The trip across Panama's isthmus is just 51 miles, but America's journey in Panama spanned the entire century.
The construction of the Panama Canal, a technological marvel, signaled America's arrival as a world power, and its departure on the last day of the 1900s, marks the recognition that partnerships, not exclusive control, are the best path toward future American leadership.
When the United States acquired rights to build, operate, and defend a canal in Panama in 1903, imperialism was in full flower.
Other great powers were seizing lands. The US wanted to be a great power but was ambivalent about imperialism, and so it recognized Panama's independence, but it decided to control a 10-mile-wide zone to defend the canal. The US did not view the zone as a colony, but Panama and much of the world did.
After World War II, US leadership brought the beginning of the end of colonialism around the world, but only when riots in 1964 erupted in the Panama Canal Zone did our struggle against colonialism come home to roost.
This was a warning sign that the 1903 treaties, which established an exclusive American zone had begun to endanger the canal. By 1977, Panama's "patience machine had run out of gas," in the pithy phrase of Gen. Omar Torrijos, Panama's strongman, and President Jimmy Carter courageously accepted the challenge and shepherded new treaties.
Under the main treaty, the zone disappeared, and the canal was transferred gradually so that by Dec. 31, Panama will have full responsibility.
The second Treaty on Permanent Neutrality gave the US the right to defend the canal with Panama or, if necessary, by itself.
Sixty-eight US senators and the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed with Mr. Carter that the best way to defend our interests in the canal would be to transform Panamanian resentment into cooperation by modernizing the relationship.
Some Americans want to keep the canal and are spreading the wild idea that China will take it when we leave because a Hong Kong shipping firm is running container operations in two Panamanian ports. This is ludicrous.
The US ran the canal as a military outpost of state socialism, prohibiting private investment.
Panama has a better idea; it is encouraging private investment.
Kansas City Railroad is upgrading the canal railroad, and many other firms - including Hutchison-Whampoa, the Hong Kong firm - see the advantages of creating a Singapore-style entrept in the Western Hemisphere.
The decision by Panama to move the ceremony to transfer the canal from Dec. 31 to today was done, in part, so that President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright could come, but perhaps because of the continued controversy, they chose not to attend.
It is appropriate, however, that Mr. Carter, who paid the political price for the new treaties in order to preserve the canal and advance American interests in the world, will lead the US delegation.
Today's ceremony not only marks the end of an era, but it offers an opportunity to place the moment in its proper context and redefine American leadership for the 21st century.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the US needed to control the canal to secure it; by the end of the century, exclusive control threatened the canal because it inflamed Panamanian nationalism. Today, US interests in the canal and, more broadly, in world peace and prosperity, require partnerships more than control, persuasion more than coercion, cooperation rather than unilateralism.
Today's world rests on America's idea of self-determination and on international institutions that it helped to establish.
The US has been half-hearted in its commitment to these institutions and has been tempted to go it alone, as it did in Panama, but the issues of the future - ethnic conflict, nonproliferation, trade, drugs - require a different style of leadership.
The lesson of America's journey through the canal is that it could not be insulated from the world, and security today requires respect for Panama.
The US should support Panama as it tries to build a modern tourist and transportation link that binds a democratic hemisphere.
This model of a democratic partnership in the hemisphere would be as grand for the next century as the construction of the canal was for the last century.
We have reason to be proud of the canal, but our country does not rest on its past achievements; we aim to shape the future. A magnanimous transfer and a firm partnership with Panama would show the world that our leadership will endure.
*Robert A. Pastor, professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, worked on the Panama Canal treaties as national security adviser for Latin America in the Carter administration. He is the editor of 'A Century's Journey: How the Great Powers Shape the World' (Basic Books).
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society