Widget Recent Comment No.

Federalism and Territorial Arrangements: Benefits and Challenges

1.0 Introduction

Federalism has strongly emerged especially in the contemporary period as one of the most vibrant socio-political and economic practice which cannot be ignored in world politics and economics. The post Cold War world, its changed environment and new challenges facing humanity today have been contributory factors propelling federalism into occupying a more central place. Also issues such globalization which characterizes the modern world with its dynamics ranging from the revolution in the information and communications world to the increased levels of interdependence, interrelation and interaction have contributed to the more forceful emergence of federalism and territorial arrangements. This is due to the realizations by states that isolationist policies are more and more being rendered irrelevant with a world which is swiftly shrinking and increasingly becoming what Giddens (1997, p. 15) calls a global system; a world which events everywhere are so much affected with what happens elsewhere.

With globalization the Westphalia definition of a state and the real-politic view of the state as the most powerful actor in the international system is being questioned because, both territorial integrity and sovereignty are being greatly eroded. This is a situation forcing states into a situation whereby they must enter into new arrangements for their own survival. There is also a feeling that with globalization nations can only survive together through unity with diversity.

This paper is a response to the emergence of federalism especially in the post cold war period. The paper will therefore seek to critically examine the formation of federations and the territorial arrangements mainly between different nations and/or tribe (ethnic groups) with specificity to socio-political and economic dynamics but also with a keen examination of the consumption of federalism and territorial arrangements, their benefits and challenges.

1.1 Clarification of terms 

According to Elazar (1987, p. 33) “federalism has to do with the need of people and polities to unitefor common purposes yet remain separate to preserve their respective integrities.” Federalism is therefore a theory or advocacy of such an order, including principles for dividing final authority between member units and the common institutions. This division of power is typically entrenched in a constitution which neither a member unit nor the common government can alter unilaterally. It is “the genus of political organization that is marked by the combination of shared-rule and self-rule” (Watts, 1998, p. 120). Federalism must be anchored in the constitution, actually according to W.H. Riker (1964, p. 37) a constitution is federal if it fulfills the following: “two levels of government rule the same land and people, each level has at least one area of action in which it is autonomous and there is some guarantee (even though merely a statement in the constitution) of the autonomy of each government in its own sphere.”

Another related term or arrangement is ‘confederation’. However, in contrast to a federation, a ‘confederation’ has come to mean a political order with a weaker center than a federation, often dependent on the constituent units. Typically, in a confederation, member units may legally exit, the center only exercises authority delegated by member units, the center is subject to member units’ veto on many issues and that center decisions bind member units but not citizens directly. Furthermore, in a confederation, the center lacks an independent fiscal or electoral base, and/or the member units do not cede authority permanently to the center (Watts, 1998, p. 121).

Territorial arrangement covers a wide range, done either within or between states. It is vast such that it could embrace other arrangements such as regionalism and regional bodies and blocs. It is pretty difficulty to supply one precise definition to such arrangements as regionalism because this is a term laden with meaning. Some scholars have however attempted definitions. Generally, regionalism is that process and condition of containment with a territory of a sense of security and institutions and practices strong enough and widespread enough to assure for a long time dependable expectations of peaceful change among its population. Michael Hechter (1973, p. 319) expressly identifies two broad types of regionalism; “peripheral sectionalism and functional sectionalism.” The former based on distinctive cultural heritage within a certain region and the latter based on specific social structural composition of a given territory.  However, in attempting to comprehend territorial arrangements such as regionalism what is more important is not looking at the kinds of definitions attempted by various scholars but looking at some of the key indicators of such arrangements. These indicators are such as enduring cooperation in many spheres, standardization of goods and services and increased substance in diversity for example through shared cultural practices. The challenges of the contemporary time and the experience of the past are among the factors that have compelled many states to enter into territorial arrangements. Globalization is one such a factor. This is a process of growing international activity in many areas that is creating ever-closer ties, enhanced interdependence, and greater opportunity and vulnerability for all, countries and regions are being drawn closer together, key trends are interacting as never before, and the pace of change is accelerating (Kugler & Frost, 2001, p. 3). In the face of such a changed environment states find it only necessary to face new challenges together hence regional arrangements.

