A book launch, a meet and a heritage show
By Bill Kirkman
Three recent events in London highlight the international nature of the world we live in today.
ANCIENT SPLENDOUR: Queen Elizabeth II and China's President Hu Jintao at the exhibition. PHOTO: AFP
EVENTS in which I have been involved in recent days have provided me with a vivid reminder of the international nature of the world in which we now live and have led me to reflect on some of the limitations which constrain international ideals.
Let me take the events first. One was a book launch, at the Nehru Centre in London, over which I had the honour to preside. The book, by Krishnan Srinivasan, a former Foreign Secretary of India, and a former Deputy Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, is about the role and future of the Commonwealth*. The second was a meeting with Wilf and Trish Mbanga, the courageous and enterprising couple who edit and publish The Zimbabwean, a weekly newspaper produced in the United Kingdom because the free gathering and dissemination of news is no longer possible in Zimbabwe. The third event was a visit to the Royal Academy to see a magnificent exhibition whose subject is China's last dynasty, the Qing China The Three Emperors 1662-1795.
The Nehru Centre was a particularly appropriate venue for the book launch, given the crucial role of Jawaharlal Nehru in taking India on independence into the Commonwealth, and making the case for republics in that organisation which had hitherto been a gathering of monarchies owing allegiance to the British Crown. The timing, too, was appropriate, on the eve of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malta. The timing of the Royal Academy exhibition was pegged to the state visit to Britain by the Chinese President, Hu Jintao (and, one might add, President Bush's visit to China which has just taken place.)
These two visits, clearly, are examples of Real politik: China is increasingly a significant economic force in the world, and cannot be ignored. How relations with, and attitudes to, this potential superpower develop, will certainly affect all of us. Efforts to influence the base on which those relations are built are therefore of considerable significance. President Bush's statement that he and the Chinese President had agreed to work together to reduce their trade imbalance, and his call on China to expand social, political and religious freedoms, are important examples of these efforts.
About the role of the Commonwealth I am more of an optimist, and more positive, than Krishnan Srinivasan, but no one, not even the most dedicated optimist, would argue that the Commonwealth is a political or economic power block. The great value of the book in my view lies in the fact that it is well informed controversial certainly, and expressing opinions which many will find uncomfortable, but with an approach which demands serious consideration.
In the United Kingdom, where it has to be said there is great ignorance about the Commonwealth, there has been a tendency over many years to compare it, to its detriment, with the European Union. That misses a crucial point. The European Union (EU) is an economic and political - association. Its weakness, and its proliferation of current problems, derive in large part from the fact that as it has expanded by bringing in new member states it has progressively lost homogeneity. Britain, Belgium and Luxembourg will in reality have more in common with each other, for example, than with Bulgaria and Lithuania.
The Commonwealth, by contrast, is not a political or economic entity and has no pretensions in that direction. Its strengths lie in such things as common language and shared history, and, more important, the fact that it is an organisation with members in all continents, and members from the largest to the smallest members who, certainly, do not exert equal influence, but who enjoy an equal voice. Those strengths are, it is true, not the stuff of Real politik, but in a world in which millions still live in poverty political and economic globalisation is not the only reality worth considering.
For many people in Zimbabwe, to return to my second event, life would be greatly improved if more pressure on President Mugabe to give his people political freedom were exerted internationally. And what better vehicle could there be for the exertion of such pressure than the Commonwealth and not just its African members?
Will it happen? Will the Malta CHOGM breathe more life into the Commonwealth, and stiffen its purpose? It could, if some of the larger and more powerful members (Canada? India? The U.K.?) showed sufficient resolve. If they do not, Mr. Srinivasan's pessimism may well be justified.
The Rise, Decline and Future of the British Commonwealth, Krishnan Srinivasan, Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 1-4039-8715-7
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, U.K.
E-mail him at: email@example.com
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