The Commonwealth of Nations is a paradox in many ways. Nominally, for instance, this association of Great Britain and 48 of its former colonies or dependencies, is powerless.
Yet it exerts a considerable influence, usually constructive, on world affairs. Its diplomats -- black, white, brown, and every shade in between -- gather before many important international meetings to discuss the issues and sometimes adopt informal positions.
But it didn't always function this way.
From the 1600s to the early 1900s, Britain and its colonies were generally designated the ``British Empire.'' Then the less imperial title, ``British Commonwealth of Nations,'' was gradually substituted. In 1949, when India and Pakistan became independent, the term ``Commonwealth of Nations'' was adopted.
Today's Commonwealth, says Secretary-General Sir Shridath S. Ramphal, is the only international institution where a genuine dialogue continues between the well-to-do industrial nations and the developing countries (see accompanying interview).
A Canadian diplomat describes the Commonwealth as ``a bridge'' across vast differences of race, wealth, and cultures.
The British monarch is the symbol of the Commonwealth's unity and acknowledged as its ``head.'' Yet many Commonwealth members are republics that do not give allegiance to the British Queen.
The Commonwealth has no formal or written constitution. When the heads of the 49 Commonwealth nations meet every two years, they never vote on an issue, nor do they pass resolutions. Says Sir Shridath: ``Everything must be done by agreement, acquiescence, sometimes consensus.''
Meetings of the Commonwealth receive considerable attention in the press of member nations but the news media are not allowed to attend. Heads of government meet ``in camera'' with only two advisers per prime minister or president.