2.0   Conditions for federalism and territorial arrangement

The world has been caught up with the need to make reforms especially in the societal organizations. The nationalistic and ethnic tensions which have informed policy and relationship have proved to be more detrimental than facilitative to the desired prosperity. Unfortunately from the end of the Cold War these nationalist and ethnic tensions have characterized politics in most parts of the world with Africa most hit. What comes into the mind of policy makers therefore is the question as to how best to organize national and ethno-regional communities so as they can live together even with their differences (Smith, 1995, p. 1).

In the twentieth century, there has been experienced a growing uncertainty regarding the traditional geopolitical and geostrategic leverage of states. With that kind of uncertainty there has emerged what Elazar (1991, p. 7) terms “a federal revolution sweeping the world.”

3.0   The ideological and political dimensions of federalism and territorial arrangements

Politics is as old as humanity; political philosophers have since antiquity held that man is a political being. It is inevitable that any given community must be ordered and that the science and art of ordering and governing a society is what simply comes to be referred to as politics. In the book “Exploring Federalism” Daniel Elazar (1987, p. 2) argues that “since its beginnings, political science has identified three basic ways in which polities come into existence.” These according to him are conquest which in the words of federalists is force, organic development which federalists term accident and thirdly through covenant which is purely based on choice. Choice is the best way in the establishment of a polity because it not only affords legitimacy but also it ensures good governance. It is through such a backdrop that federalism as an ideology and as a system of government can be put to its proper perspective.

The member unit and the common government both have effect on the citizenry because the common government operates “on the individual citizens composing the nation” and the authorities of both are directly elected (Watts, 1998, p. 121). Federalism can involve member units in central decision-making in at least two different ways in various forms of interlocking or cooperative federalism. If the decisions made centrally do not involve member units at all, then there is separate, split or compact federalism. The US is often given as an example, since the two Senators from each state are not representing or selected by member unit/state authorities but by electors voted directly by citizens though this is by member unit decision (U.S. Constitution Art. II Section 1; cf. Dahl 2001).

Two quite distinct processes that lead to federal political order may be here identified (Friedrich 1968, p. 135). Independent states may aggregate either by ceding or pulling sovereign powers in certain domains for the sake of goods otherwise individually unattainable, such as security or economic prosperity. Through such coming together federal political orders are typically arranged to constrain the center and prevent majorities from overriding other member units especially those of the minority (Buchanan 1995, p. 260). Examples include USA, Canada, Switzerland and Australia.

Holding together type of federal political orders develop from unitary states, as governments devolve authority to alleviate threats of unrest or secession by territorially clustered minorities. Such federal political arrangements grant some member units particular domains of sovereignty for example over language and cultural rights in an asymmetric federation, while maintaining broad scope of action for the central government and majorities (Buchanan 1995, p. 259). Here the good examples are India, Belgium and Spain.  

4.0   Federalism and territorial arrangements in practice

Federalism and territorial arrangements are not utopia, they are realities. There are in the world quite a number of these kinds of arrangements. It would only be realistic to assert that some of the federations have worked, others are struggling and yet others have failed. The biggest challenge to federalism and territorial arrangements over the years and across the world has been cultural conflicts and ethnic pluralism. In response to this some practical measures have been taken to ensure the survival of federations. As Smith (1995, p. 15) has pointed out “consociationalism is a more widely practiced form of managing cultural conflict.”

4.1 Benefits of federalism and territorial arrangements 

The road to federalism and territorial arrangement is normally painstaking but the end results of these kinds of arrangements have definitely been quite rewarding. Life experiences, market forces, new challenges such as globalization and the propensity for humanity to interact have informed the choices for nations to cooperate through federalism and territorial arrangements. The geopolitical and geo-strategic factors have also been quite instrumental drivers of both federalism and territorial arrangements. For example, landlocked states are forced into entering into regional arrangements with littoral states for survival interest but as time passes by they realize that the need for regional arrangements whether through territorial arrangements certainly go way beyond mere survival interests and affords them other goods.  

