The UNSC Goes to Panama: Reflections on the Fiftieth Anniversary of an Extraordinary Meeting

The UNSC meeting [of 1973] deserves to be more than a footnote in the history of U.S.-Latin American relations and shows how a small state can influence the United States.


Juan Antonio Tack addresses the UN Security Council in 1973. Source: Getty Images.

Panamanian Foreign Minister Juan Antonio Tack rose to his feet. With the powers of the world watching, he declared: “The United States has vetoed Panama’s resolution, but the world has vetoed the United States.” It was a bold statement for the representative of a small country—especially a country that had U.S. troops stationed outside its major cities. Tack’s words were even more striking given where—and to whom—he spoke them. Fifty years ago this month, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held a week of meetings in Panama City. That Panama had achieved the meetings over U.S. objections was already surprising, but how Panama outmaneuvered the United States to win the support of 13 of 15 UNSC members for its resolution on the Panama Canal was astounding.

The United States vetoed the resolution after rejecting offers of compromise. The result was a stinging diplomatic defeat for the U.S. team, inflicted by a Central American country inflicted in the world’s most prominent forum. While the UNSC’s meetings in Panama are largely forgotten today, they should not be. Although the Panama Canal Treaties were not ratified for another five years, the UNSC meetings shifted the paradigm of long-frustrated talks. The case offers lessons for how we think about inter-American relations and small states in international organizations—especially about how smaller actors can pressure the United States for positive change.

Putting the Meeting in Context

In the early 1970s, the U.S.-Panama relationship was still largely shaped by a 1903 treaty, signed by dubious representatives as the price of U.S. support for Panamanian independence from Colombia. However, that stagnant relationship was under strain from domestic and international factors.

Relations between Panama and the United States were rocked in 1964 by violent protests in the Canal Zone, sparked by a dispute about what flags should be flown there—and more deeply about the sovereignty of the zone. The protests demonstrated that a cross-section of Panamanian society saw the U.S. presence as illegitimate. The protests provoked a rupture of U.S.-Panama relations and later resulted in the countries negotiating the proposed Johnson-Robles Treaties in 1967. While these treaties included some important concessions to Panama, the texts lacked support so were never submitted for ratification. With the treaties officially pending, Panama experienced a military coup in 1968, with the National Guard’s Omar Torrijos soon taking power. Although ideologically eclectic, Torrijos leaned to the left with a strong populist and nationalist streak.

Torrijos declared the Johnson-Robles Treaties dead. However, once bilateral negotiations restarted in 1971, he was unable to deliver any progress. Given the public mobilization and anger from 1964, this was a political risk. Torrijos opted for the bolder—and riskier—approach of internationalizing the treaties.

Globally, the United States and Soviet Union sought détente, and the United States sought an end to the Vietnam War. The UN meetings came just a year after President Richard Nixon’s famous visit to China. This context allowed Latin American states a cautious space in their relations with Washington. The preceding decade had seen a huge wave of decolonization, creating a new, highly critical international audience. For Panama, decolonization was a source of potential allies—for Washington, it made the Canal a serious reputational risk.

The World Comes to Panama

By 1972, it was obvious that the bilateral negotiations were stuck. U.S. negotiator Ambassador Robert Anderson had few friends in the White House. Many in the Defense Department saw the coup in Panama and change of party in Washington as a chance to walk back from the concessions made in 1967. In talks, the U.S. team had old instructions and sought continued control over operations and defense of the Canal—putting them directly at odds with Panamanian aspirations.

Panamanian leaders perceived the lack of high-level attention to the negotiations. Without attention, they could not shift U.S. positions locked in by bureaucratic interests. To solve a problem, one first had to make a problem, Torrijos told confidants. The UNSC created such an opportunity.

First, though, Panama needed to get onto the council, so it sought regional support for its bid in 1972. That year, the UNSC held a meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to address decolonization. The event prompted Panama’s proposal, apparently improvised by Ambassador Aquilino Boyd, for a similar meeting on Panama’s canal dispute. Linking the issue with colonialism, Panama won sympathy while communist countries were glad to embarrass the United States close to home. The United States pushed back on the proposal, trying to convince other members that it would be a distraction and posed dangers for the institution. The United States warned Panama that such a meeting would set back bilateral talks. Yet, Panama was resolute. It largely isolated the United States by picking up the support of regional groups and UNSC members. Grudgingly, the United States accepted the idea and the meeting was approved in late January 1973.

