Post-Cold War era: Is Federalism becoming a Tool of Conflict Resolution?

von Soeren Keil

Our understanding of federalism is changing in the post-Cold War era. Has federalism been defined as a political ideology that promotes shared-rule and self-rule, unity and diversity and voluntary decentralised power-sharing so far, more recently federalism has been used a tool of conflict resolution. With the end of the Cold War, ethnic conflicts, often linked to autonomy and secession demands by minority groups, have become common across the world. International peace-builders have used federalism and federation as instruments to pacify these conflicts, provide territorial autonomy for minority groups while ensuring the territorial integrity of a state at the same time. Yet, this shift in the meaning of what federalism is and what is can contribute to peace-building and conflict resolution has resulted in more heated debates about the nature of federalism and federation. While the use of federalism as a tool of conflict resolution remains contested, it is obvious that new federal models are arising, which force researchers to re-examine their understanding of federalism and federation.

Understanding federalism and federation

Traditionally, federalism is seen as a political ideology that focuses on self-rule and shared-rule, following the definition used by Daniel Elazar.[1] In this respect, federalism is very much seen in the light of the American experience. It is the basis of a voluntary contract (Latin: foedus) that promotes unity and diversity at the same time. In the words of the established federalism scholar Ron Watts, federalism ‘refers to the advocacy of multi-tiered government combining elements of shared-rule and regional self- rule. It is based on the presumed value and validity of combining unity and diversity and of accommodating, preserving and promoting distinct identities within a larger political union. The essence of federalism as a normative principle is the perpetuation of both union and non- centralization at the same time.’[2] Of course the ideology of federalism has to be distinguished from federation, which is a federal state in which two or more levels of government are directly elected by the people and have certain decision-making competences.[3] These definitions, federalism as a voluntary contract promoting unity and diversity through self-rule and shared-rule, and federation as a federal state in which multiple levels of governance have a certain degree of autonomy in policy-making, remain of key importance for the analysis of federal political systems until today.[4]

  Yet, the literature on the study of federalism has already begun to discuss changing perceptions of federalism. Alfred Stepan for example argues that federalism is not only about territorial units coming together to form a new federal state (as was the case in the United States), but that in some cases previously unitary states can also become federations through a decentralisation and constitutional reform process, such as in Belgium.[5] A further shift in our understanding of federalism, and in particular the recognition of federal values, has been recognised by Michael Burgess, who argues that new federal models are not founded on the values and norms that underpin federalism as an ideology (such as cooperation, peace, compromise, reciprocity, etc.), but that federalism is used as a framework to promote these values in post-conflict societies.[6] Having said this, other than some more quantitative analysis on the use of decentralisation as a tool of post-conflict resolution,[7] there remains a surprisingly big gap in the theoretical literature on comparative federalism, which would explain the rise of new models of federalism and federation in different parts of the world.

New Federal Models

When assessing the rise of new federal political systems, it is important to look at the empirical evidence, before any theoretical insights can be discussed. In the post-Cold War era, a number of new federal systems have arisen as a result of intra-state conflict. These civil wars have often focused on the grievances of local minority groups and their quest for more autonomy or outright secession. Examples of federal systems that have arisen from these kinds of conflict include Russia (1993), Ethiopia (1993), Bosnia and Herzegovina (1995), Nigeria (1999), Serbia and Montenegro (2002), Sudan (2005), Iraq (2005) and Nepal (ongoing since 2007). What these countries have in common is the use of federalism as a tool of conflict resolution. In some cases, these conflicts were very violent and long-lasting, such as in Ethiopia, Bosnia, Nigeria, Sudan and Nepal. In other cases, state dissolution and secession requests have demanded new and innovative institutional mechanisms to counter-balance requests for independence of certain sub-state units, such as in Russia (here Chechnya) and Sudan (here South Sudan). Some of these new federal models have been installed without a violent conflict taking place, such as in Serbia and Montenegro, although both units were involved in military operations in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Yet, the discussions surrounding the installation of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, heavily assisted by the then EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, highlight the tensions between the two units and also within Montenegro, where there was a potential threat of a civil war between those Montenegrins supporting the continued Union with Serbia and those under the leadership of Milo ?ukanovi?, who promoted an independent Montenegrin state. In some of these federal models, there has been a high level of international involvement in peace negotiations and also constitutional engineering, such as in Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro, Sudan, Iraq and Nepal. In others, local elites were in the driving seats, as was the case in Ethiopia and Russia. Yet, despite their many differences and similarities, one common feature of all of these federal systems is that they have very little in common with the above-discussed definition of federalism as a tool of unity in diversity and federation as a democratic state of different layers of government.   

What kind of Federalism? What kind of Federation?

In the cases discussed above, federalism was not as an ideology to bring different units together in a common state to promote unity in diversity, and to ensure self-rule and shared-rule. Instead, it was used as a tool of conflict resolution. All of the countries discussed above have faced significant, and often-times violent challenges to their territorial integrity by minority groups (most often minority nations). Historical experiences of oppression and domination, as well as a new movement towards self-determination in the wake of the end of Communism in Eastern Europe and the break-up of several multinational states (the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) have encouraged minority groups to make their voice heard. The quest for independence, however, was not recognised in most cases. Instead, in some conflicts one party to the conflict was able to win the war and impose their political framework (such as in Sri Lanka), in other cases the conflict ended with a more reconciliatory arrangement between different groups, which often enhanced the autonomy of grieving minorities without threatening the integrity of the state (or indeed the dominance of the ruling elite such as in Ethiopia and Russia). In a third group of cases, international actors became the main drivers for peace. In Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro and Iraq this is most visible. Not only did international actors provide a framework for political negotiations, in Bosnia and Iraq they also had troops on the ground to ensure that peace would be protected and no new hostilities would arise. Mixed with this strong international involvement was the demand for territorial decentralisation and autonomy for different groups by international actors. In Bosnia, federalism was imposed as part of the Dayton Peace Agreement,[8] while the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro was often called “Solanaland”, referring to the strong impact of Javier Solana on its establishment.[9] There has also been extensive external involvement in the constitutional drafting of post-intervention Iraq, not least because Shia, Sunni and Kurdish representatives asked Western advisers for their support in the constitutional bargaining process.