In this regard therefore there are many advantages of federalism and territorial arrangements; however, the challenges to the same and the long and precarious journey towards attainment of such arrangements and the long period which normally passes before their maturation may blur these benefits. Here are highlighted some of the direct benefits of federalism and territorial arrangements.

4.1.1 Social justice 

The theory of federalism might not be popularly mentioned in the realm of social justice. However, the surprisingly limited reference of the same, both representation and difference have implications for social justice. Smith (1995, p. 3) raises “basic “questions about the politics of ethno-regional identities and rights and of whether such identities and rights can and should be accommodated within a multi-layered political architecture.” By raising such a sensitive issue Smith has opened a gateway towards the realization of the role played by federalism and territorial arrangements in ensuring social justice.

These can be experienced in different and diverse perspectives. “One of the central questions that federalism raises is whether a political system based on non-majoritarian rule is compatible with social justice” (Smith, 1995, p. 16). The fact that federalism poses such a bold question is in itself a milestone in the field of social justice since asking a right question is one such a sure way and certainly a step on the right direction towards the desired end. What is curious to look at is the dynamism between federalism and how it juggles the ideologies of self determination and the coexistence of certain collectivist rights and the need to secure the liberty of individuals. Furthermore, in the words of Graham Smith (1995, p. 16) one can argue that “federalism functions as a forum of empowerment” because it creates an opportunity for some people to be heard and also it enables ethno-regional concerns to take the desired precedence within multi-ethnic federalism and territorial arrangements

Again it is only logical to argue that in a federation all stand to gain because federations are often formed under common and popular agreements. Federalism is therefore a political tool which if tailored carefully is meant to benefit all members who are party to the arrangements therein. In this regard even the rights of the minority are catered for. Actually in reality, the majority has demonstrated the tendency to dominate and as such federations and territorial arrangements can serve as a remedy to such domination especially as wield by the strong and the majority against the weak who are often the minority. “The retention of ethnic minority group rights through territorial-institutional supports can therefore be defended on the grounds that it protects minority interests against the tyranny of the majority” (Smith, 1995, p. 17). Adding his weight into this matter, Gagnon (1993, p. 37) argues that “for localities, empowerment and innovation make federation meaningful.”

4.1.2 Unification 

The world especially in the contemporary time is exhibiting a clear demand for cooperation. It is becoming more and more challenging and even impossible for nations whether tribal or multi-ethnic to deal with contemporary challenges in isolation. The isolation policies have proved failure for instance in several parts of Asia and experience has shown that even if a state employed isolationist policies they can only work to a certain extent and for a certain duration of time. Federalism ensures cooperation because it is an arrangement comprising of two levels; that of autonomy and that of unity or commonly referred to as unity in diversity.

Federalism and territorial arrangements therefore bring about a motivation for shared commitment, the kind which is experienced in regionalism, regional integration and regional blocs. Through federalism there is brought about regional identity which acts as a catalyst for unity. Unity is extremely important for instance in cases of attack, nations in a federation are better positioned to respond through collective defense mechanisms. Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a perfect example of a territorial arrangement which has been very successful in ensuring collective defense among its member states. The different situations of the 20th century and especially the Kosovo crisis led states into a realization for the need to cooperate and NATO has left a landmark in this.

Moved by the impulse to avoid the calamity of war, states have found it almost inevitable to avoid federalism and territorial arrangements aimed at states working together for the common interest. Economic growth and market forces have also mounted pressure on states to work together. In order for nations to benefit fully from the economies of the changed environment of this century and in order for them to benefit from globalization, the need for unity is more likely than not. The kind of unity brought about by federalism and territorial arrangements go a long way in aiding states and regions to benefit from economic arrangements for example through trade guarantees, joint markets, successive lowering of internal tariffs, standardization of both goods and services and, common market protocols. 

