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February 2013

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Panama and the United States
RyanReview by Joe B. Johnson


Panama and the United States: The End of the Alliance by Michael L. Conniff, University of Georgia Press: Athens, GA 30602, ISBN 978-0-8203-4414-0, 241 pp.                        (Paperback), $24.95

Panama and its trans-Isthmian canal sat at the center of United States foreign policy concerns in 1977-78 when the Carter-Torrijos treaties were signed and ratified, and again ten years later in the run-up to Operation Just Cause. After the U.S. invasion the relationship receded in the public consciousness. This history by a leading specialist offers interesting perspectives as the U.S. withdraws from two very different combat zones half a world away.

This is the third edition of Conniff’s account of U.S.-Panama relations, but his first look at the period since Panama gained control of the Canal and American forces left the country in 1999. That “post- treaty” period, running through 2011, gets only 16 pages. However, the book is one of the few comprehensive treatments of bilateral relations to cover (as Paul Harvey used to put it) “the rest of the story.”

The book is far from a dry chronicle of treaties. Panama is a colorful place, full of outlandish characters, and Conniff’s inclusion of social movements, mores, and personal factors behind the scenes make a readable account. Conniff lived and worked in Panama in the mid-1960s and traveled there afterward, cultivating original sources. He spent time in Panama on a Fulbright grant when I served at the U.S. Mission in the mid-1990s.

“The End of the Alliance” refers to the dissolution of a longstanding close working relationship between the two governments after recovery from Operation Just Cause. Conniff details Panamanians’ longstanding dependence on their American partners: frustration at U.S. dominance and at the same time desire for protection from their own leaders. Most Panamanians approved of the U.S. overthrow of General Manuel Noriega, Conniff finds. However, recurring expectations on both sides that the U.S. would retain a presence after 1999 never came to pass.

So the Treaties expired not with a bang but with a whimper. At the canal turnover ceremony on December 31, 1999, the senior U.S. official was not the President but Attorney General Janet Reno. Since then, Panamanian GDP more than doubled and the Panama Canal Authority made the waterway far more profitable than it was under the U.S. government. Conniff concludes, “The United States is no longer a dominant partner” in the relationship. Perhaps the word “alliance” no longer belongs in the book’s title at all.

The public will hear more about the Panama Canal as the opening of new locks and other works to accommodate giant ships approaches – probably in 2015. The media will no doubt point up continuing problems of inequality and poor social investment as a presidential election approaches, also set for 2014. However, Conniff credibly draws a favorable balance sheet of Panamanian leadership through 2011, noting two free and fair presidential elections since 1999 as well as the aggressive economic growth.

The perceptive reader may search U.S.-Panamanian relations for insights into the United States’ more recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. The book describes the disbanding and partial reconstitution of the Panama Defense Forces after the invasion; the grand post-invasion U.S. aid scheme and its subsequent downsizing; and official and public anxiety over American interests in the smooth and economical functioning of the Canal.

Direct parallels with Afghanistan and Iraq are harder to draw. Because of heavy interference from outside since the early 1800s – first France and then the United States – Panama became a multi-racial society with a high proportion of U.S.-educated business executives and engineers.

For the American reader especially, Conniff’s account of the end of the alliance offers a good approach to learn about Panama today.bluestar

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy


AuthorJoe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service. He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy.
At the Computer Sciences Corporation from 2005 until October of 2012, Johnson advised the technology company's Foreign Affairs Division on government technology needs. From 2003 to 2005, Johnson established and directed the Office of eDiplomacy at the U.S. Department of State. From 2000 to 2003, as Principal Deputy Coordinator of the Bureau of International Information Programs, Johnson implemented strategic changes in programs and products to respond to the terrorist attacks of 2001.
As a Foreign Service Officer, Johnson served at seven embassies in Western Europe and Latin America. He was a press spokesman in Rome and Geneva, and Public Affairs Officer in Dublin. In Panama, Johnson served as Counselor for Public Affairs and on an interim basis as Deputy Chief of Mission.
At the U.S. Information Agency in Washington, Johnson directed the Operations Center and the European Academic Exchanges staff. In 1979-80, Johnson spent a year on Capitol Hill as a Congressional Fellow.
Johnson is the author of seven articles about public diplomacy and technology in the Foreign Service Journal and has lectured at public forums in Washington and other locations. He holds an Accreditation in Public Relations and is a member of the American Foreign Service Association, the Public Relations Society of America and the Public Diplomacy Council.
Originally from Dallas, Texas, Johnson holds a masters degree in communication from the University of Texas. He speaks Spanish, Italian and French.

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