157. Telegram From the Embassy in Panama to the Department of State1

1759. From Ambassador Jorden. Subject: Treaty Implementation—Role of the Ambassador. Ref: State 60936.2

1. I agree: DoD’s latest proposal completely fails to serve our objective of successful treaty implementation.3

2. I have no objection to reaffirming that the relationship between the Ambassador and the area military commander here be the same as in any other foreign country. Here, as anywhere, the latter is properly responsible to the President as Commander-in-Chief; this pattern of official relationships is a well-established and generally workable one. But it would be a fundamental error to accept DOD’s desire to afford a similar legal autonomy to the Canal Commission. No matter what agency oversees the Canal operation, it will not be a military responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief. It will be a civilian agency, and there is absolutely no reason to accept such an unprecedented legal status in a foreign country.

3. No one has publicly justified why the commission should be different in this manner. Not to mince words, the DOD/Army/PanCanal unstated assumption is that the Ambassador will either have a vested bureaucratic interest in “keeping Panama happy” at the expense of U.S. operational interests in the Canal, or will seek to “run the Canal.” But in my view, he would do neither; the Ambassador’s proper role is to get Panama to do that which is in the U.S. national interest, with the least possible fuss and friction in the process.

4. The President and Congress have recognized for years that ambassadorial authority over and responsibility for all aspects of civilian USG activity in his country of assignment provide the only way the U.S. can pursue a coherent foreign policy. If one accepts that an overseas operation of a civilian agency should be legally exempt from that authority, one starts a pernicious process of watering down statutes [Page 401] and Presidential policy directives established to further the U.S. national interest. This objection transcends the local situation.

5. One cannot speak of insulating the ‘technical’ Canal operation from U.S.-Panama bilateral relations. Those relations, and the new treaties, are about the Canal. All other considerations are secondary, and the new treaties will not change this. If the USG expects to make a success of treaty implementation, it badly needs to get its own act together. If the Ambassador, the President’s personal representative responsible for relations with Panama, is faced with an administrator legally free to formulate and pursue his own foreign policy toward Panama, the result will be a mess.

6. Whether anyone in DOD realizes it or not, the administrator is going to badly need the support and protection that an Ambassador can provide. State and the Ambassador have an expertise in dealing with foreign governments which the administrator may well lack. Most problems will undoubtedly lend themselves to being worked out in the commission. But willy-nilly, others will be raised to the government-to-government level. Both the U.S. Government and the administrator himself will be well-served if the Ambassador is properly empowered to promote our interests. In the past, the Governor has been able to effectively ignore the wishes of the Panamanian Government. In the future, the situation will not be so one-sided. If, in the future, the administrator, by any act or omission, however easily remediable, commits a misstep in his relations with Panama, there will be no meaningful channel to deal with the situation. We would be well advised to have on the scene someone who could speak with the voice of the entire U.S. Government.

7. Separation of the administrator from the Ambassador’s authority is an open and continuing invitation to friction between the two, and to exploitation of the separation by Panama, to the detriment of the canal operation and our overall interests here. It is something that the Department must not allow to happen.4

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Office of the Deputy Secretary, Records of Warren Christopher, 1977–1980, Lot 81D113, Box 14, Historical Footnotes: Panama Canal. Limited Official Use; Priority; Stadis.
  2. In telegram 60936 to Panama City, March 9, the Department outlined the latest Defense proposal on treaty implementation and the authority of the ambassador in Panama, which failed to meet State’s treaty implementation objectives. Defense argued that U.S. military personnel and the Administrator of the Panama Canal Commission and his or her employees be exempt from ambassadorial authority. State requested the Embassy’s views. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780106–0984)
  3. See footnote 2 above.
  4. In a March 25 memorandum to Bunker, Todman, and Hansell, David Anderson (S/S) relayed that, during a March 24 lunch meeting, Vance agreed with Brown’s position of a Commission independent of ambassadorial authority. It was agreed at the lunch meeting that the Ambassador would be fully informed of Commission activities and could have a representative present at the Commission’s formal meetings. (National Archives, RG 59, Official and Personal Files of Ambassador at Large Ellsworth Bunker, Lot 78D300, Box 4, Panama Key Documents 1978) In telegram 2161 from Panama City, April 3, Jorden expressed his disappointment upon learning of the exception to the ambassador’s authority agreed to by State and Defense. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780143–1065)