Influences of the Panama Canal on U.S Foreign Policy

The Panama’s Canal provided the stage for development of the relations that exist between US and Panama and a source of significant influence to the foreign policy that the US adopts towards Panama. The canal was constructed after Panama seceded from Columbia, with the support of the US, to form an independent state on November 3, 1903.[1] In exchange for such support, Panama agreed to sign the Hay-Buneau-Varilla Treaty, which granted permission to the US to construct the canal and the rights to the canal’s perpetual control. [2] Later, in 1977, following increased resistance to the U.S presence from the Panamanian citizens, the US ceded the Canal back to Panama following the signing of a treaty between the then US president, Jimmy Carter, and the Panamanian president, Omar Torrijos.[3] Despite this later action, the canal has continued to shape the economic and political relations between the US and Panama, since it was the resource around which Panama economy has developed, with its operations, by themselves, contributing up to 6 percent of the country’s GDP.[4]

Historical Background

Before there were planes, trains, and automobiles, inhabitants of the new world expanded and explored by means of the seas. Explorers were developing trading routes among countries but without the technology we utilize today, explorers had to use the trial and error system. Years were dedicated to finding the fastest way to get from one ocean to another as efficient as possible. The Panama’s Canal captured such importance since it connected the entire region from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, through the Caribbean, the construction of the Canal was not a result of the unification of the region, but arose from conflicts that for instance saw the rearrangement of the international players controlling the region.

Although the actual canal did not begin construction until 1881, mention of a shortcut through the narrow isthmus dates all the way back to 1534. Charles V ordered a survey to find a route directly through the Americas rather than around the great Brazilian peninsula. The leader of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Spain knew there had to be a faster way to traverse the region. Ships and compasses were all they had to work with at the time but once they discovered this area for opportunity, they began planning. The primary reason among trade was military advantage between the Spanish and the Portuguese empires. Control of this waterway ensured superior military positioning, trading, and exploration-power for the controller.

The canal’s construction can also be traced to the Spanish undertaking of a five-year expedition in 1788. During the tour, they set eyes on both a short cut and a giant problem; they had no way through. Sailing all the way around the southern tip of South America, Cape Horn was now out of the question. However, without a solution for ships to pass, they would have to sail 8,000 miles throughout the way. The canal cut a journey, which normally took months, into only 9 hours. At this point, Scotland, the Americas, Spain, France and Portugal all wanted this vital part of the Western Hemisphere. Centuries of failed attempts, routes, projects, and territorial wars finally resulted in a construction plan, which attracted attention from various leaders at the time.

The first attempt at a sea-level canal was under the control of Ferdinand de Lesseps. This took place in 1881 when the French believed they had enough financial power to construct the canal. However, after 9 years and near bankrupt of the French government, a canal was finally established. However, due to the lack of planning and difficulty, which goes into building such a complex infrastructure, the “Suez Canal” essentially crumbled beneath them. Such failure arose from aspects such as waterlogged tropical conditions, unstable mountains, and the disease and accidents that slowed the over 22,000 French workers. In addition, rain-induced landslides dumped about as much matter back into the canal that as that which the workers excavated. Accordingly, in 1893, the sheer difficulty and immense loss of lives led to an abrupt halt in construction efforts and the French abandoned the cause.

[1] J. F. Hornbeck. “Panama’s Canal and Economic Relations with the United States.” Congressional Research Service, report. 10/17 (2011): 4-8

[2] Ibid., p. 5.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 7


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