By Robert A. Pastor
Special to CNN Interactive
(CNN) -- The evolution of U.S. leadership in the world can be seen in its
relationship to the Panama Canal at the dawn of the 20th century and at its dusk.
America's construction of the canal in 1904-14 was one of the century's
technological feats, one that Europeans tried but failed to do. On the last day
of the century, the United States will officially transfer to Panama responsibility
for the operation, administration and defense of the canal.
If the canal's construction symbolized the arrival on the world stage of
power, the United States, the transfer demonstrates that America's real
source of strength lies in its ability to adapt to a changing world.
At the beginning, the United States needed to control the canal to secure
it; at the end,
we understand that the best defense of the canal required that we transform a resentful
neighbor into a partner.
With the help of Panamanian, Caribbean and Chinese labor, Americans built
through the middle of Panama. We protected it with a 10-mile wide Canal Zone.
During the two world wars, the canal was a vital strategic artery for the United States
and our allies. By the Korean War, however, the canal's width could not accommodate
the huge aircraft carriers that had become the centerpieces of our fleets in both oceans.
Still, the canal remains very important economically as a transportation route.
Panama's pride eventually became resentment
The Panamanians were proud of their greatest resource but increasingly
resentful over what they viewed as a colonial presence that divided their
country in half. In 1964, a fight over a flag in the Canal Zone between
Panamanian and American students left 23 Panamanians and four U.S.
Marines dead. Panama insisted on new treaties, and most Latin American
leaders supported them. The talks began in 1964 and concluded in 1977
with two new treaties.
The Panama Canal Treaty called for the end of the Canal Zone in 1979 and
gradual transfer of responsibility for the canal to Panama to be completed on
December 31, 1999, with the withdrawal of U.S. troops and closure of bases.
Panama would be responsible for the canal's defense. The Treaty on the
Permanent Neutrality of the canal, however, gave the United States the right
to defend the canal, preferably in support of Panama, but if necessary and under
extreme circumstances, by itself.
The debate on the treaties was intense and politically controversial. Many
felt a sentimental attachment to this great achievement. One senator joked
that "we should keep it because we stole it, fair and square."
President Jimmy Carter, with the support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
Republican Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker, former President
Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, argued that the 1903
treaties actually endangered the canal by enraging Panamanian and Latin
American nationalism. The best defense of the canal, they said, would be to
become a partner with Panama. The treaties passed by a single vote in the
Panama has a better idea
The United States operated the canal as a model of state socialism. Panama
has a better idea. It will do a good job operating the canal, and it is
privatizing the ports and inviting foreign investors to build hotels, industrial
parks, eco-tourism, ship repair facilities and private housing.
One of the largest shipping and container operators in the world, a Hong
Kong firm called Hutchison-Whampoa, bid successfully to manage two
ports. Some conjure up phantoms of Chinese Communists using Hutchison
to threaten the canal, but China does not have the capability to seize Taiwan --
just 90 miles off-shore -- let alone a canal that is 10,000 miles away. Furthermore,
Hutchison has a stake in promoting the canal, not harming it.
More importantly, Panama has no intention to trade away its new
independence, and the United States has all the rights and the power needed
to defend the canal.
In the new century, the continued ability of the United States to lead
depend on the partnerships we forge around the world. The best place to
start is with our friends in Panama. We will demonstrate our greatness twice
if we exhibit as much pride in transferring the canal at the end of the century
as we did in building it at the beginning.
Robert A. Pastor, professor of political science at Emory University in
Atlanta, is the
editor of "A Century's Journey: How the Great Powers Shape the World" (Basic Books,
1999). He was director of Latin American Affairs on the National Security Council when
the canal treaties were negotiated and ratified.