But what does this mean for our understanding of federalism? Federalism, in Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro, Sudan and Iraq is an imposed ideology. It is imposed from outsiders who see it as the right framework to ensure different groups’ autonomy (reference to self-rule) while at the same time promoting power-sharing in central state institutions (as a form of shared-rule). In this respect, federalism is neither a voluntary contract (it is either enforced by outsiders or by dominant actors in the countries as was the case in Russia and Ethiopia), nor is it based on the protection and promotion of unity and diversity. If anything, it encourages minority autonomy within the state, while at the same time protecting territorial integrity as a key norm of international law. Yet, in some cases this protection of territorial autonomy was time-limited and the federal arrangements in Serbia and Montenegro ended when Montenegro declared its independence in 2006, in the same way as the federation between North and South Sudan ceased to exist when South Sudan became independent in 2011.

  Yet, some of these federal systems have survived. Bosnia remains a federal system, although it is a dysfunctional state and local elites have still not been able to find a common state vision and define the role of federalism in it.[10] Constitutionally, Iraq remains a federal state, but the advances of the so-called Islamic State and the growing autonomy and de-facto independence of the Kurdish Region undermine not only federalism in Iraq, but the state as a whole. In Ethiopia, ethnic federalism is celebrated constitutionally, but practically the country remains dominated by one major political party and a small elite that has little interest in real federal power-sharing. The developments in Russia in the last years have also questioned its federal features, not least because the strong executive of President Putin continuously undermines and limits the autonomy of the sub-units. Finally, Nigeria remains a federal country, yet ethnic tensions and the rising threat of Boko Haram have also limited the full promotion of self-rule and shared-rule.


Scholars studying federalism and federation need to re-think their conceptual frameworks in light of the rise of new federal models. It is important to understand how imposed federalism works, and if it could lead to the development of self-sustaining federal states. Evidence for this is very limited, and at least in the cases of Bosnia and Iraq, not very promising. Furthermore, it is important to understand how international peace-makers can contribute to the end of violent conflict, promote federalism and decentralisation without imposing a fixed solution and thereby limiting the choice for local actors. Nepal decided in 2007 that it wants to move towards a federal state, yet until today the different actors have been unable to find an agreement on what federalism and being a federation actually means. But maybe they will just need more time and more encouragement to search for an innovative solution. In cases of ethnic conflict, federalism offers a possible solution, because it can provide the framework in which minority groups receive autonomy while the territorial integrity of the state remains intact (which is often a key demand of the majority population). Hence, it is unlikely that federalism will not be part of future peace deals, and from Cyprus to Afghanistan and Libya, federalism has often been part of suggested reform efforts in order to stabilise and democratise these countries. Yet, if federalism becomes a tool of conflict resolution, we need to understand how it works, how it can be made to work once implemented in a federal political system and how it can really contribute to peace, economic development and societal reconciliation. This is the job of academics and policy-makers alike. If we find answers to these many questions, the gain will be potentially more peace, more prosperity and an end to long-lasting conflict. This makes our search for an understanding of new models of federalism and federation certainly worth-while.

[1] Daniel Elazar: Exploring Federalism, The University of Alabama Press: Tuscaloosa 1987.

[2] Ronald Watts, Comparing Federal Systems, 2nd edition, Queen’s University Press: Montreal and Kingston 1999, p. 6.

[3] On this distinction, see Preston King: Federalism and Federation, Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore 1982.

[4] Michael Burgess: Comparative Federalism – Theory and Practice, Routledge: London and New York 2006.  

[5] Alfred Stepan: ‘Federalism and Democracy – Beyond the US Model’ in: Journal of Democracy, Vol. 10, No. 4, 1999, 19-34.

[6] Michael Burgess: In Search of the Federal Spirit – New Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives in Comparative Federalism, Oxford University Press: Oxford and New York 2012.

See also: Alain-G. Gagnon, Soeren Keil and Sean Mueller (Eds.): Understanding Federalism and Federation, Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate 2015.

[7] Dawn Brancati: Peace by Design – Managing Intrastate Conflict through Decentralization, Oxford University Press: Oxford and New York 2009.

[8] On this see: Soeren Keil: Multinational Federalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate 2013.

[9] Nathalie Tocci: ‘EU Intervention in Ethno-Political Conflicts: The Cases of Cyprus and Serbia-Montenegro’ in: European Foreign Affairs Review, Vol. 9, 2004, pp. 551-573.

[10] On an overall assessment of Bosnia and Herzegovina, see the different contributions in: Soeren Keil and Valery Perry (Eds.) State-Building and Democratization in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate 2015.

Informationen zu Soeren Keil

Soeren Keil is Reader in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University in the United Kingdom. He has held research and teaching positions at the University of Kent (UK), Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Spain), the University of Passau (Germany), Karl-Franzens University of Graz (Austria) and the Freie Universität Berlin (Germany). His research focuses on territorial autonomy in deeply divided societies, the Western Balkans, EU enlargement, and the foreign policy of new and small states.

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