Federalism Around the World
Federalism does not solely reside in the United States, neither is it a one-size fits all approach to government. It’s varying and as a result, has varied results—all of which are valuable and interesting if studied. Federal arrangements around the world offer a way to balance larger and smaller purposes and will be used even more as time goes on. Some experts say it is the key to modern international problem solving. The growing necessity for accommodating ethnic, linguistic, religious, and ideological diversity demonstrates that as the world is becoming more interdependent, these differences have not disappeared, but intensified.
The way federal countries respond to attacks of difference represents the very strength of federalism—that every federal system can be used to achieve the ends of the “double security to the rights of the people” as The Federalist calls it—where the power of the people is surrendered to the government which is then divided and subdivided in order to create institutions and processes which enable people to exercise their capacity for self-government and then grow in that capacity.
Where in the world is Federalism?
A Historical Perspective
The United States is the world's oldest federal country, and the institutions of federalism established by the Constitution have been durable since 1789. Since then, and especially during the twentieth century, the world experienced what federalism scholar Daniel J. Elazar wrote as an ongoing "federalist revolution" where countries embroiled in internal conflict turn to federalism as a much hoped-for panacea. Why have so many countries turned to federalism? One possible explanation for the widespread adoption of federalism is because it "places a premium on negotiation and bargaining" and is therefore well-suited for a country or group of people which seeks to maximize individual liberty and equality across all parties involved.
The map below shows a historical progression of the development of federalism around the world. In 1900, only nine countries used federalism as their form of government. As of 2021 there are 27 fully federal countries.
Globalization of Federalism
Looking at Federal and Quasi-Federal Countries
Federalism is not a one-size-fits-all approach to government. The variety and ambiguity inherent in adopting a federal structure of government make the study of comparative federalism an interesting and worthwhile field. As of 2021, there are 27 fully federal countries and at least 12 quasi-federal countries. It should be noted that this number is debated among federalism scholars due to the ambiguity of what constitutes a fully federal country. This is not even delving into the differences between the varieties of federal arrangements. What most federalism scholars can agree upon is that 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. Beyond the basic constitutional framework, the different elements which go into government--i.e. level of centralization, number of constituent units, head of state--are as various as they are numerous and yet they all play an integral part in how federalism works within a country.
Below is a map which outlines how federalism is implemented around the world. This map is interactive, so selecting a specific "head of state" or "type of government" will highlight various countries. 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?
Of the 195 recognized countries, 27 participate in some form of federalism. Within these countries is about 480 federated states or national entities that are part of federated state. This means that 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 independent organizations dedicated to the study and promotion of federalism. Some of these organizations are attached to universities; many are independently funded; several have hundreds of employees; others have only a handful. What all these organizations have in common is a commitment to furthering federalism research and implementation globally.
The results of global experimentations with federalism provide value in our own quest for better government. While American federalism provides an example of the potential longevity of a federalist structure, research on comparative federalism has shown that federalism is a strength around the world. There is a unique opportunity to learn from our federalism allies and this map provides easy-to-access data on the known worldwide federalism organizations.
"Federalism is a means of ensuring peace, stability, and mutual accommodation in countries that have territorially concentrated differences of identity, ethnicity, religion or language. Federalism, especially in large or diverse countries, can also improve service delivery and democratic resilience, ensure decisions are made at the most appropriate level, protect against the over-concentration of power and resources, and create more opportunities for democratic participation." - International IDEA
U.S. Interstate Federalism Committees
Promoting Federalism between all 50 States.
Federalism: Variety and Value
Far from being, "an obsolete nineteenth century form of government inappropriate in the contemporary world," as some critics say, federalism as a political idea has become an increasingly important way of balancing unity and diversity within a political system through divided and shared governance. Around the globe federalism is being experienced in a variety ways. The variety of federal theories and implementations resulting from them demonstrate its richness and importance in politics around the world.