for justice, religious toleration, and British liberal and educational traditions. In the years since then, the association has grown still more meaningful for Pandit Nehru and some of his closest associates. To these Indian leaders, Britain's very lack of its former international power has its advantages, for in their view it opens the way for Britain to exercise a moral leadership in international affairs.

Though Americans seldom realize the fact, India's leaders are not unrealistic in their view of world politics. They recognize the threat of Communism and have taken drastic measures within their own country to meet it. Externally, however, they prefer to believe the best of the Soviet Union, and feel that this attitude has fostered "the new look" in Soviet policy. They fully understand the intimacy of the relationship between Great Britain and the United States. But they are impatient (often unfairly) at what they consider too slavish a following of the American lead.

There is no doubt that Indian leaders would like to see the Commonwealth act as a third force, uncommitted to either of the super-Powers and thus, in their views, able to influence both the United States and the Soviet Union through its response to particular situations. This is not thought of as neutralism in the classic sense of the word but as independence of action. That Indian leaders cherish and foster their own free institutions seems to them sufficient evidence of their tacit commitment to the free world. But while they resist formal commitments for themselves, Indian leaders recognize the importance of NATO for Great Britain, and their objection to regional military pacts seems not to extend to that alliance; they are more aware of Great Britain's vital need for bases like Cyprus and Singapore than most outsiders could imagine. In the Middle East, their attitude is less sympathetic and their opposition to the Baghdad Pact is perhaps a final deathblow to a weakly founded organization. Unwelcome as this is, the British believe that a violent crisis in the Middle East would force India to an awareness of its own stake in the stability of that area. Thus British and Indian leaders both have faith in each others' ultimate good intentions and good sense.

Paradoxically, Pakistan feels particularly close to the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth and particularly irritated by them. It has been a bitter disappointment to the Pakistanis that Commonwealth members have not openly supported them in the Kashmir dispute though they know there is much sympathy for them within its ranks. Australia, for example, is definitely pro-Pakistan in contrast to its lukewarm attitude to India, partly because Australia has several close ties of a personal nature with Pakistan, partly because the forthright Pakistani attitude to Communist expansion strikes a sympathetic note. Pakistan is also in the somewhat anomalous position in which Australia now finds itself: bound by personal ties to the United Kingdom and yet less influential than it might have expected in view of its size (after all, Pakistan is the second most populous country in the Commonwealth) and the unequivocal support it gives to Western defense plans like the Baghdad Pact. Yet for all the exasperation that this causes, there is a sense of balance among present Pakistani leaders which makes them aware of the advantages of Commonwealth friendship and also of restraining themselves in the highly sensitive issue of Kashmir.

As for Ceylon, the recent agitation about air facilities and the naval base at Trincomalee has been settled with mutual satisfaction after a tense period following Premier Bandaraneike's accession to office. The base becomes formally Ceylonese; the British are to be granted facilities. Easing the situation for the British is their relief at being freed from the expense of maintaining the base, plus the belief of British military leaders that Trincomalee is not vital to their strategy in the sense that Singapore is. Above all, Mr. Bandaraneike proved conciliatory and this is appreciated. It is felt, too, that he is more closely in touch with the sentiment of his country than was his predecessor. Because of this, because the issue of Trincomalee should be seen in the perspective of the continuing mutual defense arrangement between the United Kingdom and Ceylon which was entered into when the latter became independent, because Ceylon has no background of bitterness against the British such as had developed in India before its independence, and because it feels strongly the need of friends, Ceylon cherishes its Commonwealth membership and is warmly welcomed within that group.

Important and heartening to all three Asian members is the Commonwealth-inspired Colombo Plan for economic development, technical assistance and training. The amount of aid now being provided may not seem outstanding compared to American programs, but the Colombo Plan has certain definite advantages on its side. The Asian countries particularly appreciate participating as members of the program rather than having aid bestowed upon them; because of this feature, Colombo Plan aid ranks with United Nations technical assistance as the most acceptable of all economic aid. They appreciate the orientation of the program towards self-help. But above all the leaders in the Asian Commonwealth recognize that economic development is essential if their régimes are to maintain themselves against the appeals of Communism. Thus Ceylon puts economic aid highest among its Commonwealth benefits. Indian and Pakistani leaders also recognize that only if outside aid enables them to meet the demands of their people for more adequate standards of living can they maintain either their own political positions or the free institutions they are attempting to operate. To its Asian members, then, the Commonwealth means not only a friendly international group within which they can express themselves freely, but also a source of economic aid of significance in their development.

Here, too, the network of financial relations involved in the sterling area plays an important rôle. The fact that India, Pakistan and Ceylon had accumulated huge sterling balances during the war helped to reëstablish the lines of trade with the United Kingdom. The continuing position of Great Britain as the banker of the sterling area, within which the British pound is freely exchangeable as a common international currency, occasionally produces its own irritations but it also constitutes another level of consultation and mutual dependence.