The meetings started only six weeks later. The quick turnaround, coupled with a change in U.S. ambassador, left the U.S. team underprepared and reactive. “For us, Panama will essentially be a damage-limiting operation,” Secretary of State William Rogers wrote new U.S. ambassador John Scali before the meetings. “No possible glory can come to us (or the UN) from it.” Panama, however, was seeking glory.

Torrijos’ opening speech sought to build bridges between Panama’s demands and decolonial causes. The United States refused to consider a joint Panama-Peru resolution or to offer an alternative. Instead, it complained that such a resolution was an unneeded intrusion into bilateral affairs. Panama negotiated another draft with a broader coalition, bringing Guinea, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Sudan, and Yugoslavia onside. Only when China and the USSR declared support did the U.S. team respond with its own proposal. By then, it was too late. Still, Panama sought compromise with the United States—offering another draft and via the personal intervention of Torrijos. Ultimately, Panama’s resolution was struck down by the United States’ veto, but it gained 13 votes in favor, with the British abstaining. The “yes” votes included traditional U.S. partners as well as postcolonial states.

From the UN to the Treaties

The UNSC meetings prompted an immediate reevaluation in the United States and spurred changes to the negotiating team. Calling for a “fresh look” at Latin America, new people joined the U.S. team. Henry Kissinger—who had paid little attention to the canal issue—took notice, providing the team with greater influence within its own government.

Panama sensed the opportunity. Foreign Minister Tack sought a meeting with Secretary Rogers and proposed a set of eight principles, including the abrogation of the 1903 treaty and shifts on jurisdiction, operations, and security. Rogers considered the proposals, already a change. Soon, Kissinger replaced Rogers as secretary of state. One of his first major events as secretary was the October 1973 United Nations assembly, were he hoped to avoid a replay of March.

Meanwhile, Panama was steadfast. It pushed Tack’s eight principles and convinced more sympathetic U.S. interlocutors that Kissinger should visit Panama. That planned trip created a need for a positive outcome, which took the shape of the February 1974 Tack-Kissinger principles—eight points that closely resembled those proposed by Tack. It was a notable Panamanian victory.

However, Panama had to wait almost four more years—with a change of parties and president in the United States—before concluding the canal treaties in part due to Watergate and U.S. domestic considerations. The delay, perhaps, has led many to downplay the meetings held half a century ago. While the treaties are popularly remembered as part of Jimmy Carter’s shift in foreign policy, the Panamanian victories of 1973 and 1974 were fundamental to the process of the negotiations. Panama’s creative diplomacy gained the attention of the United States and the support of the world, putting them on the agenda for both Kissinger and Carter. The Tack-Kissinger principles guided negotiations until the signature of the treaties by Carter and Torrijos on September 7, 1977.

The UNSC meeting deserves to be more than a footnote in the history of U.S.-Latin American relations and shows how a small state can influence the United States. Panama made common cause with governments across Latin America and linked the Canal’s status to anti-imperialism, upping diplomatic pressure on the United States at the UNSC meeting. For its part, the United States was—and often still is—slow to comprehend the constellation of external forces when it is too focused on the domestic politics of its foreign policies. The canal policy was out-of-date and detrimental to the United States’ interests in the region. It could have embraced the UNSC meeting as a new start or actively sought compromise. It did not, until after it had suffered a diplomatic black eye. While the United States eventually learned this and Carter had the vision and political courage to act on it, the gains could have been won earlier—without the diplomatic costs.

Tom Long is a Reader of International Relations at the University of Warwick and Affiliated Professor at CIDE, Mexico City. He first explored this issue in the article “Putting the Canal on the Map: Panamanian Agenda-Setting and the 1973 Security Council Meetings” in Diplomatic History. He is also author of Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and A Small State’s Guide to Influence in World Politics (Oxford University Press, 2022).

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