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From Statism to Federalism: A Paradigm Shift

Daniel J. Elazar

The world is in the midst of a paradigm shift from a world of states, modeled after the ideal of the unitary nation-state developed at the beginning of the modern epoch in the seventeenth century, to a world of diminished state sovereignty and increased interstate linkages of a constitutionalized and federal character. (I use the term "federal" here in its largest sense, not simply to describe modern federation like the United States, Canada, or Switzerland but all the various federal arrangements in use in the world today including federations, confederations and other confederal arrangements, associated states, special interstate joint authorities with constitutional standing, and others.) This paradigm shift actually began after World War II. It may yet turn out that the United Nations, founded in San Francisco in May 1945 as no more than an international league of politically sovereign states with the elevated goal of maintaining world peace, marked the first step toward it.

Developments in Western Europe led to the radical diminution of the political sovereignty of the member states of the European Community, now Union. Similar developments began in other parts of the world, particularly Southeast Asia (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- ASEAN) and the Caribbean. But it was not until the collapse of the Soviet empire and then the Soviet Union itself, between 1989 and 1993, to be replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States, that the extensive and decisive character of this paradigm shift really became evident. Many people still are wedded to the earlier paradigm that the building blocks of world organization are politically sovereign states, most or all of which strive to be nation-states and maximize their independence of action and decision. A few have been aware of this paradigm shift as it has been taking place. Some even have advocated it as a major political goal. Yet for most it has seemed to have crept up unawares.

Ambassador Max Kampelman, who has taken account of the shift, describes it as follows:

The interdependence of the world and the globalization of its economy does not imply or suggest the disappearance of the nation-state, which is showing resilience as an important focus of national pride and ethnic preservation. ...Abba Eban, a recent analysis of the prospects for confederation between Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan, commented on the apparent contradiction of a politically fragmented world existing alongside an economically integrated one. He suggests that regional confederations may harmonize the contradiction....

We are brought up to believe that necessity is the mother of invention. I suggest the corollary is also true: invention is the mother of necessity. Science, technology and communication are necessitating basic changes in our lives. Information has become more accessible to all parts of our globe putting totalitarian governments at a serious disadvantage. The world is very much smaller. There is no escaping the fact that the sound of a whisper or a whimper in one part of the world can immediately be heard in all parts of the world -- and consequences follow.

But the world body politic has not kept pace with those scientific and technological achievements. Just as the individual human body makes a natural effort to keep the growth of its components balance, and we consider the body disfigured if the growth of one arm or leg is significantly less than the other, so is the world body politic disfigured if its knowledge component opens up broad new vistas for development while its political and social components remain in the Dark Ages....

Let us understand the nature of this shift. It is not that states are disappearing, it is that the state system is acquiring a new dimension, one that began as a supplement and is now coming to overlay (and, at least in some respects, to supercede) the system that prevailed throughout the modern epoch. That overlay is a network of agreements and arrangements that are not only militarily and economically binding but are becoming constitutionally binding as well. This overlay increasingly restricts what was called state sovereignty and forces states into various combinations of self-rule and shared rule (the shortened definition of federalism) to enable them to survive at all.

The implications of this paradigm shift are enormous. Whereas before, every state strove for self-sufficiency, homogeneity, and, with a few exceptions, concentration of authority and power in single center, under the new paradigm all states have to recognize their interdependence, heterogeneity, and the fact that their centers, if they ever existed, are parts of a multi-centered network that is increasingly noncentralized, and that all of this is necessary in order to survive in the new world.

The suggestion that we are witnessing a major paradigm shift does not mean to suggest that the outcome will be perfect or even work in every case. Humans are still humans and their conflicts are very real. For example, federalism has probably received most attention as a way to resolve ethnic conflicts in a world that has rediscovered the harsh realities of ethnicity and has lost its confidence that modernization will bring about their desuetude. But students of federalism already have recognized that ethnic demands are among the most exclusivist in the world and the same ethnic consciousness that makes federalism in some form necessary, makes it all the more difficult and less likely to succeed. Perhaps the solution lies in the extent of the federal bonds as much as in their depth.

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