The original Panama Canal was a revolution in geopolitics and economics; before it was built, the sea voyage was shorter from London to San Francisco than from New York to California, and the Caribbean was a strategic dead end that nobody in world politics cared much about.
A generation of U.S. foreign policy involved extending power by building bases to secure it. And of course the original canal involved huge U.S. political engagement, enabling Panama’s independence from Colombia and the establishment of the Canal Zone so that the U.S. could keep full control.
Now, a century later, the Canal is being dramatically expanded, and the U.S. government is much less involved. Panama has had sovereignty over the canal for a generation, and U.S. companies aren’t dominating the reconstruction.
The 16 lock gates, some weighing 4,000 tons, were designed by the Dutch and built by Italians. Beginning next month, they will be lifted onto a barge by Belgians and shipped by South Koreans to Panama in a project managed by the French.
Some might look at that and see a decline in U.S. power. But they would be very wrong. The U.S. has been so successful in building a global system of politics and trade, and its naval power in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific is so supreme, that we don’t need to build more bases, annex more land or otherwise interfere with a multinational process that serves our interests well.
Barry Goldwater said that America “stole it fair and square” when he was fighting Jimmy Carter’s proposal to give control over the Canal to Panama. These days, we don’t even have to do that. The Panamanians run the Canal without needing any prompting from us, and they have seen through a massive improvement that benefits the American economy because it also benefits them.
Real power in this world comes less from imposing your will on other people (always a tedious and expensive process and full of risk) than from figuring out how to align your interests and theirs. Over time, the United States has gotten much better at this, with the result that there is less difference between a ‘unipolar’ world and a multipolar one than many people understand.
As France fights jihadis in Mali, Panama improves the Canal, the Gulf Arabs lead the charge against Iran, and India and Japan think about Asian security together, the multipolar world looks anything but post-American.