By Dewayne Wickham, USA Today
Here's a story that should sound familiar to you.
A small, militarily weak country is racked by internal dissent after its government rejects a treaty with a foreign power. Secretly encouraged by a nearby superpower, a rebellious faction in this troubled country seizes a chunk of land and declares its independence. The superpower quickly dispatches a military force to the breakaway territory to ensure the success of this secession.
Sure, Russian President Vladimir Putin dispatched thousands of troopsinto the Crimea region of Ukraine as it declared its independence and asked to be annexed into Russia. That action followed bloody street demonstrations that forced Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine's democratically elected president, to flee the country after he rejected a trade pactwith the European Union. Yanukovych, whose opulent lifestyle and roguish rule stained his presidency, favored closer economic ties with Russia. Not surprisingly, the unelected government that replaced Yanukovych signed the agreement with the European Union on Friday.
But I'm talking about the series of events that brought about the creation of Panama in 1903. Back then, Panama was a province of the nation of Colombia. When the Colombian government rejected a treaty that would have allowed the United States to build a canal across its territory to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, a plot was hatched to make Panama an independent nation.
The United States, then an emerging superpower, sent warships into the region to stop Colombia from reinforcing its beleaguered troops in its Panama province. The new nation responded by quickly giving America the treaty it sought. While the U.S. didn't annex Panama, it did exercise virtual sovereignty over it for 97 years.
Panama is in the geopolitical backyard of the USA. It's inside America's sphere of influence, just as Crimea is inside Russia's. I don't say this to justify the imperialistic behavior of either superpower, but rather to suggest that it's nothing new. Nor should it be unexpected.
Over the past century, every time one superpower acted badly in its sphere of influence, the other bashed its conduct. When Russia created the Soviet Union through the military conquest and political subjugation of Eastern Europe, the U.S. and its allies bemoaned its totalitarianism.
At the same time, the U.S. has stretched its sphere of influence – getting involved in the affairs of nations in the American hemisphere from Mexico to Argentina. Sometimes, U.S. presidents used military force, and other times they employed covert actions to exercise control over the affairs of countries in its backyard.
In agreeing to annex Crimea, Putin said he acted to keep NATO, the military wing of the European Union, out of Russia's backyard. "We are against having (NATO) ... behaving as the master of the house outside our fence, next to our home or on our historical territory," he said.
In 1912, President William Howard Taft made a similar claim of U.S. dominance in America's backyard. "The day is not far distant when the Stars and Stripes at three equidistant points will mark our territory: one at the North Pole, another at the Panama Canal and the third at the South Pole. The whole hemisphere will be ours in fact as, by virtue of our superiority of race, it already is ours morally," he said.
In truth, there is little to suggest that the U.S. today is any more willing to give up its claim to hegemony over its backyard than Russia is now exercising over its neighborhood.
And as long as this is so, neither country can take the moral high ground on this issue.
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