Still the British are far from happy about the present position of the sterling area and particularly about their own inability to provide sufficient capital for the borrowers from within that area. The sterling area includes one quarter of the world's population, and one quarter of the world's trade, but since the war its financial strength has depended all too heavily on American grants and on earnings from the colonies. It is far from sure, moreover, that increasing British production and the anti-inflationary exhortations of the Eden government can produce the financial stability and economic health which will enable the United Kingdom to play the central rôle in the sterling area comparable to that of the United States in the dollar area. In the long run, failure to recover this rôle will seriously weaken the United Kingdom and perhaps the Commonwealth. At the same time it is less true to say that the Commonwealth is bolstered up by the Commonwealth than that the sterling area is the financial expression of the confidence felt by Commonwealth members in each other. So long as this confidence remains (and there is no obvious sign of it weakening) the sterling area--like the Commonwealth--has a powerful underpinning.

As has been all too obvious in recent years, close economic and financial relations with the Asian Commonwealth members are not duplicated in the field of defense. Neither India nor Ceylon has ever shared in the exchange of defense information and planning which form so important a part of United Kingdom communications with the older members of the Commonwealth. Yet there is a growing understanding, as already suggested, that the maintenance of bases is imperative for Great Britain today. Little was more striking in the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference than the open mind with which India, and indeed all the overseas Commonwealth countries, approached the delicate issues of Cyprus and Singapore.

On the former question, it was significant that Pakistan's impressive Prime Minister, Mohammed Ali, could present so authoritatively the Turkish point of view. He may even, somewhat slyly, have indicated the difficulties of a plebiscite in so complicated a multi-racial situation as Cyprus, since Nehru resists such a solution for Kashmir. In any case, Nehru may feel less strongly about European than about African or Asian colonies. Perhaps the obvious concern of all Commonwealth members over a tragic situation was reassurance enough.

Hardly less anxious is the situation in Singapore, the only base in the Far East which the British believe essential to their international position. In the long run it may be untenable to keep Malaya and Singapore separate but temporarily the stable Malayan Government of Chief Minister Tungku Abdul Rahman, whose elected ministry has an overwhelming majority of seats in the Assembly, contrasts so sharply with the extreme political instability in Singapore that the Federation seems well justified in its desire first to secure self-government for itself, as has been promised by August 1957, and then to consider what terms of fusion there might be. Complicating that settlement is the fact that Singapore's 900,000 Chinese added to the 2,250,000 in the Federation would give the Chinese a slight majority over the Malays. Moreover, Chinese business acumen and industriousness might by themselves give the Chinese a predominant influence even if a type of weighted franchise could be devised. Most serious of all, the Chinese, whether long domiciled in the Malayan peninsula or recently arrived immigrants, have a strong ethnic tie with mainland China and, regardless of their ideological sympathies, a strong feeling of pride in its growing importance. Both to the leaders of the Malayan Federation and to the British, therefore, it seems better to defer the issue of the ultimate relationship between Malaya and Singapore. Even Nehru seems to have exerted no pressure to come to an arrangement quickly. In the meantime, the British are negotiating a defense treaty with the Malayan Federation comparable to the agreement which the United States has with the Philippines.

The British are less worried than most outside observers about the breakdown of negotiations with Singapore's mercurial former Chief Minister, David Marshall, the more so since that breakdown created little if any reaction in Singapore itself. Next spring, in fact, they expect to negotiate with the new Chief Minister, Lim Yew Hock, an agreement essentially similar to that which Marshall rejected in the spring of 1956. If the negotiations succeed, internal security will be left in British hands but a further step will have been taken on the road toward Singapore's self-government.

In yielding thus far to the urge for self-determination while retaining control of the vital spheres of external defense and internal security, the British are taking a calculated risk in Singapore which may well succeed. For all their pride in China's new and growing importance, many of the Chinese in Singapore fear, scarcely less than Malays, the ultimate absorption of Malaya into the Chinese orbit. Thus in practice there is much "fence-sitting" by the more moderate Chinese in Singapore on whose ultimate willingness and ability to work with the Malays the stability of a self-governing Malaya depends. Since it is from Singapore rather than the Federation that the pressure for integration comes, the latter will have the greater influence over both the terms and timing of closer association. In the meantime, the Federation endorses the retention of British (including Australian and New Zealand) forces on the peninsula, though it prefers them to be in Singapore rather than over the Causeway.

What is clear, however, is that strategic planning today is a regional matter. The British string of bases from Gibraltar to Singapore falls into three, if not four, regions: the Atlantic-Mediterranean sphere of NATO, the Middle East, the Western Indian Ocean and the Southwest Pacific. No longer can British naval strength tie these far-flung bases into a strategic unity backed ultimately by Commonwealth solidarity. Nowhere is it more obvious that Commonwealth interests are tied inextricably to those of the United States, and vice versa.

