Like Nato, the Commonwealth is 50, but new Labour wonks should not expect it to strut across the world stage

It was just what you'd expect of a middle-aged birthday celebration: a modest, slightly self-conscious affair, with all the excitement of a bottle of plonk and a few stale crackers with cheese spread. The 50th anniversary of the modern Commonwealth has involved none of the cork-popping and self-congratulation that the big boys of Nato went in for at their birthday bash in Washington.

No surprises there: the Nato boys are where the action is, their fingers on the trigger. The Commonwealth is best known for sponsoring the international games that are not quite as grand as the Olympics, and its highfalutin mandate - "the promotion of international understanding and world peace" - sounds like an FO wannabe in overdrive. Add to this its associations with an empire lost, and the Commonwealth sounds about as likely a setting for movers and shakers as a sleepy clubhouse in the tropics, studded with potted palms.

Hence the impatience it arouses in the agenda- setters of new Labour; more specifically, in the wonks at the Foreign Policy Centre. Their report, Making the Commonwealth Matter, calls for a complete make-over of the aged organisation: new teeth, to bare before those members that adopt undemocratic politics; new headquarters, to promote devolution from a London-centred organism; a new schedule, to increase the frequency of members' summits. Shape up, the document barks, for "the new Labour government is committed to turning Britain into a country that is proud of its multiculturalism and acts constructively in the world". Thus, a new-look Commonwealth is to take its place in the new Labour scheme to restore Britain to a leading role on the world stage - burying, meanwhile, any lingering colonial guilt.

An admirable mission, granted, if it results in the dictatorship in Nigeria being forced to make concessions to democracy; or in a poor nation such as Jamaica gaining status for accommodating a new Commonwealth headquarters in Kingston. But can this loose federation of English-speaking, unequal nations (ranging in size from Canada to Mauritius, and in wealth from Britain to Bangladesh) becomes a force to be reckoned with in our new world order?

Not if judged by the standards of Nato and the EU - which seems to be precisely how new Labour is measuring the Commonwealth. The Foreign Policy Centre wonks want to transform the Commonwealth in new Britain's own image: already multicultural and global, it needs now to become a mover and shaker strutting across the world stage. Britain's new self-regard requires it to be the leader of a powerful pack. The Commonwealth must keep up appearances.

Britain envisaged a very different role for it 50 years ago. Taking a first step in a truly ethical foreign policy, Britain recognised its responsibility towards former possessions, granting rights of citizenship to Ugandan Asians and protecting the trading interests of small Caribbean nations. It awarded special scholarships for poor students in the developing world and organised literary and arts festivals. These commitments were not always welcome when they came home to roost: the threat of a Ugandan Asian influx, caused by Idi Amin's persecution, led to a crisis for the British government, as did the question of sporting relations with South Africa.

Today, the Commonwealth link has led Britain into a trade war with the US over bananas. It's tame stuff beside mounting an offensive in the Balkans or minting the euro. But no structural overhaul or expansion of the Commonwealth's brief will ever generate the wealth of the EU or the military might of Nato. Different spheres of influence require different kinds of coalition. It might not be headline-grabbing, cork-popping stuff, but to offer a student from the backstreets of New Delhi the hope of a future is no small thing.