Federalism, Confederalism, and Unitary Systems Research Paper

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I. Introduction

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II. Theory

III. Applications and Empirical Evidence

IV. Policy Implications

V. Future Directions

VI. Conclusion

I. Introduction

One of the classic challenges of political organization is the territorial or spatial division of power. Just as constitutional engineers, politicians, and philosophers have struggled over the concentration or separation of horizontal (e.g., executive, legislative, and judicial) powers, so too have battles been fought over the distribution of vertical (e.g., central, regional, and local) authority. Although the late 20th and early 21st centuries have featured significant movement in favor of boundary broadening and the interdependence of outward-looking states, the salience of interactions among countries’ internal units remains high. Indeed, understanding the contemporary nation-state demands that political scientists make sense of the centrifugal pressures of decentralization that coexist alongside centralizing trends of integration and unification. Scholars have generally classified approaches to the geographic dispersion of governmental authority by grouping states into unitary, federal, and confederal types. Research on the different system types has evolved from early work on nation building and pacification of regional tensions to contemporary efforts to explain differences in the quality of representation, in the durability of alternative models, and in the adaptability of structural designs to the changing demands of global interdependence.

Unitary systems are those in which sovereignty, decision- making authority, and revenue-raising powers are clearly and solely vested in a single central government. Subnational units may exist in unitary states, but they enjoy only those powers specifically delegated or “devolved” to them by the central government, and those powers can be revoked at the center’s discretion. The majority of the world’s states today exemplify characteristics matching this definition of the unitary system. Among those are France (the “one and indivisible” state long held up as a quintessential example of the unitary model), Japan, and China. The United Kingdom is frequently cited as a striking example of a unitary state that has devolved limited powers to a series of regional assemblies (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) without transforming into a federation. Among the putative advantages of the unitary state system are clarity in the lines of accountability, coordinated control by a primary legislature and executive, and the ability to ensure equality in treatment of all parts of the country through uniform application of common laws. Chief among the supposed limitations of the unitary state design are difficulties in accommodating local differences and the potential for excessive concentration of power in the capital.

Federal systems are said to combine self-rule with shared rule, characterized by a strong central government coexisting with subnational units that enjoy their own spheres of jurisdiction and resource bases. Sovereignty is shared across levels of government, and the formal distribution of powers is defined constitutionally (rather than at the center’s discretion). Powers can be taken from subnational units only by amending the national constitution. While no single, pure model of the federation exists, several characteristics are normally central to classifying states in this category. Among these characteristics are the existence of a bicameral legislature (with an upper house designed to represent interests of the constituent subnational units), the presence of a court to adjudicate disagreements between the federal and subnational authorities, and elected executives at the federal and regional levels. The federal (i.e., central) government retains almost exclusive authority to act on behalf of the nation-state in its dealings with foreign entities. Although federations constitute a distinct minority within the universe of contemporary states, they tend to emerge in large or populous countries (e.g., the United States, Canada, Germany, India, Brazil, Australia, Austria) and therefore constitute important influences on a substantial portion (approximately 40%) of the world’s citizens. Frequently praised for balancing competing loyalties and facilitating good governance in heterogeneous societies, the federal model is likewise also charged with being excessively redundant and slow due to multiple decision makers (“veto players”) and overlapping jurisdictions. Federations are also critiqued for allowing regional and provincial identities to persist as challenges to national unity and for enabling subnational units to pass laws different from those of the federal government.

Confederal systems likewise feature a central government coexisting alongside subnational units, but in this model, the provincial, regional, or state governments are significantly stronger than the national authority. Indeed, the central government relies heavily on the association of subcentral units for resources and the authority to act. Whereas membership of constituent territorial units in a federation is mandatory, in a confederal arrangement the subcentral entities participate voluntarily and can much more easily exit the partnership. Typically, major countrywide decisions rely on the unanimous consent of the regional units. The confederation effectively exists as a community or alliance of individual political entities in which primary emphasis is placed on protecting the liberties and identities of the constituent units. In practice, the central government has a limited policy purpose (primarily defense and foreign policy). The rarest of the state forms, confederation is most frequently associated with the United States under the Articles of Confederation (1781–1789), the Confederate States of America (1861–1865), Switzerland (1291–1847), the Commonwealth of Independent States (former USSR), and the emerging European Union (EU).While generally successful in dealing with a range of common but limited governmental problems, confederations can struggle when weak central authorities cannot enforce national laws, generate sufficient independent revenues, or adjudicate intergovernmental disputes.

