How 55 men in 1787 changed the world .... It's the biggest US export: 200 years after the Constitution was drafted, nearly all of the world's constitutions reflect it.
Although America is awash with Japanese cars and Taiwanese toys, it still holds the lead in one export: its Constitution. Nearly all of the 160 national constitutions now in use - from Canada to Mali - show some trademarks of the 55 men who met in a sweltering Philadelphia room in the summer of 1787 to piece together the framework of United States government.
Constitutional scholar and Rutgers University professor Albert Blaustein has called the US Constitution the nation's ``most important export.'' Dr. Blaustein, who has written extensively on constitutions around the world, says other nations have studied and learned from the American document, even if they opted for a parliamentary system rather than the presidential model.
Oldest written constitution
Walter Berns, Georgetown University professor and a scholar with the conservative American Enterpise Institute think tank, insists that the biggest impact of the American framers' achievement was the ``written Constitution itself.''
``It was the first national [written] Constitution prior to World War II. And it served as a model to others,' explains Professor Berns.
The 1787 US document - to which ten original amendments known as the ``Bill of Rights'' were added in 1791 - served as a model for early rewrites of the national documents of France and Poland.
But more than half of the constitutions now in use have been written, or rewritten, within the last two decades. Less than a score predate World War II. Among the oldest of these belong to Argentina, Australia, Austria, Colombia, Finland, Ireland, Lebanon, Liberia, Liechtenstein, Mexico, and Switzerland.
Even the six nations that have no single written document have been influenced by America's version of the so-called supreme law of the land. Among them are Britain, Israel, and New Zealand - which rely on custom and various legal documents - and Libya, Oman, and Saudi Arabia - which look to the Koran, the sacred book of the world's Muslims, for their law-related guidance.
Same rights, new interpretations
Many modern constitutions spell out human and civil rights similar to those contained in the US document. But these freedoms are often interpreted in ways different than they would be in the US. They are often restricted in terms of national policy, and some 20 of them have even been suspended in times of crisis.
A Bill of Rights - American style - is particularly prominent in the constitutions of African nations whose independence has come in recent years. Among them: Senegal (1963); Mali (written in 1974, effective 1979); and the Central African Republic (1981).
The documents of many Soviet-bloc nations provide speech freedoms. But in contrast to the US, this privilege is only guaranteed if it doesn't interfere with state interests.
Nicaragua's Constitution, adopted this past January, deals with freedom of the press with a similar caveat. It states that the ``means of mass communications are in the service of the national interest,'' as judged by the state.
Even in nations considered to emphasize on individual liberties, freedoms are limited compared to US standards. France allows wiretapping by the police. Britain places restraints on what the media may report about a criminal defendant and - unlike the US - has no Freedom of Information Act. And Switzerland narrows access to a lawyer by the accused.
US legacy in Latin America
Many Latin American constitutions reflect the ideas of the US document in both substance and form - but these constitutions have brought little stability to these nations.
``The notion itself of even having a constitution was a uniquely American intervention,'' Allan Brewer-Carias, a Venezuelan scholar was recently quoted as saying. ``The principles of American constitutionalism - the separation of powers, presidentialism, the declaration of rights - were followed by all of the Latin American nations. Argentina, in particular, adopted a judicial system modeled very closely to the US Supreme Court.''
Venezuela's Constitution, adopted in 1961, created a bicameral legislature, provided an executive veto that could be overriden by two-thirds vote of Congress, and proclaimed universal suffrage for all citizens.
Brazil has had five constitutions, and it's now in the process of shaping a new document, scheduled for completion later this year. Observers believe the National Constituent Assembly's 559 members will ultimately devise a mixed system - including a parliamentary-style prime minister and a popularly elected President.
The Philippines, while under US control in 1935, approved a US-type Constitution. But in 1973, under Ferdinand Marcos, a new charter imposed a parliamentary form of government that included eight years of martial law. Early in 1987, with Corazon Aquino at the helm, the nation adopted a strong Constitution - with a presidential form of government and guaranteed individual rights.
The idea of judicial review - that courts must pass judgment on the legality of legislation - is almost unique to the US experience. West Germany, France, and Italy are among the few who embrace it.
Beyond the Constitution
Samuel Beer, Harvard professor of government emeritus, while acknowledging the role of the US Constitution, says that ``the important thing about America is democracy - not the Constitution. What impresses the world is the fact that we govern ourselves. That's what went ringing around the world. The British never thought we could do it.''