The Panama Canal Treaties were Carter’s biggest foreign policy win | Bruce Ledewitz

They were not only Carter’s greatest achievement, they were a great achievement of a very different America

March 9, 2023 6:30 am
Then-President Jimmy Carter came to Kansas for a 1978 rally featuring John Carlin, a candidate for governor, and Senate candidate Bill Roy. (Submitted by John Carlin)

Then-President Jimmy Carter came to Kansas for a 1978 rally featuring John Carlin, a candidate for governor, and Senate candidate Bill Roy. (Submitted by John Carlin/The Kansas Reflector.)

Former President Jimmy Carter has entered hospice care and, as of this writing, is not expected to live much longer. This announcement has led to much public reconsideration of his presidency and his life.

As a Carter fan, I am used to seeing his presidency underrated. After all, he presided over a deteriorating economy, a hostage crisis, blamed America’s problems on “malaise” and was humiliated in his bid for a second term by the Ronald Reagan landslide.

That sounds like a failed presidency.

Nevertheless, I have been shocked at the disregard of Carter’s greatest achievement—and probably the most successful American foreign policy initiative since the creation of the post-World War II international system—the Panama Canal Treaties.

In a recent column in The New York Times, for example, author Kai Bird lauded Carter for political courage in pressing the Canal issue in his first term, but failed to list the treaties as one of his major foreign policy achievements. 

Americans do not realize how close we came to an unending conflict over the Canal, with consequences far more threatening and stakes far higher than we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of all that, the Treaties have brought peace and prosperity.

Just consider the importance of the Panama Canal.

Strategically, the canal allowed the U.S. to become a world power with a two-ocean navy. Economically, the canal facilitated the worldwide supply chains we now understand to be so important to economic development.

The potential for conflict over the canal roots in its imperialist beginning. In the 19th century, the isthmus of Panama, where the Canal would be built, was part of Colombia. When Colombia refused permission to build the canal on U.S. terms, President Teddy Roosevelt supported the ongoing effort of Panama to secede from Colombia. The new Panamanian government, with some prodding, proved more accommodating. In 1903, by treaty, the U.S. was granted permanent control over the canal and a surrounding Canal Zone.

The canal was completed in 1914.

Many Panamanians considered the treaty illegitimate from the start, leading to ongoing tensions between the U.S. and Panama. In 1964, riots over flying the Panamanian flag in the Canal Zone led to a temporary suspension of relations between the two countries.

This convinced the administration of President Lyndon Johnson to pursue negotiations over a new treaty. But political changes in the Panamanian government prevented completion of an agreement.

President Richard Nixon continued the negotiations, leading to a draft agreement that formed the foundation of the later treaties.

During the presidential primaries of the 1976 election, President Gerald Ford supported a new treaty while Ronald Reagan opposed it, accusing Ford of giving away the canal

Ironically, during the ensuing presidential election campaign, Carter expressed some skepticism over a new treaty. Nevertheless, once in office, Carter quickly changed course and pursued a final agreement with Panama.

Ratification of a treaty requires a two-thirds vote in the U.S. Senate and there was a great deal of opposition to a new canal treaty, even among Democrats. In an attempt to persuade the country, the Carter administration organized hundreds of forums across the nation to explain the proposed treaty. 

I attended one of those forums, in Knoxville, Tenn. The political pressure on Howard Baker, the Republican minority leader in the U.S. Senate, was tremendous. Baker deserves great credit for taking a political risk for the good of the country and not only supporting the treaty, but rounding up 15 additional Republican votes in support. 

Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd managed to hold Democratic defections to a minimum.

In the end, the vote was 68-32, one more vote than needed. Actor John Wayne’s support, a friend of Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos, proved crucial.

The overall agreement was divided into two parts. The first, called the Neutrality Treaty, allowed the U.S. to use military force to defend the neutrality of the canal, thus ensuring permanent access to the canal. The second, the Panama Canal Treaty, eliminated the U.S. Zone by 1979 and turned over control of the canal to Panama in 1999.

It is not hard to imagine what the world would be like if the treaties had not been ratified. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush invaded Panama to remove Manuel Noriega from power.

That kind of conflict would have been ongoing if the U.S. were still occupying Panamanian territory today. Undoubtedly, there would be guerrilla attacks and terrorist bombings in the Canal Zone, just as there are in other areas of occupation in the world today.

The ongoing conflict in Panama would hamper U.S. relations elsewhere, but especially in Latin America. 

And just think how much easier life would be for Russian strongman Vladimir Putin if the U.S. were occupying a foreign country. 

In contrast to those horrors, since the takeover of the canal by Panama in 1999, relations with Panama have been peaceful and the operation of the canal uninterrupted.

Carter had other foreign policy successes, but they were not as momentous in their results. The well-known Camp David Accords did not resolve the fundamental conflict in the Mideast and even without the agreements, Egypt eventually would have reached a stable relationship with Israel, as Saudi Arabia has done. 

Indeed, it is hard to think of any single foreign policy action since WWII that so completely accomplished U.S. goals. That very success is probably the reason that Carter’s Canal accomplishment is overlooked.

One more thing stands out about the treaties. Carter was probably the last U.S. president who would have negotiated this change and could have procured ratification. In 1978, there was still a foreign policy establishment that could identify U.S. interests, devise policies to meet those national needs and convince recalcitrant Senators of their importance.

Also, in 1978, there was still a feeling that a president should be able to count on political opponents helping to accomplish foreign policy goals on a bipartisan basis. 

So, the Panama Canal Treaties were not only Carter’s greatest achievement, they were a great achievement of a very different America.

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Bruce Ledewitz
Bruce Ledewitz

Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne Kline Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. He hosts the “Bends Toward Justice” podcast. His latest book, “The Universe Is On Our Side: Restoring Faith in American Public Life,” is out now. His opinions do not represent the position of Kline Duquesne Law School.