(Apologies in advance if I sound condescending or ignorant of world affairs. The former is unintentional; the latter is why I'm here.)

You often hear about countries (developing nations, mostly, but probably not entirely) whose political system is -- to American ears -- somewhat of a mess. I'm thinking of those places where the head of state unilaterally disbands the parliament or cancels elections, for instance.

I always wonder why no one in those countries proposes they adopt a system like ours? Checks and balances, separation of powers, etc.

Regardless of America's faults and shortcomings, we've been stable for two centuries, we're wealthier overall than everyone else, and our transitions of power happen regularly and bloodlessly almost all the time. Wouldn't the leaders of other countries, if they want their home to be successful, try to emulate that?

My first thought would be that the leaders of those other countries aren't very patriotic; they're not interested in any system in which checks, balances, and term limits would apply to them. But surely there must be someone who truly wants their county to be successful, even if means being subject to the laws they help put into place.

Could there be other reasons? Or am I wrong in assuming that developing countries never try this?

  • Related: "United States of Europe", Wikipedia.
    – Nat
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 8:23
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    The US is currently rated as a flawed democracy. Since 41% of the world's population live in countries rates as flawed democracies, there are many countries that have emulated the US. I'll set aside the question of whether emulating a "flawed democracy" is a worthy cause. Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 10:07
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    I’m voting to close this question because it is based on phoney assumptions.
    – FluidCode
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 11:15
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    It's worth nothing not even the US thinks its constitution is worth emulating. It imposed very different basic laws in both Japan and Germany after World War Two. Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 17:34
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    @FluidCode what phoney assumptions? Don't you think the asker of the question deserves to know? If someone posts a question in good faith, admitting that "ignorance of world affairs" is "why I'm here," then it ought to be met with a good faith effort to inform, not with downvotes and close votes.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 17:12

9 Answers 9


1. The formal system just doesn't matter that much.

If you look at some other long-lasting stable democracies such as the UK or Switzerland, you'll see that they function very different than the US does. Conversely, if you look at countries that slid away from democracy, you'll often find that initially there were safe guards such as term limits, which were then abandoned over time because they lacked popular support.

Looking back at the US, and Trump's last few months as president, you'll see that his clumsily attempted power-grab failed in its infancy because too few of his fellow Republicans were willing to go along with it (covering it up later seems to be a different story), not because of any explicit safeguards.

2. Overall, the US may not be looking that much like a great role model anyway

Going beyond the basic political setup, it becomes questionable whether the US is really a good role model. Yes, they are one of the richest countries in the world, but on most measures on how that wealth translates into societal good, they perform very badly. Shadur pointed out in the comments that the US has the worst healthcare system amongst rich countries, despite spending the most on it source. Amongst rich countries, the US has by far the highest infant mortality rate. Going by the Gini coefficient, the US is one of the most unequal "Western" countries.

3. Some countries tried and it didnt work out well

The original constitution of Liberia was closely modelled on the US constitution, as the country was founded by African-American émigrés. The political system allowed the descendants of the African-Americans to keep most political power to themselves, to the detriment of the native population. This led to several unsuccessful revolts, and a successful coup in 1980.

  • Your first point seems to contradict your last sentence. If the formal system does not matter that much, why would you expect another country implementing the system to obtain the exact same outcome?
    – Ray
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 11:08
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    @Ray The last sentence is about the entire package, not just copying the constitution and a bunch of laws.
    – Arno
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 11:16
  • How many of those poor countries currently have less inequality than the US? Maybe US-level inequality would be an improvement. But, more importantly, inequality is less important than quality of life. The bottom ten percent in a population that includes many of the world's multibillionaires might collectively have a better quality of life than the bottom 50% in a population where the wealth of the richest is measured in the tens or hundreds of millions.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 15:46
  • @phoog Ok, the last sentence may be a bit hyperbolic. I'll get rid of it.
    – Arno
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 15:55
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    @Fizz The US introduced term limits for their presidents in the early 20th century; Liberia declared independence in 1847.
    – Arno
    Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 22:05

I would say the US does not work because of the Constitution, it works despite the archaic and partly unworkable Constitution. It works because there is a centuries-old habit of respecting the rule of law. For a long time, it worked because there was no more capable rival on the American continent, and the oceans were wide. More recently, it works because it is large enough to tell the rest of the world to stop expecting meaningful policy answers in election years while they sort their affairs. Not every country has that luxury.

