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Federalism as a Foreign Policy Tool: An Introduction to its Multidimensionality


This article represents the first part of a series of three, which examines the concept of federalism as related to foreign policy, from an International Relations (IR) and Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA) perspective. The first one is dedicated to the explanation of the reference framework, theoretical and practical, where the work of Clarence Streit is pivotal together with the “Federalist papers”. The following article will explore two dimensions of this relationship, which have been handled frequently separately for federalism and foreign policy, and especially from a domestic perspective rather than an external analysis: citizens’ participation and sovereignty. In the last article, the dimensions investigated will be global governance and public diplomacy, in which the adaptivity of federalism as a foreign policy tool emerges as related to the combination of self-rule and shared rule, both necessary to communicate and coordinate with the outside. Today, all these dimensions are challenged in different ways from the past, due to systemic dynamics, like the emergence of multipolarism at a global level, and unpredictable and transnational variables like the rise of the internet and climate change.

2024 Geopolitical Outlook: Critical Elections in the EU and the US, persisting War in Ukraine, escalating conflicts in the Middle East, and Shifting Power Dynamics

The onset of 2024 brings a daunting surge in warfare within the pivotal regions of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The European Union, the United States, and the United Nations are all facing a critical juncture in their capacity to influence positive resolution in these conflicts. For the first two this year is also marked by critical elections: in June for the European Union and in November for the United States. The previous year underscored a palpable crisis in the US-Western hegemony over the rise of the Global South, frequently aligned with China and the undefeated Russian superpower. Many anticipate significant shifts in 2024, with the EU grappling with reform inertia, as detailed in our analysis of the proposed general federalist reform and our interview with Brando Benifei, a prominent Member of the European Parliament. This crisis could intensify based on election outcomes, particularly if the European President elected lacks a clear majority due to the predominantly proportional European electoral system. Meanwhile, the United States faces the prospect of reverting to isolationism, with the victory of Trump, now the frontrunner in the Republican primaries[1].

Freedom house map  colorized with countries' freedom rankings around the globe in 2024
Infographic:Freedom House

Clarence Streit’s vision of federalism: bridging his work on unionism with contemporary peace efforts

In 1939, amidst the turbulence of international politics, Clarence Streit offered a daring remedy to prevailing anxieties in his groundbreaking work "Union Now!" proposing international federalism, he sought to address the specific threats to international peace and security in his time but also outlined their similarities with those of the past. In the same year, another seminal work was published, echoing similar concerns about humanity teetering on the brink of catastrophe: "Twenty Years Crises" by Edward H. Carr. Both these appeals are resounding today in the global alarm for the future of civilization.

Though approaching the issue from different theoretical perspectives, both Carr and Streit denounced the pointlessness of pursuing utopian leagues devoid of effective enforcement mechanisms for collective security. Their main reference was America's transformation from a loose Confederation to a cohesive federal Union, which is still the best example in modern history, next to the incomplete one offered by the European Union, of how uniting different political entities, through democratic processes, can foster peace and security of the people. A concept encapsulated in the EU and US motto of "unity in diversity.”


In his writing, Streit advocated for a Union of democracies, drawing a direct link between this necessity for democratic states and the process of uniting into a federation for the United States, which had to address both internal and external challenges, and provided this analogy with deep theoretical foundations. In identifying the necessary structural characteristics for a Union of democracies he focused also on the multidimensionality of “unionism”[2] and how its application affects and involves different governance domains: citizenship, trade, defense, money, and communications. Following his thinking, this article and the following ones will highlight the multidimensionality of federalism, exploring how it affects international relations and foreign policy, and uncovering its potential to serve as an instrument of change in the fields of citizens’ participation, sovereignty, public diplomacy and global governance.


