Questions raised over peace in Iraq and political participation in the US

24 April 2012

The fall-out from the war in Iraq and the problems of democratic political participation in the US posed by the federal system were two of the subjects covered  in our latest workshop entitled The Promise and Pitfalls of Federalism, held at the Queen's College, Oxford on 20th April.

The workshop explored how federalism is increasingly being used as an organizing principle for twenty-first century democratic constitutions, in order to address the inherent problems with power sharing across different groups, as well as the risks to minority populations that majoritarian democracy can pose.

A cautious note was sounded from the outset with Professor Jan Erk's paper on 'Federalism and it's Discontents', which exposed some of the problems of the so-called 'New Institutionalism'. He argued that exporting easy to install one-size-fits-all constitutional solutions often do not account for the unique circumstances of the country concerned, and that, while they may provide a quick fix for the reconciliation of disparate groups in post-conflict societies, such settlements can equally cause long-term entrenched probelms.

This was exemplified in the following session, in which Professor Gareth Stansfield, Profesor of Middle East Politics at Exeter University, predicted that the federalism question will dominate political life in Iraq, perhaps even violently in the months ahead. Arguing that Iraq's crisis has been exacerbated by last year's withdrawal of US troops, Professor Stansfield suggested that the Iraqi coalition is on the verge of collapse, with the Kurds considering forming an independent state in response to the increasing authoritarianism of  Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The afternoon session began with an analysis of political decentralization in Spain, where state-wide parties have used federalism to deflect, and largely ignore claims by Catalonia and the Basque Country for independence.

Workshop convenor Professor Lisa Miller brought the event to a close with her paper on American federalism, in which she argues that the federalization of law and policy reduces the accountability of public officials to those they represent, undermines public confidence in government, and facilitates a quiescent Congress. She challenged the view that iconic moments from American history such as the civil rights movement represent victories for the rule of law over tyrannical democaratic majorities, arguing that federalization actually impedes such instances of mass mobilization and is harmful to democratic political participation.