But the main thing is that a democratic and stable society can stay democratic and stable under many different constitutions. Take Germany today, which is about to replace Chancellor Merkel after 16 years in power. She might (or might not) have won another term if she had run again. Yet all those years, coalitions and governments changed in the states, and Merkel's party respected that the opposition was a legitimate part of the political process.


Other countries do not try to emulate the U.S because it will not necessarily lead to success.

In "Making Democracies Work", sociologist Robert Putnam states that "social capital" is key to high institutional performance and the maintenance of democracy. (Here social capital refers to the amount of trust and civic engagement in communities.)

Putnam argues that a strong democracy requires strong civil engagement. In his research, he compared different regional governments in Italy and found that areas with more social capital enjoyed better institutional success than areas lacking in capital, despite the fact these regional governments all shared similar government structures.

He concluded that social capital is key to collective action, political stability, government effectiveness and economic and social progress. Though he admits culture and structure are interdependent, he states that culture, once established is more influential than structure.

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    Indeed, a lot of states that are plagued by corruption nominally do have "checks and balances, separation of powers, etc." in their constitutions, which often were modeled on the US constitution to a greater or lesser degree, but those in power have managed to work around the constitutional safeguards.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 15:53

Stability and wealth do not depend only on the democratic system, there are other factors at play. A major factor is the economic situation: if most people have access to a decent standard of living, then political stability is much easier to maintain.

For example oil-rich Middle-East countries like Saudi Arabia, Emirates and Qatar are not at all democratic but they are fairly stable politically. China is not a democratic country either but it has been doing very well economically in the past decades and has been politically stable as a result. On the other hand a country like Tunisia which has recently built its own democratic system is facing serious challenges because of its poor economic situation.

The US was one of the first modern democracies in the world, but there's no clear causation link between the US political system and their wealth or political stability. In fact, historically the US economic growth was partly built on violence: exploiting slavery during centuries and expropriating native Americans from their land in order to exploit the natural resources. The US democracy is also far from perfect, it took until the 1960s Civil Rights movement for Black people to be legally considered as fully equal citizens, and to this day they are still discriminated against in practice.

It's perfectly healthy for a society to be proud of their democracy and the country historical achievements, but one shouldn't over-interpret the link between these two things:

  • The US democratic system is not provably better than any other.
  • The achievements of the US cannot be interpreted as the result of their political system, at least not solely.
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    Black people were nominally fully equal before the 1960s under the "separate but equal" doctrine. That was struck down in the 1960s, but it seems that still today their nominally "equal" status under the law is not fully realized in practice.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 15:59
  • @phoog a valid point, but only if you hold that racial animosity and unequality of outcomes is peculiar to only the US. I would argue that the lack of significant political representation for minorities in many countries makes that argument specious at best. Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 16:44
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica huh? What impact does the existence of racial animosity or inequality outside the US have on my comment? If black people are unequal in the US, they are so regardless of what goes on elsewhere. And I'm not talking only about political representation but about all the ways in which the system of government is used (in some places) to make their lives more difficult.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 16:52
  • @phoog Considering that the question is specifically asking to compare US systems to other countries, I think that doing so is well within scope ;-) I'm not claiming US outcomes for blacks are brilliant in any ways, only that racial problems are the norm, not the exception, throughout the world. Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 16:59
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica ok, I'm not taking issue with the answer's points about the US system and other countries' systems, I'm only taking exception to the implication that blacks have been "fully equal citizens" since the 1960s. They haven't. But that doesn't undermine the answer's point that US democracy is far from perfect; it only strengthens it. And the fact that they haven't is independent of what's going on in other countries.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 17:06

Liberia had similar constitution as the US for over 100 years, and it is one of the poorest countries in the world.

This is not a full answer, but I hope it shows that running a country is not a matter of simple copy/paste.


I do hope you don’t think checks and balances or separation of powers are a US invention.

I would think that the previous presidency has taught the US that checks and balances are absolutely meaningless in the face of blind populism. If there hadn’t been a worldwide pandemic, or if Trump hadn’t completely botched his response to it, he would have easily won another term, in which he would have further stripped down US democracy. For a big part of it legally, although the illegal parts wouldn’t necessarily have been found out.

The US crawled through the eye of the needle here.


(Expanding my comments to an answer, so sorry if parts of this looks like other answers)

Why specifically the US?

The Constitution is admirable but seems taken a bit too much like the Holy Word: the 2nd amendment for example is still overriding what seems to be a majority feeling that more gun control would be necessary. Being in the mythical 10 first amendments it is not all in the position as the poor 18th (Prohibition) and is likely to stick around as is.

