What is the Point of the Commonwealth? A Classical Realist perspective

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As a second year student of Politics and International Relations (IR) the first thing that sprung to my mind when asked to pen an article on the Commonwealth was what the dominant theory of IR would make of such an institution? Indeed seeing as the Commonwealth is not particularly viewed as being an important part of the International Realm would they see any point in such an institution or Britain’s membership of it at all? To investigate this therefore it is neccssary to look at the Commonwealth thorough the scope of the dominant theory in IR, Political Realism. However first we must establish exactly what political realism is and how it views the international system.

Realism is a theory of IR that was the dominant paradigm of the field for the vast majority of the 20th century. However many realists scholars argue that its pedigree can be traced back to philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and Niccolò Machiavelli. Indeed it is commonly asserted by realists that the first realist was Thucydides, the 4th century BCE historian, who wrote what many realists see as their foundational text, ‘The History of the Peloponnesian War’.  However Realism in IR can perhaps best be summed up by the six points of one of its key 20th century thinkers, Hans J. Morgenthau. Morgenthau laid out the ‘Six Principles of Political Realism’ in the 1st chapter of his book ‘Politics among Nations’? These six are: that “politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature… [Which] “has not changed since the classical philosophies of China, India, and Greece” and hence a rational theory that identifies these objective laws is necessary.

Secondly, international politics has at its heart the concept of “interest defined in power” and that “statesmen think and act in terms of interest defined in power”. Thirdly, “interest defined as power is an objective category which is universally valid”, though the nature of these interests can change, interest defined as power is a constant.  Fourth, the state cannot risk its survival via the pursuit of ideals it considers to be moral. Fifth, “Political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe” that is to say, that nations, should not act according to what they consider to be morally or theologically right in the international arena but in terms of their interests defined as power.  Finally, politics is a separate intellectual sphere from other spheres such as law and morality and thus should be studied, according to its own rules, that is to say interest defined as power.

What then would Realism make of the Commonwealth, an institution comprising fifty-three states across five continents? To establish this we must first look at exactly what type of organisation the Commonwealth is exactly. It is not a military alliance like NATO, nor is a legally binding organisation of states who attempt to pass international laws like the UN. Rather it is an organisation of countries from the former British Empire that, to quote the Commonwealth Charter, have a   “ inheritance in language, culture and the rule of law; and [are] bound together by shared history and tradition; by respect for all states and peoples; by shared values and principles and by concern for the vulnerable”. Therefore Realism would see little point in an institution such as the Commonwealth. The institution actively pursues the moralistic goals of democracy promotion and human rights and indeed states in its charter that it seeks not only to promote democracy and human rights but also to advance and protect the interests of small states.

This last point is anathema to Political Realism. The reason that Political Realism would find fault with the undeniably noble goals of the Commonwealth is that it would see these goals as irrational and foolish in a uncertain and anarchic International Realm. Any state that is part of this institution should in theory pursue the moralistic goals of democracy promotion and human rights above state interests that may collide with these. For Realism no state has the right to make moralistic decisions that could adversely impact it’s populace if these decisions endanger vital state interests, however this, to Realists, would be exactly what the Commonwealth asks of its members. The Second objective of the Commonwealth, the promotion of Small States and their interests and assistance to Small States, is even more foolish in the eyes of Realism. Realists argue that all states must depend on what they call self-help. This essentially means that in the anarchic international system no state can trust another state fully and therefore should not depend on them, conversely no state should build up another state that could in future become a dangerous enemy. Therefore, for Realists, the Commonwealth would appear to be the very pinnacle of foolishness, not only does it place moralistic goals above states national interests, it leads states to become dependent on, or build up the resources of, potential future enemies.

In conclusion I would like to state that the Realist position is not my personal view of the world, or the Commonwealth for that matter. However the purpose of this article was merely to give a view on what the dominant theory of IR, Political Realism, would have to say on the matter. Once again and in short therefore, Realism would view the Commonwealth as foolhardy enterprise as it puts moralistic concerns over individual state’s interests and encourages dependency and the build-up of possible enemies.


Written by Jack Agnew, Edited by Sam Toombs


The Commonwealth Official Website at: http://thecommonwealth.org/

Morgenthau, H.J., Politics Among Nations, (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1985)