Theories and background


Exploring Federalism’s Evolution: From Domestic Political Dynamics to Global Peace

The concept of federalism, especially in its declination as international federalism, lived its best season between the two world wars, when intellectuals and policymakers envisaged the necessity of an overarching structure to foster peace and democratic governance. In this framework, federalism resurfaced as the most adaptive tool, able to grant sovereignty and prerogatives of non-centralized government. Federalism has become a plurality of forms of government with many variants from one another which had different fortunes like federations (i.e., the United States, Netherlands, Swiss), confederations (EU), federacies, and many more (Elazar, 1995). Besides having been imagined as a democratic way to unite different entities under a central authority while granting local autonomy - opposite to empires like the British which to some extent inspired it - in the XIX century federalism was also manipulated to the needs of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes like the USSR and Yugoslavia. Nowadays, nine decades after Union Now, increasing analysis of the concept of ‘federalism’ is mostly confined to the fields of Public and Comparative Law. In Political Sciences, however, it has been addressed mostly in Political Theory, a bit in Political Science itself (in particular, regarding its effects on the distribution of powers among different levels of government), and much less in International Relations and Foreign Policy Analysis. A few studies have been conducted on the relationship between federalism and foreign policy, predominantly focusing on the exceptional case of the United States.

Among these, the most relevant are those that connect federalism and foreign policy from the standpoint of the influence that American public opinion exerts on the different bodies involved in multilevel governance, especially the Senate and the President. The work of Gabriel Almond and James Rosenau, both of whom are authorities in this field, analyzed this relation in, “The American People and Foreign Policy” (Almond, 1950) and “The Domestic Sources of Foreign Policy” (Rosenau, 1967). A few other interesting country-based case studies have emerged throughout this period. The most interesting are those analyzing the link between federalism and foreign policy in emerging countries from the Global South, like India (Sridharan, 2003), Nigeria (Fletcher, 1987), Argentina (Iglesias et al.,2009). Meanwhile, the focus on the federalization of the European Union - which can be also conceived as being a potential preliminary phase for a broader union of democracies - revolves frequently around the debate over how a European Constitution could be written in such a way as to integrate national and supranational sovereignty in foreign affairs[3], rather than investigate the emergence of new capabilities and increased power through pooling foreign-policy making (Verellen, 2023).

Federalism as a Foreign Policy Tool
Venn Diagram Federalism as a Foreign Policy Tool

Federalism in Law and IR: Constitutional Influence and Sovereignty Debates

In modern times, when contemporary disciplines were sharper, bounded to theoretical philosophy, and less heuristically separated and defined, foundational authors like Kant addressed frequently the topic of how governmental domestic structures could enhance international peace (Moravcsik, 1997). Today’s prominence of federalism in law disciplines is of course related to the role that constitutions have in specifying the traits of institutional construction, the separation of powers, and the so-called ‘checks and balances’ in the state system. On the other hand, the absence of the topic of federalism in IR theories can be related to the prevalence of analyses that, if connected to structures, are focused on external factors rather than the internal features of the state. The clearest example of this tendency is Kenneth Waltz’s structural realism which assumes states as unitary actors – with no regard to their internal configurations – while focusing on the lack of external institutional configurations, where anarchy prevails. Still, in theoretical analysis, the observations around federalism’s effects on sovereignty are confined to the country’s borders. Some say that federalism divides it through the distribution in different levels, some say that it disrupts national sovereignty, and some say that it remains to the people.  Besides the general agreement on the domestic effects of federalism, as authors like Dewey stressed, federalism has the ability to transcend absolute national sovereignty. Hence, international federalism also revolves around federalism’s ability to alter sovereignty by determining crucial aspects of foreign policy and international relations, as the work of Clarence Streit did, inspired by Hamilton’s and Madison’s reasoning in the Federalist Papers. One of the few voices raised in the IR field during the Cold War that tried to bridge the internal and external dimensions of federalism, both in its national and international declinations, was Hannah Arendt’s voice, whose concerns and solutions were centered on global authoritarian and imperialistic drifts (Lee, 2022).