More tellingly, the Constitution is 240 years old and a significant movement in US judicial circles is Originalism.

In the context of United States law, originalism is a concept regarding the interpretation of the Constitution that asserts that all statements in the constitution must be interpreted based on the original understanding "at the time it was adopted".

It seems odd, to me to hold that the founders, as clever and far-seeing as they were, would always choose the same rules nowadays. Again, on the 2nd Amendment, there seems to be a concern for a militia (to keep out the British) and there certainly were native to keep away and wild animals to hunt or defend against. Is this true for 2021's USA? Would the 2nd Amendment be written just so in the light of gun homicides and mass shootings?

While checks and balances are great Congress has become quite dysfunctional in the last 2 decades, because the founders never envisioned the existence of such partisan politicians, incapable of working for the common good. In fact, at least some people here have stated that the founders did not envision political parties in our contemporary sense as all that useful.

For one thing the US seems to have problems collaborating with the larger world community on treaties as an opposing Congress will rarely "gift" a POTUS a foreign policy success. Not entangling the new USA in foreign alliances had a certain background in the 1780s. Does the same exact context apply in 2020s, with nuclear weapons, transcontinental flight and a growing global warming emergency?

Many countries have in fact been inspired by the American model. Along with the French Declaration des Droits de l'Homme (1789) the US Constitution and independence has had a huge impact on political systems. I know it was explicitly considered when Canada was founded.

Third, the US model isn't "just the law", it takes a long time for traditions to support democracy to become ingrained. It's also people getting used to actually following through with democracy. In most countries you need several peaceful elections and transfers of power to get people to really trust and support the system. That's what allowed the US to survive Trump's attempt at subverting the electoral results: the military, Congress and even his own officials refused to go along with his plans, mostly due to tradition. In other words, copying the Constitution is only a small part of things.

Last, the US model is very dependent on a massive US specificity: the pre-existence of multiple states that wanted to balance their political freedom against the expediency of central Federal control. Not many countries are used to a federal model. And for those situations where a federal model might be useful, it is not as easy as all that. While the US may have a tug of war and distrust between the Feds and the States, there was no tradition of conflict between the states themselves. Nor, aside from the Civil War and its lingering effects is that much part of the US political landscape. Although - another caveat here - recent extreme partisanship is changing that assumption for the worse.

Contrast that with say Ethiopia, a country composed of different ethnic groups where a regional/tribal civil war is currently happening. A straight copy of the US federal model, without taking into account local specificities would not seem like a good idea.

  • "The Constitution is admirable but seems taken a bit too much like the Holy Word: the 2nd amendment for example is still overriding what seems to be a majority feeling that more gun control would be necessary. Being in the mythical 10 first amendments it is not all in the position as the poor 18th (Prohibition) and is likely to stick around as is." Overall your point that America's success as a democracy depends on attitudes and tradition rather than merely rules is correct, but your example is poor. A reverence for the Bill of Rights is one of those traditions that makes the system work.
    – Readin
    Commented Aug 10, 2021 at 1:31

There surely are good reasons to pick another model rather than the US or perhaps mix various models if one is determined to build the "best" democracy / society as other answers have pointed out.

There is one main issue however aside from that: A country needs a unified will to change its own model and needs to agree in the direction.

A country that works well won't see the need to (drastically) change its model.

A country that is dysfunctional, dictatorial or anti-democratic will typically not easily find the unified will to change itself into a model democracy. A dictator in power would gain nothing from it. There might be an opposition that claims it wants a democracy, but often a good portion of opposition forces in essence simply wants to replace the dictator but keep an authoritarian approach - simply because that is the mindset they grew up with. If there truly is a pro-democracy revolution, changes implemented are often a messy mix of democratic principles the former opposition leaders felt are important and traditions they felt were too unpopular to oppose.

Then again, most countries do change their laws and constitution on a regular basis in an incremental fashion. Who is to say some of the leaders of those countries don't look to the US for inspiration. Typically changes are however more driven by immediate needs than an attempt to mimic a particular country. Note that political systems are strongly connected to other aspects of a society and what works well in one country and will be accepted there won't be easily accepted or have the same beneficial impact (on its own) at least short term than in other countries.