II. Theory

An impressive body of political science literature has evolved regarding the different forms that geographic distribution of power can take. The contemporary literature rests on a foundation of centuries’ worth of writings by political philosophers and constitutional architects who focused squarely on both the normative and practical questions of how to build a desired polity. Among those who emerged along this lengthy early chronology to deliberate the proper balance of centralization and decentralization were Althusius, Grotius, Montesquieu, Mill, Hobbes, and Madison. Althusius’s Politica, written in 1603, is, for example, considered by many to have been the earliest coherent formulation of bicameralism as a method of consensual decision making by communities within a union. Hobbes has often been held up as a defender of the model of centralism (manifested most clearly by the United Kingdom’s Westminster system), and Madison is one of the most frequently cited defenders of decentralization as a mechanism for the prevention of tyranny (exemplified by the American federal experience). Their ideas provided inspiration for founders and reformers in multiple country contexts. Whether by imposed force, organic evolution, or explicit choice, models of territorial politics developed with varying degrees of effectiveness and durability. Much of the subsequent theoretical and empirical work on centralism and decentralism by political scientists has focused on the American case, but recent decades have witnessed good comparative work by scholars seeking to identify generalizable patterns from the systematic testing of theory-driven hypotheses. The evolution of theories on unitary, federal, and confederal systems mirrors general trends in the discipline, with formal legalism being supplanted by behavioralist and choice-based approaches.

The early baseline for much of the modern political science work in this area is provided by Riker (1964), Friedrich (1968), and Duchacek (1970). Riker’s pioneering book, Federalism: Origin, Operation, Significance, was one of the first efforts to move the study of territorial design away from single-country monographs about formal administrative design to a more hypothesis-oriented study of the incentives that motivate politicians to choose one model over another. His theoretical concern was to proffer explanations for two phenomena: (1) adoption of a particular design and (2) maintenance and survival of chosen government forms. In particular, Riker asked, Why adopt a federal model? and Why keep it? Calling a comparative study of federalism “far too pretentious a project for one man” (p. xii), Riker focused his study on the United States while explicitly generating hypotheses that could be tested elsewhere. Conscious of his role as a neutral social scientist, Riker also deviated from conventional practice and decided to minimize normative questions of morality and efficiency in favor of theory-building empiricism. The crux of his theoretical contribution lies in identification of two factors—the expansion condition and the military condition—that are necessary to any understanding of comparative federalism. According to Riker, the adoption of a federal model over a unitary form can be explained in part by politicians’ concluding that giving concessions to the rulers of constituent units is the only way to secure a desired expansion of power without the use of force. This logic of consenting to shared rule in order to secure expansion constitutes one of Riker’s necessary conditions for the federal bargain. The second necessary condition is the presence of “some external military-diplomatic threat or opportunity” (p. 12) that would lead politicians to give up some independence in favor of a federal union. Beyond theorizing the factors that lead to adoption, Riker argued that the structure of a country’s political party system is what “encourages or discourages the maintenance of the federal bargain” (p. 51). In doing so, he rejected traditional formal-legal explanations based on the particular division of administrative responsibilities. Indeed, for Riker, the theoretical linchpin for understanding the survival of federal forms is the existence of decentralized party systems that can protect the integrity of subnational units in the federal system and thereby help preserve the federal bargain. Riker also placed emphasis on simultaneous citizen loyalty to both federal and regional levels of government, but he contended that loyalty to “dissident provincial patriotisms” is not essential. Having ventured this framework for understanding federalism, Riker nevertheless concluded that notions of federalism as a guarantor of freedom are false.