But if this is so, does the Commonwealth retain any particular significance today either to its own members or to others? The attitudes, aspirations and interests of its associated states are extraordinarily diverse, as we have seen, particularly since they include the Asian members. Geography makes its own imperatives in different ways upon all Commonwealth members, as do the differences in their stages of social and economic development. Can such a widely varying group have any true cohesion? If so, on what can it be founded?

These are the questions which, as already suggested, gave rise to an unwonted degree of discussion in the British press previous to and during the Prime Ministers' Conference--a discussion set off, interestingly enough, by Prime Minister Menzies in two articles in The Times (June 11 and 12, 1956), and through two articles in the Manchester Guardian (June 18 and 19, 1956) by the Indian publicist and diplomat, K. M. Panikkar. Both sought in different ways to find a new and, to them, firmer basis of unity for the Commonwealth: Mr. Panikkar in an accentuation of common ideals, high among which he put racial equality and an agreement not to use war as a means of settling disputes between Commonwealth countries; and Mr. Menzies in common interests, since, as he rather sadly indicated, the Commonwealth has ceased to be a "Crown Commonwealth" and become more of a functional organization.

But does the Commonwealth, in fact, need to be pushed in one direction or another? Does it not already possess these characteristics and is not its very diversity among its greatest strengths? The Commonwealth is a unique association, of course, arising out of history and the evolution to independence of former colonies of the British Empire. But the techniques and practices by which the Commonwealth holds together have had remarkable success; moreover, they are exportable. They consist basically of the willingness to have frank and free exchanges before taking decisions. The commitment this involves is not to a particular course of action but to a thorough exploration of the facts of the case and of the different points of view held by a wide range of countries. The Commonwealth has demonstrated that it can become a multi-racial association and still function constructively through the same means. Since it has become multi-racial, and is soon to be still more so, the Commonwealth has become a much more significant pattern for other international associations than when it was predominantly British, for it demonstrates how much this practice of prior consultation appeals to peoples of different backgrounds and interests.

What does all this mean to the United States? It means that on many counts the Commonwealth remains an important international association with bonds that are tough despite their lack of written form. It is an important bridge between West and East. It holds together not only well-established mature states like Canada and Australia with their own traditional relationship to the United Kingdom but also more insecure states like South Africa, Pakistan and Ceylon, and the great apparently uncommitted state of India.

What can the Commonwealth actually accomplish? Relatively little, perhaps, with its own resources but potentially much in the way of influence. The Commonwealth rejects the notion of being a closed group, of even aiming at self-sufficiency. Its objective is to secure mutual information, the opening of minds and the better understanding of issues. Such a process provides its own restraints. One of the most significant aspects of the Prime Ministers' Conference in July was the decision not to push for the admission of Communist China to the United Nations. Every Commonwealth country including South Africa, which has an obvious and special fear of Communism, agreed that it was realistic and useful to have Communist China in the United Nations. At the same time, Pandit Nehru bowed to the reasoned views of Mr. St. Laurent and Mr. Menzies that to take such a stand at that time would be unfortunate because of the impending Presidential elections in the United States. In so yielding, Mr. Nehru responded to a major convention of the Commonwealth: that no member should try to force its will upon others if they cannot be convinced by information and by logic. If the Commonwealth thrives because of prior consultation, it does so also because of the self-restraint of its members, and their consideration for each other. Because of this, even its most sensitive members are freed from the fear of being pressured along distasteful ways, and the way is open for reasonable influences to operate.

If the Commonwealth is then a stabilizing and unifying force, could the United States do more to reinforce it? Much in this regard has already been done by the United States since the war, as the older Commonwealth countries would be the first to acknowledge. American economic aid underwrote British recovery, though the vital factor there was the sacrifice and discipline the British people imposed on themselves in the effort to reëstablish their country as an international force. American funds now aid the Colombo Plan. American strategic planning is commonly, though not always, closely geared with that of the United Kingdom and, in appropriate areas, with that of other members of the Commonwealth.

But if there were more prior consultation with Commonwealth members, this would not only strengthen them but also make American policy more understandable to them and often more acceptable. Perhaps above all, more American forbearance and understanding of India would help to strengthen the Commonwealth. Between India and the United States has grown up mutual suspicion of each other's motives which complicates not only their relations but also the much closer ones between India and Great Britain. Both now, and as the Commonwealth moves towards its next expansion, in which it will include African and West Indian as well as Asian members, that association can best perform its significant rôle of mutual education and restraint if it has the understanding and support of the United States. And this in turn might well rest on the recognition that there is only one essential qualification for membership in the Commonwealth --adherence to democratic institutions and objectives--and that this, of itself, provides an ultimate commitment to the free world.

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  • GWENDOLEN M. CARTER, Professor of Government, Smith College; author of "The British Commonwealth and International Secuity"
  • More By Gwendolen M. Carter