If we look at the US, there are many archaic aspects to its political systems and aspects that feel extreme or reckless to other countries, examples:

  • the electoral college seems mainly in place for historic practical reasons not as a particularly good democratic mechanism
  • gun control and health care are at odds to what Europeans would think sane, but perhaps would be closer to a developing nation such that it could find easier acceptance there

One aspect in particular is that the US is build on a federal model - which makes sense for its size and history, but not for a country like, say Iceland. So a 1-1 application typically doesn't make sense. When designing a law framework you always need to account for local history, tradition and societal norms. Some of these you can shape over time, some of them you cannot (or only over a really long time without direct influence).

All that aside, since the introduction of certain models - especially in a democracy or if you want to establish one - hinges on the support of the masses, it is far more important to change and influence general values and knowledge than build a particular framework of law. If you want to change a country completely, you first need power and stability, then education and people getting accustomed to a change into a democratic direction. So you need to introduce changes in the law framework in a way they get accepted and in coordination with changing attitudes in your country. The details of the democratic system are far less important than the conviction to uphold democratic principles throughout the society. And the US is not a particularly good example framework to get there. Education and will for self-determination was already strongly ingrained in at least the European settlers that made up much of the original US citizenry, as they were European educated and on top typically the ones most unsatisfied with their European governments - thus arguably the most unruly ones, most striving for self-determination (speaking broadly again). One can at least question whether the current US society, education system and law framework is the best to inspire democratic convictions as it was shaped with an already democratic/self-deterministic mindset implanted in the populace and has its own pragmatic aspects rooted in its particular history (e.g. "you need to defend yourself in the wild west").

All that being said, there are countries who radically change and try to emulate other models. But this will typically be about picking the best pieces and melting them into a pot together with local specialities. Consider Germany or Turkey. In Germany after WW2 there was likely the closest a country can come to a clean slate start as the main supporting force of the old model was beaten to death (literally) to at least a large degree. And while many democratic and federal principles were incorporated under outside influence that wanted to ensure a hostile dictatorship does not re-emerge easily, the result isn't a copy of an existing constitution / framework of law. It is still very much a unique framework based on the German history.

In Turkey, Atatürk did try to emulate a lot of Western principles and managed to change his country in large parts into a secular model society westernising much of its make up. However, his goal was also not to emulate a particular country but to improve his home country and pick the parts from Western society he considered beneficial (experts in that matter feel free to correct me^^). Turkey is also a good example that change takes time to permeate society, if it does so at all. Today Turkey gradually slips back under leaders that have other goals. Perhaps goals in the opposite direction, if they care about shaping their country in this top-level sense at all (again not an expert in temporary Turkish politics^^). At least they challenge some of the protections placed into the law framework and some would argue that exactly the democratic protections prevent the country's protectors from stepping in (e.g. a military coup from a military that would try to uphold Atatürk's principles is still a coup).

Finally, another practical reason why people don't exactly want to emulate the US system: Publicly declaring the US as the model (or a particular other country) can be very unpopular. First, implying your country is inferior compared to a particular other country will typically not go well with a nationalistic voter base. And if you want to change your country substantially, you might need at least some form of patriotic/nationalistic sentiment. While this issue can be overcome, it's just a drawback that you will think twice before you accept it. Second, the US in particular is not as loved around the globe as it would like to be - especially by the population of many countries that are not so well off. South America has a history of US influence, that a good part of the countries don't particular appreciate. Many countries in the middle east have policies and convictions at odds with the US, have been in wars that at least some blame on the US or have had the US as occupying force. Close allies to the US on the other hand already have some form of democracy and are well off typically on their own (exceptions may apply). So publicly declaring to aim to copy the US in particular would open an easy way to distract from the goal at hand for any opposing political force.

The other big general reason is exactly the shape in which these countries you mention are. They are typically plagued with corruption and a history of dictators taking power from one another. Struggling democracies often have small scale populist "dictators" that misuse the system. If there are shining figures to right the wrong, the general sentiment will often be that they need all the power they can get to fight the corruption. So any means to introduce democratic safeguards that can be misused by the opposition can easily backfire and/or will be seen by more hardline candidates as weakness. The population at that point primarily is driven by more immediate needs than to secure a long lasting democracy with some principles that apply on a meta level when they want food on the table first. Will there be some leaders that want to achieve both? Sure, but they will be careful to pick a particular country to mimic for the practical and political reasons mentioned above.


we're wealthier overall than everyone else

On average, including the super-rich, but except for the super-rich many countries are better off.

Checks and balances, separation of powers, etc.

Americans are instructed to believe in this. Do they? I'm pretty sure foreigners don't.

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