Friedrich’s 1968 book, Trends of Federalism in Theory and Practice, marked an additional step in the early development of political science approaches. Even more explicitly than Riker, Friedrich argued that federalism must be seen as a dynamic process embedded in historical tensions rather than as a static institutional design governed by unalterable rules. According to this logic, federalist beliefs and behavior are every bit as important as formal constitutional design and juristic preoccupations with questions of sovereignty, the distribution of competences, and institutional structures—if not more so. Friedrich posited and confirmed the hypothesis that federalism does not work when it is imposed, and he placed the greatest analytical emphasis on an underlying “federal spirit” necessary to maintain the system. The particular form that decentralism through federalism takes—as well as its likelihood of success—“ depends on the degree of differentiation in the community, the urgency of the common task, the strength of the interests and beliefs in their particular mix of time and place” (p. 174). Although stopping far short of seeing federalism as a panacea, Friedrich deems it “a useful instrumentality for good government” (p. 184).

Duchacek’s Comparative Federalism: The Territorial Dimension of Politics (1970) raised further theoretical challenges, mapping out a systematic case against classifying political systems in “rigid unitary, federal, or confederal categories” (p. ix). Indeed, Duchacek doubted the analytical utility of distinguishing between federal and unitary states and worried that federalism could now be described in the following terms:

One of those good echo words that evoke a positive response but that may mean all things to all men, like democracy, socialism, progress, constitution, justice, or peace.We see the term applied to almost any successful combination of unity with diversity, to almost any form of pluralism and coopera tion within and among nations. (p. 191)

Admitting that no accepted theory of federalism exists, Duchacek questioned the merits of using the United States as a baseline for all comparisons (but then offered no superior alternative) and disagreed with Riker on viewing federalism as a mutually agreed on bargain:

Rejection of a unitary system and the adoption of some vari ant of a federal formula is rarely a matter of free choice on the part of a handful of constitutional lawyers gathered in an ivory tower seminar on comparative constitutional law. There is often simply no practical alternative to the adoption of federalism. (p. 206)

Most important, Duchacek’s (1970) lasting theoretical legacy lies in creating the “ten yardsticks of federalism” (pp. 112–155) that presume to capture the reality and indestructibility of federal unions. These include measures of central control over national defense and international diplomacy, immunity against dissolution by secession, ability of the central government to exercise its authority independent of approval and resources of constituent units, control over amendments to the constitution, protections for the identities of component units, equal representation of unequal units in a bicameral legislature, independent sets of courts at federal and subnational levels, an independent court to adjudicate disagreements between central and subcentral units, retention by lower levels of those powers not expressly granted by the constitution to the central authority, and clarity in the territorial division of authority.

Together, the early works on federal alternatives to unitary states spawned subsequent research that is increasingly sophisticated in theoretical approach and more broadly comparative in data collection. Of that literature it can be said first, however, that conceptual debate still dominates. Although political scientists remain clear on what constitutes a centralized unitary state, decentralizing trends in formally unitary states have “shifted scores of formally unitary countries into the gray zone between federalism and unitarism” (Eaton, 2008, p. 666). Federalism itself is subject to distinction and disaggregation, as illustrated by King (1982), who refers to federalism as ideology or philosophy and to federation as institutional fact, clearly suggesting that it is possible to have federalism without federation. Forsyth (1981) views confederation as a union of states within a single polity, to be distinguished from a federation as a union of individuals within a single polity (the latter representing greater national unity). Beyond conceptual wrangling, however, there are continuing disputes over the relative virtues of different forms of decentralization. Gerring, Thacker, and Moreno (2005) construct a theory of centripetalism distinct from centralism that counters a growing scholarly consensus emerging around the merits of decentralization. The diffusion of power among multiple independent decision makers, with power flowing outward in a centrifugal fashion toward the periphery, is “the reigning paradigm of good governance in academic and policymaking circles at the turn of the twenty-first century” (p. 569). The decentralist model, they claim, may, however, actually undermine the quality of governance in a polity by introducing excessive fragmentation, mixed messages, and chaos. A centripetal design, by contrast, can strengthen national political parties, institutionalize corporatist-style interest representation, encourage collegial decision making, and provide authoritative public administration. Such an approach stands in contrast to those who, like Lijphart (1999), see the centripetalism of unitary states as part of a majoritarian model that is excessively exclusive, competitive, centralized, and adversarial.