Hannah Arendt at Kulturkritikerkongress, 1958
Hannah Arendt at Kulturkritikerkongress, 1958. Photo by Barbara Niggl Radloff. Source: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Federalism in Foreign Policy: Bridging Domestic Governance and Global Diplomacy

The scope of this article and those that follow is to link these two dimensions of federalism, the domestic and the international, or the internal and the external through the notion of federalism as an instrument of foreign policy. By doing so the debate over features conceived strictly as domestic (participation and sovereignty), and those traditionally conceived as pertaining to International Relations (global governance and public diplomacy). We’ll explore how the principle of federalism can affect peoples’ citizenship, making them participate in the determination of foreign policy both at an internal and external level of the political community, in a different way compared to centralized unitary states, making the topics participation and public diplomacy (engagement in the foreign policy of external public outside that political community) two faces of the same coin. At the same time, federalism challenges the execution and organization of foreign policy through classical national sovereignty and therefore the relation between different sovereignties through global governance, the domain for interactions and clashes between federalist and non-federalist states.


Therefore, we will delve into how these specific spheres related to foreign policy -- participation, sovereignty, global governance, and public diplomacy -- are profoundly impacted by and interconnected with the federalist paradigm. The federalist principle and its applications respond to the otherwise insoluble and increasingly concerning problem of insecurity for democratic polities [4]in a multipolar world where American hegemony is more and more challenged. Given these external circumstances, the relevance of the federalist approach is undeniable; it is underscored by the waning dominance of the United States as a hegemonic power, depleted economically, militarily, socially, and culturally due to its role of “world policeman.” Eighty-five years ago, Clarence Streit argued that international federalism offered a solution to these challenges by providing institutionalized external unity in foreign policy while safeguarding internal political diversity , in contrast to the ineffectiveness of other “mechanisms” such as leagues or alliances (refer to page for details). Furthermore, the objectives of addressing "the perils of war, dictatorship, and economic downturns" (Streit, p. 1) were the specific purposes for which it was designed, and the reason why the Confederation of American States was altered into a federal Union. Effective collective action necessitates continuity and unity of political will achieved through unified decision-making processes. These attributes extend beyond mere alliances or political coordination; they require a unified political body capable of cohesive policy formulation and decision-making.


Moreover, the purposes of confronting “the dangers of war, dictatorship, and depression” were the ones it was specially designed for and the core reason why the Confederation of American States became a Union. Unified action requires continuity and unity of political will by unified decision-making processes. These qualities go beyond simple alliances or political coordination because they entail a unified body that provides cohesive policy and decision-making processes. Additionally, a closer union of democracies based on federalism would entail outlining and developing through the years a clear common 'national interest' with well-defined prerogatives, precise strategies, and areas of intervention with specific priorities. This is because a common ‘national’ – or supranational in this case – interest is the precondition of a common foreign policy, together with shared institutions that define and administrate it. Despite recognizing this imperative, we find ourselves in a moment where transatlantic unity has strengthened its ties – especially due to Russia’s invasion and China’s ambiguous behavior - although defining a distinct 'European interest' seems a formidable challenge. In reality, it has never been more palpable that European citizens’ freedom and security depend on the capacity of European institutions to safeguard them. The European Union grapples daily with the task of identifying common solutions and coordinating actions to address even the direst threats to collective security, such as the Russia's invasion of Ukraine or the Houthis' attacks on Western vessels in the Red Sea.


The EU’s Hamiltonian Moment: Centralizing Power for a More Unified Foreign Policy Approach

The challenges facing the European Union today in implementing coordinated and effective policies bear resemblance to those encountered by the United States during its pre-constitutional period. Prior to 1789, intellectual and political leaders across the nation, which was then a collection of bordering communities, began to articulate the characteristics and rationale for the Union they envisioned. This historical context has sparked discussions about a potential 'Hamiltonian moment' for the European Union—a pivotal period where the need for centralization of economic and foreign policy powers has become apparent, and now possible through political consensus and public acknowledgment. In the case of the formation of the American Union, a primary challenge in advocating for a specific framework of the new political federalized entity was making it reasonable and understandable to citizens, especially given that this kind of state organization had not existed before. This quest for legitimacy persists in increasingly complex political landscapes. The balance of interests among the various states that now comprise the United States of America was not guaranteed in the past, especially at the time of the formation. While shared democratic values and the necessity of a larger market are often cited as foundational steps for creating common institutions, nonetheless security and defense against external influence – guaranteed by common taxation and financial resources - were central to the American Federation's formation.

