Transitions of Power
Students of political science always strive to identify themes to better understand global events. It was quite easy this week. After a bitter campaign election season, Donald John Trump became the 45th President of the United States in front of an estimated 30 million viewers from around the world. While numerous (and honestly, pointless) debates regarding the size of the audience, etc. continue to dominate the news cycle, one thing is clear – a peaceful transition of power occurred as it has for more than two centuries before this.
Consistent with the theme of transitions was the transfer of power in the Gambia. Former President Jammeh was forced to hand over power to recently-elected Adama Barrow, who remains in Senegal. Jammeh initially conceded defeat to Barrow in the December 1st elections but later refused to accept the results citing “irregularities”.
The UN- backed Economic Community of West African States condemned this move and threatened his removal by force. After weeks of negotiations, Jammeh (after emptying millions from the country’s coffers) left the country and troops from five African nations, led by Senegal have entered Gambia’s capital, Banjul, to facilitate the transfer of power to Barrow. This is a far cry from the grand show this past week in Washington.
There are several similarities between the contexts in the US and in the Gambia. In both cases, the newly-elected leaders have a professional background in real estate. Both contexts have witnessed mass opposition from the party that did not win.
Neither of the two pictures presented seem out of place. The US as the self-touted epitome of democracy values the election process, the rule of law, and peaceful transition. Most African nations have been marred by disrespect for the will of people, and over-extension of authoritarian governments. However, the 2016 election season presented several interesting developments for the US states that make it resemble elections in younger democratic states. These include a threat to imprison opponents, the refusal to accept election results and the interference of foreign powers in the elections.
After the Cold War, the US has built its legitimacy and power on the premise that their version of democracy has brought economic prosperity, and global power. So much so that political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared in the early nineties that we had reached the “end of civilization” and that liberal democracy would slowly spread across the world as the form of government.
In my view, the anomalies of the 2016 election cycle are not anomalies but rather are symptomatic of a decline in US democracy and consequently, a decline in US power. George Modelski, writing about U.S. power in his book Long Cycles in World Politics, noted that the global system experiences periods of regularity in which it is dominated by world powers. These periods are called ‘long cycles’. Modelski says that four states have been world powers since 1500 – Portugal, Netherlands, Britain and the US. Each of them has experienced one long-cycle except Britain which has experienced two.
Modelski explains that each of these cycles (which is estimated to last a little over one hundred years) have emerged in a period of weak organization, through a global war and brought about a change in the structure of the global political system. The Long Cycle of US dominance started in 1945 at the close of the Second World War.
An international system weakened by Brexit;the fears of the withdrawal of the major military power; the weakening of historical alliances and other factors coincide with this decline of American power. The international system which we take for granted (despite it being only 70 years old) is a by-product of US power and therefore may not have a place in a world where the US is not the most dominant military and economic force.
In this case, we must shift our thinking to an International Transition of Power in an era of post- US dominance? Will a single country take its place? Will it be a block of countries? Irrespective of what replaces US power it is almost certain that it will lead to a massive disruption of the political and economic system.
What this disruption will look like will continue to be a subject of great debate for not only students of political science but for everyone.