III. Applications and Empirical Evidence

Much empirical work has been assembled in attempts to explain why unitary, confederal, and federal forms emerge, endure, and sometimes collapse. As argued by Tarr (Kincaid & Tarr, 2005), those questions and answers find specific form in a range of empirical markers that political scientists can and should compare: adherence by governments and politicians to the regime’s constitutional provisions, the political and social (in)stability produced by the choice of territorial governance model, popular support and satisfaction, democratic performance, provision and guarantees for individual and/or communal rights, and economic performance.

Contemporary cases demonstrate that the durability of unitary forms—still the most frequent arrangement for territorial governance—requires adaptation. Indeed, many countries long considered exemplars of centralized governmental structure have in recent decades engaged in decentralization reforms while stopping well short of committing to a federal bargain. Adaptation through decentralization has been a function of multiple influences. Economic contraction beginning in the 1970s, for one, spawned a number of reforms by central governments aimed at “offloading” burdens to regional and provincial units. Elsewhere decentralization became an instrumental part of oppositional politics—out parties struggling to win office found that pledges to dismantle unitary states could produce gains at the ballot box, and once in office, some of those newly incumbent parties delivered on campaign promises. Decentralization has also been seen more broadly as a natural progression in the democratization of states that no longer required the tight control necessary at their founding. Other cases reveal decentralization to be driven by the desire to pacify persistent—and sometimes volatile— regional nationalisms. Further, the opportunities afforded by new forms of supranational governance (the EU, for example) have emboldened and empowered subnational entities that see the sovereignty of the traditional nationstate as compromised and increasingly obsolete.

The range of motivations driving the “devolution revolution” (Hueglin & Fenna, 2006) is illustrated clearly by three European cases: the United Kingdom, France, and Italy. In the United Kingdom, the catalyst for devolution was an out party that had lost four consecutive general elections but which seized strategically on decentralization as a popular campaign pledge in 1997 and then followed through on its promises once in power. For centuries, the struggle in what became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was to pacify rival national identities in Scotland,Wales, and Ireland and to link them tightly under one crown and one authoritative government in London. Administrative unity, however, never wholly eliminated regional identities and interests. Discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s—with its potential for revenues—fueled a resurgent Scottish nationalism. Frustration over a disappearing language and cultural distinctiveness powered (albeit to a lesser extent than in Scotland) Welsh demands for autonomy. In Northern Ireland, outright and protracted conflict between Protestant unionists and Catholic republicans spawned the Troubles and defied easy resolution. Structural reform through devolution came to each of these constituent units of the United Kingdom when Britain’s Labour Party—struggling in opposition for 18 years—promised in a successful 1997 election campaign to grant powers to directly elected assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast. With devolution as a centerpiece of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s new government, Northern Ireland’s elected Assembly convened in 1998 (only to be suspended by London on multiple occasions from 2002 to 2007), and new Scottish and Welsh parliaments were elected in 1999. With devolution initiated, there has been no subsequent evidence of the United Kingdom’s moving toward federation despite the laments of its critics. Indeed, support for preserving the sovereignty of this multination-state has to date overshadowed any emergence of the federal spirit on which Friedrich’s early work placed so much emphasis.