Lin-Manuel Miranda in musical Hamilton, 2015
Lin- Manuel Miranda in the musical Hamilton, 2015. Picture under CC 2.0 by Steve Jurvetson -

This opens a parallel with today's prospects of federalization both at a European and transatlantic level. Even at the time of Hamilton and Madison, these novel states and communities living mostly on the shores of the Atlantic, according to their geographical location and economic structure, had divergent priorities. For instance, the southern agricultural states saw foreign powers as potential markets while the industrial north saw them as competitors. The strange regional arithmetic of different interests found synthesis in the significant role of the Senate, which distributed voting power and influence of the States equally among the states, and not proportionally. The centrality of the Senate in foreign policy decision-making, despite the considerable presidential power, remains today and operates as an essential counterbalance in the American federal system: a lesson that still needs to be understood for effective federalist reforms like the recent European attempts. The necessity for the USA to face external threats became the core motivation to go beyond the Articles of Confederation under which it operated before 1789, and that rendered the central government weak and ineffective in decision-making because dependent on unanimity. This led to a political and cultural movement for a reform of the Union, in which Madison and Hamilton soon emerged as leaders.


Hamilton used to warn the readers simply and effectively, emphasizing the importance of uniting closely knit political societies under one strong government, that can maintain order, otherwise, rivalries, vanity, and illusions of self-sufficiency could easily disintegrate the Union. Clarence Streit’s work echoed this sentiment. The similarities with the current situation of the European Union are impressive, but actually what Hamilton wanted to avoid was exactly the litigiousness of the old continent. A fragmentation in different blocks, with stronger interests in common, appeared to him as even more dangerous, because a too close competition for resources and allies could generate violence. The practical approach of The Federalist Papers, which linked values to concrete necessities, was often sustained by pessimistic rhetoric that, in the end, ultimately resonated with Americans. Therefore, it is a crucial preliminary step to recall that there was a time when the very notion of US national interest was inexistent, as today there does not seem to be a shared framework for a ‘European interest’. More than states’ interests, Hamilton addressed American citizens bringing up effective topics for the people’s interests, a crucial focus for a democratic political communicator. The lesson learned is that the structural pursuit of security, along with the redefinition of the strategies and common structures, requires a clear identity to be communicated to the people, for sustaining a deeper integration that is grounded on citizens’ understanding and support for these changes[5]. At a time of strategic disinformation constantly produced by antagonist superpowers that seeks to disrupt European and transatlantic unity, bringing together the peoples involved through citizens’ engagement and public diplomacy is crucial to counter what is called ‘cognitive warfare’.



The conceptual relationship among cognitive warfare and other types of warfare. From How China's Cognitive Warfare Works: A Frontline Perspective of Taiwan's Anti-Disinformation Wars - Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available via Licence Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International, from: [accessed 15 Mar, 2024]
The conceptual relationship among cognitive warfare and other types of warfare - Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available via Licence Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International, from: [accessed 15 Mar, 2024]

Applying federalism as a foreign policy tool


Federalism: An Architectural Blueprint for Modern Democracies

Human structures, physical or theoretical that they might be, must follow certain rules to stand still and adapt to the purposes that people attribute to them. Federalism in this sense is a crucial element of modern democracies, an architectural element, that has different features depending on the point of view we’re observing our institutional building, which also must follow precise landscape constraints to be implemented. Like buildings, federal systems are constructed with an eye toward balance and integrity—each component must work in harmony with the others for the system to function effectively. Federalism, much like the architecture of a building, requires a blueprint, a framework that outlines the distribution of powers and responsibilities. Different features, such as the division of powers between federal and state governments, can be seen as the load-bearing walls or foundational elements that provide stability and support.


