John Kincaid, Professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and director of the College’s Meyner Center for the Study of State and Local Government gave a useful definition of federalism:

Federalism is essentially a system of voluntary self-rule and shared rule. This is implied in the derivation of the word ‘federal’, which comes from the Latin foedus, meaning covenant. A covenant signifies a binding partnership among co-equals in which the parties to the covenant retain their individual identity and integrity while creating a new entity, such as a family or a body politic, that has its own identity and integrity as well. A covenant also signifies a morally binding commitment in which the partners behave toward each other in accord with the spirit of the law rather than merely the letter of the law.

John Kincaid, Handbook of Federal Countries: 2002, Introduction, Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002.

Ron Watts, former Principal of Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario and Fellow of the Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, gave a functional definition of federalism:

Federalism provides a technique of constitutional organization that permits action by a shared government for certain common purposes, together with autonomous action by constituent units of government for purposes that relate to maintaining their distinctiveness, with each level directly responsible to its own electorate. Indeed, taking account of such examples as Canada, the United States and Mexico in North America, Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina in South America, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Belgium and Spain in Europe, Russia in Europe and Asia, Australia, India, Pakistan and Malaysia in Asia, and Nigeria, Ethiopia, and South Africa in Africa, some 40 percent of the world’s population today live in countries that can be considered or claim to be federal, and many of these federations are clearly multicultural or even multinational in their composition.

– Ron Watts, Federalism Today, the background paper written for the International Conference on Federalism 2002, Saint Gallen, Switzerland, August 2002.