Devolution in the unitary French state illustrates the (especially) left wing ideological belief in democratization through decentralization. French Socialists, led by President François Mitterrand, used their landslide 1981 election to dismantle Parisian centralism and create 26 directly elected regional councils (each with an indirectly elected president). The decentralization laws of 1982 and 1983 were designed by the Socialist-led left (and over the objections of the Gaullist right) to “lift the rigid Napoleonic iron corset from the statist French bureaucratic government administration” (Tiersky, 2002, p. 148). Adding a genuine bottom-up dimension demonstrates the “realization that even the most famously unitary state of Europe would benefit from some form of shared or divided governance” (Hueglin & Fenna, 2006, p. 23). In Italy, social pressures from below were certainly present in the 1970 reforms that created new administrative regions and devolved powers to them; however, the desire by central authorities to contain expenditures and respond to fiscal pressures was more determinative. Offloading and controlled burden sharing in the Italian system have resulted in marked variations in institutional success throughout the country (e.g., greater success in the north, less in the south). Research into the role of social capital and civic traditions in explaining the variable success of Italy’s devolution forms the basis of Putnam’s Making Democracy Work (1994), one of the most celebrated political science books in recent decades.

Although some states have demonstrated flexibility and adaptation while retaining their essential character as unitary polities, others have transformed into either full-fledged or nascent federations. Belgium, for example, is illustrative of Duchacek’s (1970) contention that sometimes there is simply no practical alternative to the adoption of federalism. Aclassic unitary state in the Napoleonic conception since its creation in 1830, Belgium grew into an awkward amalgam of linguistic communities that simmered to a crisis in the late 1960s. A French-speaking south (Wallonia), a Dutchspeaking north (Flanders), and a predominantly francophone capital, Brussels, embedded within the Flemish north meant that cultural and economic disagreements could not be easily resolved through partition or separation. Constitutional reforms in 1970 and 1980 laid the groundwork for the 1993 addition of a new Article 1 of the Belgian Constitution, formally proclaiming Belgium to be a federal country with elected parliaments in Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels, as well as a reformed national parliament. Deschouwer (2005) described Belgium’s metamorphosis from a unitary state to a federal one as follows:

The result not of a deliberate choice but of incremental conflict management. . . . Federalism just happens to be the system of government that emerged, to some extent as the unwanted consequence of the search for a way to keep two increasingly divergent parts of the country together. (p. 51)

Another “new, although reluctant, member of the family of federal polities” (Steytler, 2005, p. 312) is South Africa. The negotiated compromise reminiscent of Riker’s federal bargain that reshaped the South African state is found in the arrangements for cooperative government through decentralization in the 1996 post-apartheid constitution. Architects of South Africa’s new nonracial democracy sought to simultaneously build a sufficiently strong central government to transform a system tormented by decades of White minority rule while limiting the potential abuses of majority rule through decentralization to new provincial authorities. Granted few exclusive powers, South Africa’s nine provinces enjoy concurrent powers in such important areas as agriculture, environment, culture, health services, housing, transportation, and education. As in established federations such as Canada and India, any remaining residual powers rest with the national government. Replete with federal elements without formally declaring itself a federation, South Africa demonstrates a relatively strong commitment to cooperative decision making among communities. Such is rare in sub-Saharan Africa, with the potential exception of Nigeria.

Empirical applications of confederal principles are more difficult to locate in the 21st century. However, if most political scientists agree on a major political system meeting the standards of strong local units allied in cooperation with a weaker central authority, then that system is the contemporary EU. Majone (2006) deems the EU to be “a failed federation but a successful postmodern confederation” (p. 122). Its 27 independent member states are by treaties linked through common institutions and rules—thereby relinquishing portions of their sovereignty— in order to secure the common goals of economic integration and democratic peace. The member states retain most of their long-standing jurisdiction over domestic and foreign policy, and they are the central actors in generating revenue for the Union. The Council of Ministers, bringing together representatives of the member states’ incumbent governments to determine policies for the EU, is an explicitly intergovernmental institution. Moreover, major changes to the EU (including the addition of new members) cannot take place without the unanimous agreement of all member states. One particularly poignant reminder that the EU is not a fully integrated federal polity is that both Britain and France—not Brussels—retain complete control over their nuclear arsenals. Likewise, neither Britain nor France has relinquished its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council in favor of the EU. In terms of Duchacek’s other yardstick items for measuring federation, the EU also falls short for failing to have the ability to exercise its authority independent of approval and resources of constituent units, for the absence of an elected bicameral legislature, and for being unable to codify its governing framework in a genuine constitution. In some very real ways, then, the EU appears as a compact between independent units rather than as a fully formed federation.

