Difference Between Federation and Confederation (With Table)

Conversely, the states of a federation have to submit their authority to the common central government. They have to accept a subordinated position vis-à-vis the superordinate central government.

Federation vs Confederation

The difference between a federation and confederation is that while the member states in the former submit their individual sovereignty to the federal government, the member states in the latter retain their sovereignty. The central government in a confederation is merely a figurehead organization. It remains accountable to the member states.

A confederation is a coalition of several sovereign states that reserve the right to secession. Primary sovereignty is retained by these composite units. As opposed to such a division of sovereign authority, a federal union reserves the preliminary dominance over the quasi-sovereign member states.

Comparison Table Between Federation and Confederation

Parameters of ComparisonFederationConfederation
Possession of SovereigntyPrimary sovereignty is submitted to the common federal government.Primary sovereignty is retained by the member states.
AuthorityThe central federal government is extremely powerful.The central organization in a confederation is weak.
AutonomyAutonomy of the states is curbed.Autonomy of member states is retained.
Possibility of SecessionThe member states cannot secede easily from the union because of the stringent legal terms of the alliance.The member states can easily secede from the union.
Scope of PowerThe authoritative federal government exercises power in accordance with the constitutional provisions. Its powers usually include defense, foreign policy, national security, etc.The central organization can only exercise power over certain issues as mandated by the member states.
CitizenshipDual citizenships are commonly accorded to all citizens.No separate citizenship is awarded to the citizens.
Popularity of EachFederations are very popular political systems used in several states of the world.Confederations were popular during the earlier historical periods, but most have changed into federations. Now they are mostly used as treaty-based international organizations.
ExamplesUSA, Germany.Iroquois Confederation, U.N, E.U

What is a Federation?

Federation is a particular political system that is formed when several constituent states submit a part of their sovereign authority to a common central government. This common federal government possesses expansive powers in the domains of defense, foreign affairs, national security, and finance.

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However, a certain degree of autonomy is retained by the states. But the possibility of seceding from the union is eliminated. Strong legal ties bind the states together. A written constitution is often an essential tool for dictating the division of powers between the federal government and the constituent states. The policy decisions taken by the federal government are binding on the member states.

Federations are often political systems adopted by erstwhile confederations. America, Germany, Russia are all examples of this transformation. These nation-states have adopted a federal political structure marking an end to their confederation statuses. Several populous countries in the world have adopted the federal form of government.

What is a Confederation?

A confederation is a voluntary alliance of several states that may be formed to attain certain commonly agreed-upon goals. The coalition may be formed to achieve various economic, political, cultural, or social objectives. The member states can secede from the union if they feel that these objectives are not being adequately fulfilled.

Sovereignty is possessed solely by the constituent states. The central organization is a nominally selected figurehead that is devoid of any real power. It can only exercise those powers that have been clearly assigned by the states. The real role of this central body is to ease the communication between states and hasten all administrative processes. Moreover, it remains accountable to the member states.

Most of the important legislative areas are retained by the states- making them the real centers of power. There are few nation-states that have adopted the confederation system. Most international organizations like the United Nations, the European Union are based on the principle of a confederation, where the real power is vested in the member states.

Main Differences Between Federation and Confederation

  1. The main difference between a federation and a confederation is in terms of the possession of sovereign authority. Under a federation, primary sovereignty is vested in the federal government. While primary sovereignty is located in the member states in the case of a confederation.
  2. The power and authority vested in the central government are quite contrary in both federations and confederations. As the central government of a confederation is a nominally appointed figurehead, the real powers are held by the member countries. A weak central government characterizes most confederations. In the case of a federation, the central federal government is extremely powerful.
  3. Autonomy of the constitutive member states is extremely significant in a confederation. On the other hand, member states have to sacrifice a part of their autonomy to the federal government.
  4. The influential federal government can exercise its powers over the categories of defense, national security, foreign policy, finance, etc. However, the weak government of a confederation can only exercise powers in arenas clearly defined by the member states. It does not have any de facto powers.
  5. The member states in a federal nation cannot secede from the federation. Various legal ties bind the member states of a federation. In a confederation, the option of secession is open to all member states. They may exercise it if they feel this alliance is no longer gainful.
  6. Federations are popular political systems. They have been successfully adopted by several erstwhile confederations. Confederations were common in the ancient Greek and Italian societies, however, in the contemporary period, very few of them survive as nation-states. Confederations are mostly modalities of forming international organizations.
  7. A federal state may provide its citizens with dual citizenships, where one is representative of the member state the citizen belongs to and the other is representative of the federal government’s citizenship. A confederation does not allot a separate citizenship to its citizens, they simply continue to remain citizens of the individual member states.
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People often use the term ‘federation’ and ‘confederation’ interchangeably. However, there exist potent differences between these two closely related political systems of organization. A federal system is based on the complete submission of sovereignty to the common superiorly placed federal government. It exercises unwavering authority over seminal matters.

A confederation is quite contrary to such an organizational structure. Voluntarily formed to attain certain common goals, confederations have very limited powers to exercise. Such coalitions are subordinated to the member states.

The stability of a federation is much enhanced due to the lack of the secession clause from such forms of organization. However, the alliance forged under a confederation is not immune from secessions. The autonomy of withdrawal from the union lies with the states. Thus, it is important to cognize these differences between the two political terms to understand them thoroughly.  


  1. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=nT8YpGSGDcIC&oi=fnd&pg=PA45&dq=federation+vs+confederation&ots=mUNGvptgsP&sig=uQNzwiuvxge4Qsmf9vbTF0eELHk
  2. http://sam.gov.tr/pdf/perceptions/Volume-IV/september-november-1999/CLEMENT-H.-DODD.pdf