Is the Commonwealth Under King Charles III Still Relevant?
On May 6, Charles III officially takes the crown as king of the United Kingdom. Although the coronation has been pared back since the days of Queen Elizabeth II, the actual ceremony and related events will still last for three days. Katy Perry and Lionel Richie will perform, pubs will hold extended hours, and street parties will take place across the nation with millions of people expected to participate in the celebrations. The ceremony will also be broadcast live to a worldwide audience via BBC, Sky News, and several international news outlets. This extensive celebration and its coverage beg the question: Is the British monarchy still relevant on the world stage?
One of the monarchy’s main international roles is its symbolic position as the sovereign of the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary association of fifty-six independent nations, almost all of which were formerly under British rule. The Commonwealth began in the early twentieth century as a way for Britain to maintain some imperial power while avoiding widespread revolution against colonial rule. By joining the Commonwealth, colonies gained independent governance but pledged allegiance to the crown and were still subject to British oversight. When India, the largest member, gained independence in 1947, it initially withdrew from the organization. It asked to rejoin in 1949 and was re-admitted on the condition that it accepted the British crown as a symbol of the Commonwealth. Since 1949, this standard has been the status quo for membership, now based on free and voluntary cooperation.
Today, the Commonwealth tackles initiatives related to environmental protection, education, and trade. Members find it on average nineteen percent cheaper to export to other members, partially due to pre-existing commonalities in language and legal systems. The organization also aims to focus on strengthening democracy and improving human rights around the world through promoting dialogue and development programs between members. In the past, it has suspended members such as Fiji (1987, 2000, and 2006), Nigeria (1995), Pakistan (1999 and 2007), and Zimbabwe (2002) over poor human rights records.
The British royal family views the Commonwealth as being critical to its interests and symbolism abroad. Moreover, since Brexit, the United Kingdom has been seeking to expand economically beyond Europe and sees the Commonwealth as a possible avenue through which to do so. India is a particularly attractive partner, as the member with the largest population and biggest economy. Trade with the Commonwealth accounted for nine percent of the United Kingdom’s total trade in 2021, which is about the same amount as its total trade with Germany.
Yet King Charles’ coronation throws an uncomfortable spotlight on the organization. Members are supposedly united through common values and shared histories as former British colonies. However, unlike Britain, which was the colonizing power, few ex-colony members see this history in the same positive, nostalgic light, making their supposed commonality questionable. Technically, the British monarch is not automatically head of the Commonwealth, though Queen Elizabeth II succeeded her father and Charles III has now succeeded her. Thus, following the queen’s death, only a fraction of the Commonwealth—fourteen member nations, referred to as Commonwealth realms, who still recognize the British monarch as their head of state—needed to issue proclamations declaring loyalty to Charles III as their new official head of state.
The Commonwealth is also accused of paying lip service to human rights. Over half of the world’s countries where same-sex marriage is criminalized belong to the Commonwealth. Sri Lanka continued to be a member throughout its civil war, which was marked by serious violations of the laws of war. It even sat on the Commonwealth ministerial action group from 2003 to 2009 and was responsible for enforcing member compliance with the organization’s core values. Furthermore, the organization has no real mechanism or large cash pot through which it can meet its aims of strengthening democracy and nurturing economic development.
Thus, aside from its importance to the monarchy as an ongoing relic of Britain’s imperial glory days and as a way to continue to move beyond Brexit, the relevance of the Commonwealth to the rest of the world is less obvious. Many Commonwealth members, particularly in the Caribbean, openly view the Commonwealth as anachronistic and have discussed dropping the British monarch as head of state: Barbados did so in 2021, in 2022 Antigua and Barbuda announced its intention to hold a referendum on whether to so, and Jamaica is also thinking of following.
One could argue that the Commonwealth remains somewhat relevant by providing a platform for smaller member nations to voice their concerns to an international audience. The grouping can facilitate cooperation among members who face similar issues but lack global influence, allowing them to solicit help from wealthier members. Climate change is an increasingly pressing issue that impacts many members, particularly small islands in the Pacific and the Caribbean who relish the soft power that the organization provides to them. New additions to the grouping who lack historic ties with the British Empire indicate the Commonwealth’s possible desirability as a forum. Mozambique and Rwanda joined in 1995 and 2009 respectively, and former French colonies Gabon and Togo joined in June 2022. But whether the reign of King Charles III will rework the organization and rejuvenate it for a modern world remains an open question.
Clare Harris is the research associate for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.