To be sure, some observers contend that the EU has developed well beyond its confederal origins. For Verney (2002), “The European Union is more than a confederacy. It enjoys some of the powers that normally pertain only to states” (p. 18). The European Commission is a supranational institution that well exceeds the intergovernmentalism of the Council, and there is a court to adjudicate disputes among the constituent units, as well as between the member states and the union. The European Parliament is the world’s only directly elected multinational legislature, with codecision powers on the rise. Issues of trade and commerce are increasingly the preserve of EU institutions rather than individual nation-states. This conscious coming together of 27 long-established, independent states willing to submit to a higher authority on a wide range of meaningful issues warrants, in this view, the label of federation.

Uncertainty over how to classify the EU and skepticism about its future prompt a further, and especially important, observation, namely, that forms of territorial governance are dynamic and not inevitably successful. Indeed, an additional area of political science research focuses on the failure of federal experiments. Kavalski and Zolkos (2008) hypothesize that federalism will fail if it does not conform to the rules of liberal democracy, if it does not provide an effective institutional setting for the accommodation of identity, and if it is imposed either externally or domestically (by a particular group). Support for the proposition that federalism and authoritarian tendencies are incompatible can be found in the former Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. In Yugoslavia from 1943 until 1991 the country functioned on the basis of federal arrangements that linked six republics—Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia,Montenegro, and Macedonia—whose citizens had a painful and protracted history of interethnic conflict. If Yugoslav federalism aspired to balancing self-rule with shared rule to pacify that conflict and forge a Marxist-socialist consciousness, then in practice it nevertheless rejected political pluralism, monopolized power in the hands of Communists, and strictly limited the rights of individual citizens. The demise and breakup of federal Yugoslavia unleashed civil war and ethnic cleansing. Similarly, in Czechoslovakia from 1918 until its breakup in 1992, liberal democratic values and rights were constrained by Communist rule.When openness came—and came swiftly in the late 1980s—the institutions of Czechoslovakia’s federal state proved incapable of avoiding guilt by association with an illiberal regime and therefore failed to survive the transition and consolidation into post-Communism. Federalism likewise could not hold together the disparate peoples of the Soviet Union. Instead, federalist structures from 1917 through 1991 were instruments of an ideology that sought to control and suppress individual rights and identities rather than to protect them in peaceful coexistence.

Federal systems that fail to accommodate group identities through stable institutional arrangements are also likely to arrive at a premature demise. Examples abound, including those in Ethiopia–Eritrea, Indonesia, and Cameroon. In postcolonial Ethiopia from 1952 to 1962, United Nations–mandated efforts to incorporate Eritrea employed federalism as a means of strengthening state elites rather than as a mechanism for ethnic accommodation. Elaborate protections of Eritrean identity and autonomy formalized in a constitution were, however, systematically ignored by the Ethiopian government. Policies of assimilation repressed rather than respected Eritrean history and culture, as did the suppression of symbols such as Eritrea’s flag and restrictions on languages. The federation dissolved in 1962, was replaced by annexation, and witnessed 30 years of civil war that culminated in Eritrea’s independence in 1993. A federal system established in postcolonial Cameroon in 1961 failed to achieve institutional balance for that artificial country’s anglophone and francophone communities; instead, the asymmetrical nature of that federal design clearly favored the francophone elites, who orchestrated the federation’s demise in 1972. Cameroon’s defunct federalism made way for a new unitary state structure, rather than outright separation. Other examples of fleeting federations that failed to succeed include Indonesia, which lasted a mere 9 months in 1950. There the advocates of federalism chose a system that sought to impose a national identity from above instead of skillfully protecting and balancing competing identity claims from below.