Further, both buildings and federal systems are subject to the pressures of time and change. Renovations and reforms might be necessary as the needs and values of the people change. In this sense, maintenance, and the ability to adapt are crucial. Much like architectural elements, federalism like unionism has a multidimensionality, which extends to different directions and serves different functions, affecting different policy spheres, all interconnected and yet distinct. Usually, when we refer to the multidimensionality of federalism the reference goes to the ‘multilevel governance’ that it entails in involving the local, national, and federal levels of government. Instead, the dimensions that will be investigated in these articles are the ones that relate federalism to foreign policy as one of its tools, which can enhance the effectiveness and agility of a country or a group of entities that share the same foreign policy by bringing together the strengths of its various parts, providing a framework for the problem of citizens’ engagement, sovereignty, public diplomacy, and global governance. Therefore, the paradigm of federalism can be interpreted both as a tool and as a framework for foreign policymaking: when for a tool we intend a specific strategy or method to pursue determined outcomes during policymaking, and as a framework understood as a summary of theoretical and practical guidelines.


The Evolving Dynamics of Federalism in Foreign Policy: Central Power and Subsidiarity

The preeminent characteristic of federalism is that it concentrates at a central level the foreign policy power, for instance: the ability to negotiate and sign treaties, like bilateral treaties, international, peace, or trade treaties; powers in determining defense and security policies, together with war power that is the power to declare war. These prerogatives of central governments have been traditionally interpreted as excluding other levels of government from the decision-making regarding these areas of interest while granting them, through the principle of subsidiarity, that all other matters should be ruled and handled by a governmental authority at the closest level possible to citizens. The relationship between the federal government, national and local authorities, is harmonized by the constitutions, whilst safeguarded and developed by the rule of law. This configuration in the distribution of powers has been traditionally interpreted not only as an absence of other levels of government except the federal one in foreign policymaking but also as an estrangement and distancing of citizens themselves from this sphere. Therefore, the topic of federalism and foreign policy has been usually assessed in International Relations and Law studies as a quest for a deeper understanding of the role of sub-state actors and policymakers, detecting whether they have or have not a grasp on foreign policymaking.  This traditional approach displays the extent of how much federalism is understood from a domestic perspective, determined by the inside and determining the inner level of power relations, while on the contrary federalism’s external projection and causes remained largely unobserved. From the point of view of the separation of powers, this classical conception is nowadays challenged by the evolution from a rigid model of government to a more inclusive understanding of governance, namely in the case of federal entities' multilevel governance, where different layers of authorities can meet and cooperate also in foreign policymaking.


Globalization and Governance: Federalism and The Rise of Hybrid Diplomacy

The evolution brought by governance came together with globalization, a challenge to sovereignty understood territorially, with its increased international interdependence, that frequently includes non-democratic regimes upon which our stability relies.  The growth of these phenomena has brought to the attention of International Relations global trends like Hybrid Diplomacy, Paradiplomacy, and City Diplomacy[6], which developed not only as a result of increased interest and collaboration amongst different levels of government but also arose from the new awareness that some issues shall be shared and co-managed, in order to be tackled better. Probably the greatest example in this sense is the topic of climate change, which has been addressed internationally, but has huge local causes and impacts that require coordination between different levels of government at a domestic level, but also local to global interactions[7]. Therefore, today the tendency is that federal governments are more and more involved in domestic and local governance – for instance in trying to harmonize educational and health systems -, while local governments want to be more involved in foreign policymaking.


This broader perspective of research will be amplified in the following articles, to display how federalism can be used as a general framework and tool in foreign policymaking, starting from its inner structure which shall be interpreted as an occasion to better include and not exclude citizens and other governmental and non-governmental stakeholders. As Hamilton and Madison understood previously, and later Clarence Streit sustained too through his work, the principle of inclusivity in foreign policymaking shall be the guiding star for democratic political entities that want to pursue federalist reformation via consensus and compromise. To be effective, in a democratic context, the policymakers’ discourse and action must encounter public opinion, through participation and public diplomacy. At the same, they need to be included in a wider conception of sovereignty that is to be in coordination and complementary to global governance, and not in contrast with it. To be successful, federalism must be seen as an opportunity for all, an opportunity to increase democracy rather than an instrument to diminish it, an opportunity to include more and not less.



