Uniting States: Voluntary Union in World Politics

Uniting States: Voluntary Union in World Politics

Uniting States: Voluntary Union in World Politics

Uniting States: Voluntary Union in World Politics


What causes a state to unify voluntarily with another state? If realists are right, voluntary union should never happen. In their view, states value their sovereignty above all else and would never give it up without a fight. Yet the United States and Switzerland are glaring exceptions to this paradigm. If liberals and constructivists are right, voluntary unions should be much more common and actually increasing in frequency. After all, classic determinants of integration such as international trade and communication are stronger than they have ever been. Yet the number of states in the world continues to climb, and the most favorable arena for unification, the European Union, seems to be hitting a glass ceiling. In Uniting States, Joseph Parent argues that unions are the balancing coalitions of last resort. Elites can weld separate states into a lasting union only when facing particularly serious threats. Drawing on five major historical cases of union--the United States, Switzerland, Sweden--Norway, Gran Colombia, and the European Union-- Uniting States sheds new light on political polarization, state dissolution, federalism, and the possibility of uniting without fighting.


In Theseus, however, they had a king of equal intelligence and power; and one of the chief
features in his organization of the country was… to merge them in the single council
chamber and town hall of the present capital…. so that when Theseus died he left a great
state behind him.



Envy george washington. When he died in 1799, he had liberated and united thirteen sprawling and disparate states, founding a country that would rocket to great power status within a century, and within two centuries attain levels of power never seen in modern history. He died in his bed, wealthy and beloved, surrounded by adoring compatriots.

Contrast Washington’s tranquil demise with the last throes of another great American. Simón Bolívar, also a heroic general and liberator, was consumed in a futile bid to unify five sprawling and disparate states. His lungs filled with green fluid, he died alone on the highway, abject, betrayed, exiled, and despised. He lit the flame for a unified, continental power, but his torch lies extinguished where he fell.

In the pantheon of fortune’s favorites, what bestows brilliant success on some unifiers and crushing failure on others? What makes some states come together and others fall apart? Everyone knows that ruthless force is capable of enforcing unity at gunpoint; dictators and despots are amply understood. Yet Washington and Bolívar rise above ordinary leaders. They refused to degenerate into tyrants, their unions were voluntary, and their examples contain golden lessons on a fundamental issue in international politics: the problem of peaceful change.

Unification is uncommon, voluntary unions more so. We can see how dreaded a prospect political merger is by how seldom it happens and the lengths states go to avoid it. Fifty of 202 states have died since 1815; 35 have done so violently. Like . . .

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