Empirical evidence also suggests that the success of federalism is less likely when federalism is imposed rather than chosen. British imposition of a federal framework for theWest Indies from 1958 to 1962 met with failure and collapse. Similarly, efforts from 1947 to 1971 to establish a federation connecting Pakistan and what was then known as East Pakistan were neither negotiated nor homegrown; as a result, the absence of popular or elite support led to schism, breakup, and the creation of a separate state (Bangladesh). The aforementioned examples of failed federations in Ethiopia–Eritrea as well as the Soviet satellite states provide further support for an inverse relationship between imposition of federalism and its successful implementation.

IV. Policy Implications

If history is littered with examples of territorial governance structures that failed, then it offers a cautionary tale to those reforming old systems or seeking to create new ones in the aftermath of civil conflict or interstate wars. For this reason, political science research on unitary, federal, and confederal arrangements is particularly salient to policymakers seeking solutions to ethnic or territorial discord in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Serbia. There they must ask and answer questions about the institutional forms and procedural safeguards that will give the system the greatest chance to achieve policy objectives (e.g., stability, legitimacy, protection of minorities, production of public goods, and economic efficiencies). Bermeo (2002) argues that “no violent separatist movement has ever succeeded in a federal democracy” (p. 108). If that is the case, then policymakers in divided societies will have to balance the presumed peaceful by-products of federalism against the traps into which previous but now-defunct federations have fallen.

One of the most contentious policy areas is language. In unitary states, the central government will typically have exclusive jurisdiction over official language rights. That kind of exclusive control frequently coincides with conscious policies of assimilation. By contrast, federal states will normally grant shared or overlapping powers to central as well as regional governments. If federalist principles are pursued, then the ideal policy outcome would be some effective balance between unity and diversity such that citizens using majority and minority languages are equally protected. In Canada, for example, francophone minorities outside Quebec and anglophone minorities inside Quebec enjoy equivalent constitutional protections. The Belgian federation grants exclusive powers to community institutions to regulate language (as well as culture and education). In Spain, which embodies certain elements of federalism without formally constituting a federation, language laws protect Catalonia’s unique language and even make prohibitions against excessive use of the nationally dominant Castilian. India’s federal system provides official status for many of its minority languages, such as Punjabi and Marathi. In transitioning and contested states such as Iraq, policy uncertainty over minority languages could potentially thwart consolidation of a new polity. Recognized alongside Arabic under a 2005 Iraqi constitution, the Kurdish language presently enjoys formal protection and guarantees that elude Kurds in neighboring Iran, Turkey, and Syria.

There are also related policy implications in the area of education. In unitary France, for example, education is so highly centralized that it has long been said that one could look at the clock at any given time and know exactly what textbook schoolchildren throughout the country were reading at that moment. In Canada, by contrast, the federal government has no central education ministry; instead, each province has its own political and administrative infrastructure with discretionary powers over education. Likewise, in the U.S. federal system, education is the responsibility of local (usually county) and state authorities. Pressures to democratize more tenuous federations have led, in places such as Brazil, to policies of educational decentralization. Elsewhere, as in federal Argentina, education has been decentralized to the local level largely on the basis of cost efficiencies and reductions in central government fiscal deficits. Decentralizing and federalizing education can be highly contentious and, quite often, inefficient, as exemplified by the Belgian experience of dismantling universities (including their impressive library collections) and dividing them into separate francophone and Flemish institutions.

V. Future Directions

Political science research on unitary, federal, and confederal forms of territorial governance has been preoccupied, first, by the struggle to draw clear distinctions between the three concepts; second, by the desire to explain why different institutional designs have been adopted and adapted; and third, by efforts to isolate the impact of federalism on such key outcomes as ethnic group accommodation and system stability. Real advances in our understanding of state forms have emerged, but definitive findings are few and far between. This leaves much room for future research.

