A confederation is a sovereign nation formed by the joining together of other sovereign nations. The confederation may be formed by a formal treaty, by tradition, or by some other agreement.
A typical feature of a confederation is that the member states maintain a large degree of their original sovereignty, whereas in a federation, the states cede most or all of their sovereign powers to the national government.
Generally speaking, most confederations do not survive because the national interests of the states often overshadow the interests of the confederation, causing individual states to balk at national demands.
The United States of America
After the Revolutionary War and before the ratification of the United States Constitution, the United States of America operated under a document known as the Articles of Confederation. The Articles created a perfect example of a confederation. The nation created also illustrates the typical problems with confederations.
The Articles guaranteed the member states their sovereignty in most things. The national government had a very short and concise list of powers. For example, only the national government was permitted to make treaties, to declare war, to set the value of the national currency, and to establish post offices. Most other powers, though, were reserved to the states.
A national treasury was established to pay for defense, war, and other common expenses, and taxes were to be paid into the treasury by the states in proportion to their land value.
A national Congress was established, though no national executive nor judiciary was. The Congress was made up of two to seven members from each state, but when there was a vote, votes were cast by state and not by individual.
Quickly, problems with the limited national government emerged. For example, the national government had no power to compel states to contribute to the treasury, and when states began to refuse to send funds, sending states followed suit, leaving the country in severe financial straits. Additionally, the national government had no authority to regulate trade among states, leading to tensions that threatened to erupt into actual war between states. Finally, the Articles could only be amended by unanimous consent of the states - in the end, the Articles were never amended.
The Articles were eventually replaced in what has been called a "bloodless coup," with the ratification of the Constitution.
The Confederate States of America
The Confederate States of America, also know as the Confederacy, was formed in 1861 by slave-holding states of the United States of America. The states broke away from the USA in protest to the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, with the belief that with his election, abolition of slavery would be forthcoming.
The CSA eventually was joined by the states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee. The two parties in the American Civil War were the USA and the CSA.
Though the CSA termed itself "confederate", it was not a confederacy even to the degree that the United States under the Articles was. The states did have more power under the Confederate Constitution than under the U.S. Constitution, but that power was almost exclusively restricted to the states' ability to maintain or abandon slavery as they each saw fit. Few other sovereign powers were transferred from the national government to the state governments.
The Confederacy dissolved with the surrender of Confederate forces at the end of the Civil War in 1865.
United Arab Republic
The UAR was marked with strife from its outset. The joining of the two regional powers put pressure on neighboring nations, Jordan in particular. When the King and Prime Minister of Iraq were assassinated in 1958, the UAR announced its support for the new Iraqi regime (the flag of Iraq was changed to that of the UAR - a tri-color with two stars, one for Egypt and one for Syria - but modified to include a third star to reflect Iraq's eventual membership in the UAR).
The confederation broke up in 1961 when a coup in Syria brought to power a group opposed to the union. Other pressures on the confederation are typical sticking points in confederations. For example, the capital of the UAR was Cairo, and Syrian leaders in Cairo were disconnected from their base of power (perhaps contributing to the rebels' sense of confidence).
Also contributing to the break-up was a pseudo-confederation between the UAR and North Yemen, called the United Arab States. The UAS was primarily the result of common defense concerns, though the member states had even less in common geographically than Syria and Egypt. During the time of the UAS, Yemen adopted the tri-color flag of the UAR, but with no stars. The break-up of the UAR led directly to the dissolution of the UAS.
Senegal and The Gambia are located on the west coast of Africa. With the exception of the Gambian coastline, Senegal completely engulfs The Gambia. In 1982, the two nations joined in a confederation called Senegambia. The union was born of fears of rebellion in one country spilling over the borders to the other, and of differences in economic policy that encouraged black markets for some goods. Though the union was supported by the ruling class and social elite of the two nations, it was never embraced by the people. The confederation failed in 1989, spurred particularly when Senegal was threatened militarily by its neighbor Mauritania.