4.2 Challenges of federalism and territorial arrangements 

There are quite a number of challenges to federalism and territorial arrangements. These have been some of the hindrances which have often stood on the way to the fully realization of such arrangements. The exponents of federalism seem to have looked at it as one of the most effective political arrangement. However, on the contrary, critics may disagree with such an assertion citing the challenges and weaknesses of federalism. As Graham Smith (1995, p. 2) argues, there are genuine concerns about the appropriateness of federalism as a form of governance in multi-ethnic societies to effectively respond to the economic, social and political conditions offered by the contemporary time.

There is the obvious challenge of globalization which brings along the internationalization of capital, the greater mobility of labor, the growth in trading blocs and the money factor. The challenge which comes with globalization is that the situation seems to be at ones local and universal; globalization affords the kind of situation whereby it becomes pretty difficult to distinguish between what is local and what is global. It is becoming difficult to define a national interest that transcends locality (Kerekou, 2009, p. 1). He further argues that with the dawn of globalization, things have changed and that states are now seen as seeking peace, consensus and cooperation instead of war, conflict and disputes. On the other hand, Samwel Huntington (2007) in his book “The Clash of Civilizations” seems to succinctly propagate the fact that globalization has led to what he refers to as the death of distance and to him this could be the cause of more conflict than cooperation and collaboration. In addition to these, Graham Smith has argued that: "in a late modern federal democracy like Canada, there is more than just a sense that its provinces have gone simultaneously ‘local’ and ‘global’. On the one hand such localities have become more autonomous, questioning the center's capacity to act as the most  appropriate arena for expressing and integrating regional views or for defining national    interests that transcends locality" (1995, p. 2).

It seems that globalization poses more serious challenges to federalism than can be immediately captured. For example the influence that globalization wields on the way local communities with similar identity relate with their counterparts with the same identity abroad is greatly influenced by globalization. There is always a tendency for such communities to chart their own political interest parallel to those of the official federal nation-state. By so doing, there can emerge more serious problems to states and especially the communities sharing same identity could come  together to fight for common beliefs for instance as it has been witnessed in irredentism[1] or the so called tribal annexing nationalism for example as it happened in Korea and Somalia.

Graham Smith (1995, p. 2) has identified the second challenge as that posed by “sub-state or locally-based nationalism to federalism.” That federalism can create the situation whereby tribal, ethnic, religious and linguistic differences are rife. Also it can lead to dual identity which often times than not raise inter-communal tensions. Given such circumstances the world has witnessed quite a number of failed federal governments for example in Pakistan, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and many others are struggling like Nigeria, Canada and India (Smith, 1995, p. 3). For example writing on Canada, Taylor (1993, p. 1) argues that “a wave of nationalism swept French Quebec but unlike previous waves this one was heard and felt far beyond its frontiers.” This was mainly due to the acts of the extreme terrorist wing of that nationalistic movement. Separatism became the central issue and the modal point around which all strands of nationalism were distributed (Tailor, 1993, p. 2).

The defensibility of a political federal organization also seems to be at stake. Federalism may contravene the rights of the majority and yet bask in the glory of being the handmaid of democracy. Graham Smith (1995, p. 3) has further argued that “specifying which citizens are entitled to particular rights, and by what measure, are issues which affect all federal formations, nascent or otherwise.” Another big challenge to federalism is how it grapples with multi-ethnic societies whose cultures, politics and identities are undergoing profound change. Federalism as an ideology and the political practice in actuality is a technical endeavour altogether. 

There are other challenges to federalism especially in relation to managing diversity. The federal government may formulate a policy but the understanding of the same policy may vary from one federal unit to the other. In such a case it becomes way too complicated to implement uniform policies aimed at common good of the federal state. This also stretches to the way of understanding and dealing with different emergencies. For example there could be what Mitchell as quoted by Scavo, Kearney and Kilroy (2008. p. 15) refer to as resilience meaning the extent to which a local community or government can successfully respond to and recover from an extreme event. This also implies that some states or units within a federal state may respond differently and may take different strands of time to go through such a response thereby jeopardizing uniformity especially in moving on and in development.