Future research would be well served if it followed Eaton’s (2008) advice: “Federalism is an institutional phenomenon, but it should be examined in ways that are sensitive to the importance of noninstitutional variables” (p. 696). In this way, formal-legal studies must be complemented by those that focus at an individual or group level on interests and identities. How is the federal spirit cultivated— or not—at the grassroots level? How are claims for regional autonomy manipulated by political elites seeking to convince groups to join them in a push for system change? How do citizens in systems of compounded representation weigh the competing claims on their identity from local, regional, national, and even supranational governments? What system types yield the greatest citizen satisfaction and loyalty? Do unitary systems insulate their citizens from the “voting fatigue” that seems to bedevil some federations (resulting, for example, in comparatively low voter turnout in the United States and Switzerland)? Even at the institutional level of analysis, future work will need to expand beyond de jure constitutional forms to include studies of how those forms interact with de facto executive-legislative relations, rules of electoral contestation, party system development, and the importance of informal networks of decision making.

One especially important direction for future research should be that which examines the impact of unitary, federal, and confederal models on democratic accountability. This fundamental element in the debate over representation and territorial governance is presently underinvestigated. Scholars have proffered compelling arguments to suggest that granting voice to regional interests in constitutionally protected upper legislative chambers helps hold central authorities to account for their policies, that empowering regional governments with important functional responsibilities helps bring government closer to the people, and that having meaningful regional institutions helps prepare (and even screen out) politicians for future national office. However, federalism may also introduce unnecessary ambiguity to the process of assigning credit and blame in a political system through overlapping institutions and shared jurisdictions. It may also reduce voter turnout through a proliferation of elected institutions demanding judgments from voters on a nonstop electoral calendar. Further, regional governments in federal systems may actually represent a form of unintended centralization if those units usurp functions traditionally reserved for local and communal institutions. It remains unclear, then, whether federalism is superior to unitary forms in this crucial dimension of accountability.

VI. Conclusion

The study of territorial dispersion of power in a system of governance is as old as modern political science, and it clearly dates further back to classical debates about the ideal polity. Contemporary efforts to understand the causes and consequences of different state designs have had to struggle first with establishing distinguishable concepts that accurately capture global variation. Scholars have traditionally had a relatively easy time defining unitary systems and classifying states within that category; however, devolutionary trends and reforms within unitary states have created the odd hybrid of decentralized but still unitary polities that defy simple classification. Although numerous attempts have been made to identify the necessary and sufficient conditions for a country to be labeled a federation, it is simultaneously apparent that no two federations are alike. Indeed, the institutional forms that federations take are a function of alternative conceptions of federalism; thus, U.S. and Canadian federal forms are substantially different, as are those in India, Brazil, Australia, and Germany, because the ideological underpinnings of federalism in each of those cases are products of varying historical experiences. Scholars likewise debate the empirical application of confederal approaches to territorial governance, given that some of the clearest cases of confederalism in practice are historical ones that no longer exist. The EU as an exemplar of confederation is only partially appropriate, and the future evolution of European integration will help clarify whether that community of states retains primary power in the hands of its members or whether, instead, it transfers more to an empowered central government to warrant classification as a federation.

Beyond concerns over conceptual boundaries, political science has focused on identifying the factors that facilitate successful negotiation of a federal bargain as well as the conditions that increase the likelihood that reforms of territorial governance will succeed and endure. Such work has drawn attention to cultural predispositions (presence or absence of a federal spirit), the nature of political party systems, elite motives, external intervention and imposition, mechanisms for the accommodation of group identities, and the inverse relationship between successful federalism and illiberal governance. Additionally, the choice of federal, unitary, or confederal forms can be shown to have practical policy implications in such important areas as language laws and education systems. Debate over these choices and their consequences permeates political discourse in established democracies, in countries that have transitioned from authoritarian or colonial rule, and in systems emerging from civil conflict or interstate war. As such, the contemporary relevance of research on the political and administrative distribution of power cannot be overstated.


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