As the era of uncontested American hegemony draws to a close, the world looks set to return to a state of multipolarity. As centres of power shift, nations will have to ask themselves questions about their future direction, and how they intend play the game of international politics with this new rule book. The main question the Commonwealth will have to answer is whether it is robust enough to withstand the strain of emerging great power competition.
For Britain, this dilemma has never been more pressing; the UK lacks a clear foreign policy direction for the first time since the 1600s. This weakness can be reformulated as an opportunity to remodel, breathing new life into an often-under-appreciated Commonwealth in the wake of our EU exit. The starting point for a renewed Commonwealth effort must be much closer cooperation between Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK; for lack of a better word, the original Anglosphere spine around which the Commonwealth was built. This grouping is often referred to as the Anglosphere, Anglo-Commonwealth, or by their acronym, CANZUK. In the emerging multipolar world, the idea of a more united Anglosphere within the Commonwealth is seductive - but how can it be realised? First, some theoretical context.
It is impossible to ignore the arrival of China on the global scene, but it is not the only new arrival. Arriving with China and other insurgent global players is the idea of the ‘Civilisation State’ (Weiwei, 2012). This concept refers to states which are a civilisation unto themselves, a departure from the idea of the ‘nation state’ upon which the modern international order was built. The idea of the monoethnic or monocultural nation, born out of the European treaty of Westphalia, cannot be accurately applied to many of the leading nations of tomorrow.
But what is the relevance of this? It is twofold. Firstly, under the existing Western – more specifically American – system, the concept of nations and a peoples’ right to self-determination have been enshrined into international law. Every state thus attempted to present itself as a nation state. With the increasing strength of some of the world’s leading ‘civilisation states’, there must be a reconsideration about how the international system functions. We must be willing to consider the idea of trans-national and inter-national statehood.
Secondly, this idea enables countries to focus on what unifies them, both internallyand intra-nationally, without having to continuously expend effort crafting and maintaining their respective national identities; a fluidity of identity around a pillar of commonality is thus possible.
Here is where a revived Anglosphere fits in, an idea that both meets all of the criteria and has the potential to be realised. Drawing on their civilisational attributes - the same judicial and political structure, united history and languages, a shared head of state, and more[SB1] -, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK can be drawn into deeper cooperation on issues affecting the Commonwealth as a whole. An Anglosphere spine for the Commonwealth as a broader body.
How could such a project be brought into reality in a way that serves a precedent for increased pan-Commonwealth cooperation? Closer alignment on areas of clear common interest.
The ripest area for heightened cooperation is on trade. Increased trade between nations results in closer cooperation as the nations involved have ever more aligned interests. Ginny Seung Choi notes a direct relationship between the amount of trade nations do with one another and the trust between them. She also notes that “bilateral trust” is not merely affected by the “specific characteristics” of the nations but also the “cultural traits”: for example, a shared history and demographic make-up.
Here the Anglo-Commonwealth nations are seemingly predisposed to success. With the UK’s accession to CPTPP there will be significant alignment on trade regulations, including copyright legislation, with the CANZUK states making up around 50.2% of the nominal GDP of the free trade area. CPTPP can not only act as a space to develop synchronised policies but also as training ground for the CANZUK nations to cooperate on the international stage.
The Trans-Tasman travel agreement is another model for CANZUK cooperation. The agreement allows Australians and New Zealanders to move freely between the two countries, enabling them to visit, study, work, and stay in either nation indefinitely. Arrangements like the Trans-Tasman agreement can in future be expanded to include the UK and Canada, especially if these states increasingly align their migration and occupational rights legislation.
The second area of increased alignment is arguably already underway: increased alignment on foreign policy. The CANZUK typically states vote similarly at the United Nations, indicating a shared perspective on global affairs - but this can be taken even further. Cooperation in other areas relating to the wider world, such as foreign aid and foreign investment ventures should increasingly be coordinated. Setting up discrete intergovernmental channels and building upon the framework already offered by the existence of the Commonwealth summits would allow the CANZUK nations to work in harmony on their international investment and aid projects.
Anglosphere cooperation on foreign investment and humanitarian assistance in the Commonwealth, particularly in the Caribbean and the South Pacific, will further intra-Commonwealth unity, enabling citizens to point to united Commonwealth efforts which materially improve their lives.
Finally, alignment on security and defence policy. This does not mean the creation of united offensive force; such a project would not only be unnecessary but also counterproductive. As in the previous two areas of alignment, much of this infrastructure is already in place today. Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are already a part of the Five Eyes intelligence and the ABCANZ programme, allowing them to share intelligence and improve standardisation of their military hardware. These two programmes alone already make the CANZUK militaries some of the most integrated on Earth.
What would be truly useful, both to these nations and the Commonwealth as a whole, would be the formation of a united CANZUK naval taskforce. A united naval force, integrated with onshore humanitarian efforts, could be used to support Commonwealth aid missions, while helping to ensure freedom of commerce, a long-standing Commonwealth objective first outlined in the 1971 Singapore Declaration. A united naval presence could also protect the merchant fleets of the Commonwealth nations, and combat issues affecting the world’s sea lanes such as piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.
So why hasn’t this already happened?
It is often said that closer CANZUK cooperation is born of racism; the inclusion of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK appears too hark back to the days of the Old Commonwealth. Critics such as Srdjan Vucetic, who view the CANZUK states as “nations being founded and initially populated by those of the “Anglo-Saxon race”, [SB3] must update their understandings for the realities of the modern world. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand are only around 70% white, and in the UK the white British population has decreased to around 75%. Many of the inhabitants of these four countries are recent immigrants, often from other Commonwealth states. The idea that this concept is born out of a nostalgia for Empire is deeply insulting; it is thoroughly modern.
The decision to focus on these four nations is a feature of their overwhelming cultural, legal, and political similarities. Other countries with less developed economies may find themselves disadvantaged in a free trade agreement with less compatible highly-developed economies. Other states with similar foreign policy alignment, economic development and political enthusiasm would doubtless be welcomed. Like any international organisation, a realigned CANZUK could expand and develop at the behest of changing circumstances
In a rapidly changing global order, civilisation states will become increasingly relevant, and the Commonwealth is incredibly well poised to adapt to this. With a civilisation state at its heart waiting to be unleashed, the Commonwealth could be energised by the reimagining of some of its strongest existing bonds. For the CANZUK project to succeed we must increasingly align our nations’ trade policies, foreign policies, and military structures; using this increased closeness as well as highly developed cultural links to create an ever more cooperative Commonwealth. These bonds could inspire similar cooperation throughout the rest of the Commonwealth, giving the broader organisation increased relevance in a radically changed world.
Charles Green is a student at the University of York where he reads International Relations. Charles is the founder and President of the University of York European Society. He maintains a special interest in great power politics in the modern international order.