What is the difference between a confederation and a unitary government?  

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Confederation and unitary systems of government are on opposite ends of the spectrum of control and unification. The United States is a prime candidate for analyzing these types of government because it exists in the middle ground between confederate and unitary—the federal system.

A confederate government is what the Confederate...

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Confederation and unitary systems of government are on opposite ends of the spectrum of control and unification. The United States is a prime candidate for analyzing these types of government because it exists in the middle ground between confederate and unitary—the federal system.

A confederate government is what the Confederate States of America were attempting to create when they seceded from the Union at the beginning of the Civil War. This type of government goes all in on the states' powers and rights in order to give them the strength to govern as individual organizations. The main body of government, the central federal agency, is much weaker than the individual states and therefore can't overrule them as easily and only exists to settle disputes between the different states or territories.

A unitary government is the opposite, in which the central, federal government, holds absolute power over the individual units. They exact laws and make judgments on the nation as a whole, and the individual states are unable to overrule the federal government or effectively make their own judgments and laws.

The United States currently exists in between these two forms of government, with explicit and enumerated powers giving the states some strength, while upholding absolute power for the federal government when needed.

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A confederation is a relatively loose union of sovereign states that form a single political entity; political power is decentralized. A unitary state is a political union in which all the power is centralized. The United States is an example of a federal system—a kind of combination of the two.

There are a couple of illustrative examples of confederations from American history. The first one was the first American government, under the Articles of Confederation (1781–1789). The weak central government under the Articles has been described as a mere "League of Friendship." The various states held almost all of the power, and the situation became untenable for the nation as a whole. Shay's Rebellion was the last straw for the feeble federal government. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 led to the creation of the US Constitution and a more robust federal government.

A second example of a confederacy from American history was the government of the South during the Civil War (1861–1865). The South's weak central government, which was located in Richmond, lacked sufficient wartime authority to effectively prosecute the war.

Most nations in the world today have unitary systems. France, Great Britain, China, and Japan are among the largest unitary nations. There are different types of unitary systems—the type depends on the exact relationship between central and regional authorities.

Many large nations, including the United States, have a federal system of government. Federal systems have distinct levels of government. In the United States, power is divided between the fifty states and the national government in Washington, DC.

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This question is talking about two radically different forms of political structure. Unitary states are defined by the centralization of power under a central government. Power flows from the highest levels of government downward to more local levels of administration (which ultimately answer to that more centralized level of governance). The key, defining theme here is centralization.

Confederations, on the other hand, represent a very different system of political structure. In fact, it might be more accurate to imagine a confederation not as a single nation-state or country, but rather as a grouping of separate political entities. Take the United States as it existed under the Articles of Confederation as an example: power was so radically decentralized that the United States looked less like a unified nation-state and more like an alliance between the various states, with each state functioning (for all intents and purposes) as a separate country of its own.

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The difference between the three main types of systems, unitary, federal, and a confederation, is the amount of power each system gives to the central government.

In a unitary system, the central government is all-powerful, and has the last say in matters. A unitary system can still have regional and local governments, like Great Britain and France, but the central government oversees these regional and local governments, and their powers are given to them by the central government.

A federal system is a system in which the central government and regional and local governments share power. This is the type of government the United States has. The Constitution of the U.S. gives certain powers to the central (federal government), and gives other powers specifically to state governments. The states have a lot of power to govern themselves, particularly when it comes to laws regarding individual citizens. However, in other areas, the federal government holds the power (e.g., the power to make treaties and handle diplomatic relationships with other countries), and the states have no power in these areas. Other countries with federal systems are Brazil, Germany, Australia, and Malaysia. 

A confederation is a government where the states or regional governments have more power than the central government. Each state/regional government has all the powers of an individual country--they can raise a military force, print their own money, handle diplomatic relationships with other countries, tax their citizens, etc. The United States was a confederation under the Articles of Confederation. This governmental structure failed because the central government was too weak to effectively function, and the Constitution made the United States a federation. The former USSR, now known as the Commonwealth of Independent States, is structured as a confederation. 

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