5.0 Conclusion

Philosophical contributions have addressed the dilemmas and opportunities facing Canada, Russia, Iraq, Nepal and Nigeria, to mention but a few areas where federal arrangements are seen as interesting solutions to accommodate differences among populations divided by ethnic or cultural cleavages yet seeking a common, often democratic, political order. Federalism can indeed be no more than a legal fiction and as Thomas Hobbes as quoted by Vincent Ostrom (1973, p. 207) said “covenants without the sword are but words”. The major challenge therefore to federalism like to any other territorial arrangement and indeed all political organizations and policies is the implementation. Legal and political concepts are meaningless unless the claims based upon relationships inherent in such concepts are enforced (Ostrom, 1973, p. 199). As experience has demonstrated over the years and across the globe “the resurgence of nationalistic and ethnic tensions have given federalism the prominence” (Smith, 1995, p. 1), however, this prominence is not always a positive one and that is where the trial for federalism lies. Territorial arrangements and federalism are therefore good at least ideologically, their main challenges still lie on implementation. The curious area of interest could therefore be a keen observation to see whether and how federalism and territorial arrangements are going to stand the challenges of the contemporary world of complex emergencies.


Buchanan, J. M. (1995). Federalism and individual sovereignty. Cato J., 15, 259.

Dahl, R. (2001). Is Post-national Democracy Possible? Nation, Federalism and Democracy.         Trento: Editrice Compositori.

Elazar, D., (1991). Federal democracy in a world beyond authoritarianism and totalitarianism in McAuley, A., (Ed.). Soviet federalism, nationalism and economic decentralization. Leicester: Leicester University Press.

Friedrich, C. J., & Friedrich, C. J. (1968). Trends of federalism in theory and practice. New         York: Praeger.

Gagnon, A., (1988). Federalism in Multi-community Countries: A Theoretical and Comparative analysis in Brown-John, C. L., Centralizing and decentralizing trends in federal states. New York: University Press of America, pp. 23-37.

Giddens, A. (1997). Anthony Giddens on globalization. UNRIST News, (15). Group.

Hechter, M. (1973). The persistence of regionalism in the British Isles, 1885-1966. American       Journal of Sociology, 319-342.

Huntington, S. P. (1997). The class of civilizations and the remaking of world order. Penguin

Kerekou, M. T., (2009). The process of integration in Arica: The African Union (AU) weak             institutions.VDM Verlag Dr. Muller Aktiengeselleschaft & Co.KG: Sarbrucken.
Kugler, R.L., & Frost, E.L., (Eds.). (2001). The global century: Globalization and National

Ostrom, V. (1973). Can federalism make a difference? Publius, 3(2), 197-237.

Riker, W. H. (1964). Federalism: Origin, operation, significance. Boston: Little, Brown security (Vol. II). Washington, D.C. National Defense University Press.

Scavo, C., Kearney, R. C., & Kilroy, R. J. (2008). Challenges to federalism: homeland security a and disaster response. Publius: The Journal of Federalism, 38(1), 81-110.

Smith, G., (1995). (Ed.). Federalism; The multiethnic challenge. London: Longman.

Taylor, C. (1993). Reconciling the solitudes: Essays on Canadian federalism and nationalism.     MQUP.

Watts, R. L. (1998). Federalism, federal political systems, and federations. Annual Review of       Political Science, 1(1), 117-137.

[1] Advocacy and struggle for the recovery of territory culturally or historically related to one’s nation but now subject to a foreign government.
Federalism and Territorial Arrangements: Benefits and Challenges Federalism and Territorial Arrangements: Benefits and Challenges Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on May 19, 2016 Rating: 5

No comments:

Powered by Blogger.