Earlier this month, the secretariats of the Commonwealth and la Francophonie (the French-based equivalent of the Commonwealth) met with G20 representatives in Washington, DC to consult on their respective agendas. A press release was issued in advance of the meeting and interested journalists were invited to contact the Commonwealth office if they wished to attend.
And yet, a Google news search reveals that precisely one follow-up story was written on the outcomes of the dialogue (such as they are). Not even a single disgruntled anti-globalisation activist was incensed enough to launch a derogatory tweet. To paraphrase a certain Irishman, there is only one thing worse than being protested about, and that is not being protested about.
Who's at fault for the lack of interest? The G20? The Commonwealth? La Francophonie? And is there anything we can glean about the relevance of these bodies?
On this occasion I would say the G20 is deserving of little blame. After all, as the body which can bring together all the world's major economic players, the G20's reputation had the least to gain from the engagement. Conversely, while the empire clubs certainly bring together a lot of players, it is not immediately clear what they have in common. You no longer even need to be a former British colony to be a member of the Commonwealth.
I had the pleasure of participating in a Commonwealth Study Conference earlier this month in London, and while the event itself was brilliant, I would attribute this more to having the opportunity to network with 100 globally-engaged individuals rather than being able to tap into a uniquely shared Commonwealth temperament (the most unifying moment may have been a reception held for us at the Commonwealth's epicentre, Buckingham Palace, if only because it reminded us of the conference's challenge to work towards a more equitable society).
If the Commonwealth was prepared to revitalise itself as a straight-up networking community, it has a reasonable case. But how much longer can it really hold on to its claim that 'the potential of and need for the Commonwealth – as a compelling force for good and as an effective network for co-operation and for promoting development – has never been greater'? (emphasis mine). [fold]
Some took Rwanda's admission into the Commonwealth in 2009 as vindication of the forum's vitality, but it is worth noting that Rwanda is always on the lookout for opportunities to embarrass it's former French masters, apparently even if it means swimming away from one sinking ship to join another.
Last year's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka did attract a decent amount of protest and press coverage, but that had much more to do with the host government's 'opaque' human rights record and the bizarre decision to host the meeting in Colombo in the first place. Leaders from Canada, India and the Mauritius boycotted, while David Cameron insisted his attendance was driven by the opportunity to threaten the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa with a UN inquiry, should Sri Lanka continually fail to hold a single person to account for the death of 40,000 civilians in the final days of Sri Lanka's civil war in 2009 (of note, Tony Abbott both attended and donated two Navy surveillance craft to Sri Lanka, and also refused to endorse the eventual UN human rights probe, launched last month). This is all a sad indictment on a forum that played a much more activist role in the 1980s against South African apartheid.
In fact, it appears that the last 'tangible' diplomatic outcome from a CHOGM meeting occurred in Perth in 2011, where Commonwealth leaders granted royal first-born girls equal hereditary rights to those of sons, and lifted the ban on monarchs getting married to Roman Catholics.
The Commonwealth may have a future, but less in state diplomacy than in the worthy but unglamorous objective of breaking down cultural barriers between the citizens of states big and small.