IN THE RING: A COMMONWEALTH MEMOIR
By Don McKinnon
Elliott & Thompson/Trafalgar Square, $32.95, 288 pages
If there can be such a thing as a commonwealth statesman in the 21st century, then Sir Donald McKinnon is its quintessence. Indeed, you might say that he embodies the institution's heritage, with its roots in the British Empire, as well as its multicultural, polyglot contemporary incarnation he guided as secretary-general of the Commonwealth of Nations between 2000 and 2008. For what was once called the British Commonwealth — with the United Kingdom at the helm, or at the very least a clear first among supposed equals — is now as much without a single political leader as the United Nations. Of course, Queen Elizabeth is the titular head of this association largely made up of her remaining dominions and the Commonwealth republics who also recognize her as their figurehead, but insofar as anyone can guide the rudder of as loosely constructed an organization as this, it's the secretary-general. Few if any have done so as effectively as Mr. McKinnon.
Indeed, as a member of a New Zealand family long distinguished in academe, commerce and politics, Mr. McKinnon belongs to the fabric of only the third British dominion (after Canada in 1867 and Australia in 1901) to achieve independence (in 1907) within the British Empire. Given the fact that a century later, the Commonwealth was almost exclusively made up of African, Asian and Caribbean nations with few citizens of European ancestry, it is a testament to his qualities that a member of the "Old Commonwealth" should have been elected. One of the many priceless anecdotes that pepper his engaging, disarmingly ingenuous (on the surface anyway) memoir concerns meeting Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who died at age 101, two years after he took office. This formidable lady, the last to bear the title Empress of India, saw her husband King George VI preside over the transformation of the Commonwealth with the admission of India as its first republic in 1950. Half a century later, she implored Mr. McKinnon not to forget what she actually called the "old Commonwealth," more evidence of what she, unlike her daughter, thought of the institution as it had evolved.
Of course, in his capacity as a the very model of a modern Commonwealth secretary-general, that was exactly the kind of distinction he could not be making as he handled a group where it was a tiny minority. He leaves us in little doubt that it cut both ways. Both British prime ministers with whom he dealt during his tenure, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, impressed him as caring little for the Commonwealth. Their interests lay elsewhere, across the channel and the Atlantic, in the European Union and NATO, as did their predecessor Margaret Thatcher's. Mr. McKinnon's resume, which included stints as deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs back home, gave him much needed skills in politicking and diplomacy. It also includes a stint at Washington's own Woodrow Wilson High School, where he graduated in 1956 (11 years before I did). "In the Ring" reveals Mr. McKinnon to be a man of considerable charm and a skilled negotiator of the various corridors of power where his career played out.
Although he was blessed with a smaller bureaucracy to manage than his counterpart at the United Nations, Mr. McKinnon had to play the cards he was dealt when it came to the member states. Although there are more democracies among them now, it was once the cozy, clubby Commonwealth's shame that it contained so many one-party regimes, their authoritarian rule giving little evidence of the political and legal legacy left them by the British. The facile answer to this was that their indigenous cultures did not suit the Westminster model. But look at India. Its caste-ridden society was hardly promising soil for parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, yet except for a very brief period in the 1970s, it has consistently been a shining example of both.
Mr. McKinnon greatly admires Queen Elizabeth and clearly thinks that her successors on the British throne will not necessarily inherit her Commonwealth role. However, she, too, can be faulted for being too ready to embrace dictators such as Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda among her Commonwealth leaders. At one point, Mr. McKinnon boasts of enlisting the retired Mr. Kaunda to help him in his vexed quest to bring democracy to troubled Sudan. Reading this, it is hard not to wish Mr. Kaunda had done more to bring it to his own people — and that Mr. McKinnon had mentioned this irony. Then again, he is the consummate diplomat, discreet and pragmatic rather than the evangelist for democracy and rule of law a Commonwealth statesman in a perfect world might be.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.