Adam Quinn, “The founders’ era consensus”, in US foreign policy in context: National ideology from the Founders to the Bush doctrine, pp. 31 – 60, (Routledge, 2010)


Gabriel A. Almond, “The American People and Foreign Policy”, Harcourt & Brace & Co., New York, 1950


James N. Rosenau, “The Domestic Sources of Foreign Policy”, The Free Press, New York, 1967


Verellen, Thomas, “Foreign Relations Federalism: The EU in Comparative Perspective”, Oxford University Press, 2023


Elazar, Daniel J., “Federalism: An Overview”, HSRC, Pretoria, 1995


Streit, Clarence K., “Union Now: A proposal for a Federal Union of Democracies of the North Atlantic”, Harper and Brothers Publishers, NY, 1939


Streit, Clarence, Freedom Against Itself, Freedom Against Itself. Harper & Brothers, (1954) 95-99


Carr, Edward H., “The Twenty Years’ Crisis: 1919–1939”, Palgrave Macmillan, UK, 1946


Fletcher, F.J. 1976, "A.B. Akinyemi, Foreign Policy and Federalism. Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1974, pp. xi, 217", Canadian journal of political science, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 344-345.


Ostrom, Vincent, “Dewey and Federalism: So Near and Yet So Far”, Publius, vol. 9, No. 4, Federalism ad Grand Design (Autumn, 1979), pp.87-101


Hamilton, Jay and Madison, “The Federalist”, Full text available at:


Lee, S. (2022). The real promise of federalism: A case study of Arendt’s international thought. European Journal of Political Theory, 21(3), 539-560.


McMillan, S. L. (2008). Subnational Foreign Policy Actors: How and Why Governors Participate in U.S. Foreign Policy. Foreign Policy Analysis, 4(3), 227–253.


Sridharan, K. 2003, "Federalism and foreign relations: the nascent role of the Indian states", Asian studies review, vol. 27, no. 4, pp. 463-489.

Hazarika, O. B., “Evolving Dynamics of Federalism and Foreign Policy: Engagement of Indian States in External Affairs.”, Indian Foreign Affairs Journal, vol. 9, no. 1 (2014): 33–45


Waltz, Kenneth N., “Structural Realism After the Cold War”, International Security, vol.25, no. 1 (Summer 2000), pp. 5-41


Marchetti, Raffaele, “Global Governance or World Federalism? A Cosmopolitan Dispute on Institutional Models”, Global Society, vol. 20, issue 3 (2006), pp.287-305


IGLESIAS, E., MERKE, F., & IGLESIAS, V. (2009). Republic of Argentina. In H. MICHELMANN (Ed.), Foreign Relations in Federal Countries (pp. 10–35). McGill-Queen’s University Press.


[1] For a deeper analysis of Donald Trump’s foreign policy theoretical framework - grounded on nativism, isolationism, and anti-globalism - see the author’s article “Donald Trump’s Populism and the Twitter Diplomacy”

[2] In this context, we refer to the term ‘unionism’ as inspired by Clarence Streit’s legacy, comprised in his work of 1939 ‘Union Now!’. In this sense, unionism is conceived as a form of international federalism that advocates for creating a federal union of democracies – particularly consolidated democracies like the US and some European states - to ensure peace, prosperity, and security against power politics conflicts and totalitarianism.

[3] About this topic, see for instance the noteworthy results of the European Union Horizon2020 project EU3D Differentiation, Dominance, and Democracy, like the remarkable document regarding how a federal union could deal better with the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine

[4] Every political community where there is a form of governance is considered a ‘polity’, no matter its specific characteristics.

[5] Here’s a small sample of Hamilton’s contribution to US Foreign Policy:

[6] These three phenomena are intertwined and consequential to the evolution of International Relations in a globalized world, where traditional state-centered diplomacy and foreign policy are questioned and transformed by the presence and actions of other private and public actors. Although these three concepts have been contested and have contrasting definitions (Kincaid), Hybrid Diplomacy is conceived here as the blending of traditional state diplomacy with new approaches and initiatives to include non-state actors in foreign policy and diplomacy, like NGOs, private companies, and civil society actors. Paradiplomacy is a term that refers to the involvement of sub-state governmental authorities in International Relations, like local and regional governments, while City Diplomacy refers specifically to the participation of cities in diplomacy and Global Politics, in particular through the creation of global networks to address common challenges.


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