Federalism Around the World
Federalism is often said to have been the unique contribution of the American framers. Yet, it is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Today there are at least 27 federal countries in the world, all of which can provide students and teachers with useful ways to think and reflect on the strengths and limitations of the federal idea.
Federal arrangements offer a way to balance shared rule with self rule. Decentralized federal systems can provide a way to accommodate ethnic, linguistic, religious, or ideological differences—especially in large pluralist societies. Some scholars argue that federalism is one of the most important keys to modern international problem solving. Despite some predictions to the contrary, cultural and regional differences have not disappeared, but intensified.
This dashboard presents an introductory overview of how federalism has shaped—and in turn been shaped—by different societies, cultures, and political institutions across the globe.
The United States is considered to be the world's oldest and longest enduring federal country. During the 20th century, the world experienced what federalism scholar Daniel J. Elazar has described as an ongoing "federalist revolution" where countries embroiled in internal conflict turn to federal arrangements as a potential alternative to fragmentation, violence, and centralized force. Today more than 40% of the world's population live in a country with at least some federal arrangement.
Why have so many countries turned to federalism? One possible explanation for the widespread re-appraisal of federal systems is because it "places a premium on negotiation and bargaining." Countries or nations that choose to adopt a federal system often do so not only because it is convenient, but because it offers a unique solution to the problem of sharing power, while also respecting the integrity and autonomy of the partners or sub-units.
The map below presents a historical progression of the development of federalism around the world. In 1900, only nine countries could be described as "federal," according to their own written constitutions. As of 2021 there are 27 countries with attributes that might be considered fully federal (these include a written constitution, which guarantees a division of power between central and regional governments; a bicameral legislature, which balances regional and demographic interests; and a certain degree of decentralized government):
The Varieties of Federalism
Federal and Quasi-Federal Countries
Not surprisingly, federal systems vary widely in their application, nature, scope, and character. The variety and ambiguity inherent in adopting a federal structure of government makes the study of comparative federalism an interesting and worthwhile field.
In addition to the 27 non-ambiguously federal countries, scholars have identified a number of quasi-federal countries, the precise number of which is still a matter of debate.
Most scholars tend to agree, nevertheless, on at least one important feature. In order for a country to be considered federal, there must be a constitutional framework establishing a division of power among the general, or federal, government and the constituents - whether they be states, cantons, provinces, etc.
Below is a map which provides an overview of the varieties of ways federalism is implemented around the world. This map is interactive; selecting a specific "head of state" or "type of government" will allow users to filter by government type. Hover over a country to see a detailed description including that country's constituent units.
Global Federalism Organizations
What can we learn from each other?
Over 40% of the world's population—or just over 2 billion people—live in countries that can be considered or claim to be federal. Around the world there are a wide variety of independent organizations dedicated to the study and promotion of intergovernmental relations. Some of these organizations are attached to universities; many are independently funded. Several have hundreds of employees, while others have only a handful of active members.
The map below provides easy-to-access information with links and descriptions to known worldwide federalism organizations.
U.S. Federalism Committees
Promoting Coordination and Cooperation between all 50 States.
Legislative chambers in all 50 states have separate committees for education, finance, health, and criminal justice. The National Conference of State Legislators in 2017 provided a list identifying federalism committees (including committees that have added federal-state relations to responsibilities of existing committees). This list provided the baseline for our research leading our team to identify 33 legislative chambers with established "federalism" committees in 26 states. These committees carry out a wide variety of functions, including, but not limited to: the creation of panels to monitor how states' autonomy are impacted by federal laws, an opportunity to enhance dialogue, examine boundaries and roles regarding federal-state relations, as well as strive for a proper balance in our federal system.