Strategic Europe continues its series devoted to explaining the foreign and security policy ambitions of the 28 EU member states. We have asked our contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of their country’s perception of security and strategy, with a ranking on a scale from 0 (the laggards) to 5 (the ambitious). This week, the spotlight is on Portugal.


Portugal, a small European country that is close to celebrating its nine hundredth anniversary as an independent state, has historically been at the center of global affairs. Such milestones as the pioneering discoveries of the fifteenth century across virtually every region of the globe created powerful historical and cultural ties that are still very much present today.

For a relatively small geopolitical player, Portugal has a surprisingly ambitious foreign policy. A key theme in that policy is the country’s strategic geographic location.Located at the southwestern edge of Europe, Portugal has often been under the radar of world powers. Yet the country occupies a strategic position as both a natural gateway into Europe and a paramount departure point to the Americas and Africa.

Therefore, it seems only natural for Lisbon to have a foreign policy aimed at capitalizing on this geographic position and at taking advantage of the country’s historical and cultural ties. Portugal’s foreign policy, which deserves a level of ambition of 4 out of 5, is based on three pillars: transatlantic relations, European relations, and relations with Portuguese-speaking countries.

For the last two hundred years, Portugal and the United States have enjoyed a close and mutually beneficial relationship. The end of the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War pushed the two countries even closer, especially due to Portugal’s position on Europe’s Atlantic coast. Ties became so friendly that the U.S. military base in Portugal’s mid-Atlantic Azores archipelago, the Lajes Field, became one of the seven main bases of the U.S. Air Force in Europe.

For a relatively small geopolitical player, Portugal has a surprisingly ambitious foreign policy. A key theme in that policy is the country’s strategic geographic location.Portugal’s 1986 accession to the European Economic Community (later the EU) and the end of the Cold War cooled the Portuguese-U.S. relationship, which remains lukewarm today. The Pentagon’s recent decision to downsize its military presence at the Lajes Field clearly reflects this trend.

Fortunately, however, not all news is bad news. Lisbon views with great interest the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which is currently under negotiation and aims at forming a free trade agreement between the EU and the United States. Portugal may potentially become a major beneficiary of the deal, in both economic and geopolitical terms. Above all, TTIP presents Portugal with the opportunity to regain its central role in transatlantic relations and abandon the status of a peripheral country.

Portugal is one of NATO’s founding members and has played an important role as a security provider, participating in a number of missions across the globe. In 2014, the Portuguese military personnel in Afghanistan left the country after twelve years of operations under the aegis of NATO. In the same year, with tensions between the West and Russia at an all-time high since the end of the Cold War, Portugal deployed four F-16 fighter aircraft in the Baltic Sea region as part of a NATO aerial patrol mission.

This engagement shows that Portugal is an active NATO member committed to continue and deepen the transatlantic relationship. That bond is essential to deal efficiently the crisis in Ukraine, and, indeed, the Portuguese authorities have been watching with great concern the threat posed by Russia to European stability and to the European project.

This brings us to the second pillar of Portuguese foreign policy: the relationship with the EU. Portugal’s strategy toward the European project has been to affirm itself as a good student at the forefront of every institutional development, such as the eurozone.

#Portugal's EU strategy is to affirm itself as a good student.
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Having been set free from the bailout conditions imposed by the troika of the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund, Lisbon has maintained a clear alignment with Germany’s positions, both by necessity and by conviction. Yet that does not mean in any way that Portugal would look favorably on a Greek exit from the euro or a British withdrawal from the EU, dubbed “Grexit” and “Brexit” respectively.

In more general terms, with its clear pro-EU stance Portugal favors the institutional deepening and strengthening of European integration. In fact, it is fair to say that the EU is Portugal’s strategic priority, not only because of the country’s economic interdependence with its European partners, but also because of its geographic position on the Old Continent.

This geographic factor leads to the inevitability of Lisbon’s third foreign policy priority: matters pertaining to the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Americas. At the core of Portugal’s relations with other Portuguese-speaking countries are common cultural and historical elements. For the past few decades, there has been an effort to consolidate closer ties both bilaterally—particularly with Angola, Brazil, and Mozambique—and multilaterally—through the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries (known by its Portuguese acronym, CPLP).

The community, a multilateral forum formed in 1996 and comprised of the former Portuguese colonies—later joined by Timor-Leste (2002) and Equatorial Guinea (2014)—aims at deepening mutual friendship and cooperation among its member states.

It is well-known that some of these countries have been experiencing significant economic growth rates. A less obvious feature of the Lusophone world is its weight in the global energy market. More than 50 percent of the new oil and gas reserves discovered in the last decade are in Portuguese-speaking countries. Angola is the second-largest oil producer in Africa, while Mozambique has the potential to become one of the world’s top exporters of liquefied natural gas (LNG). In addition, Equatorial Guinea is one of the top five oil producers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Recognizing the CPLP’s energy-driven potential, the member states have been moving toward expanding the organization’s scope to a more economic focus. Lisbon’s relations within the community offer a world of possibilities that, if properly managed, may reposition Portugal back to the center of European and global affairs. As the former Portuguese minister of foreign affairs Luís Amado succinctly put it, “Portugal will be in Europe whatever it manages to become outside of it.” It is worth recognizing that the opposite is also true.

Despite its relatively small size and feeble political and economic influence, Portugal has been seeking to become an active member of the international community. Thanks to the responsibilities that derive from such a role, Portugal has often punched above its weight.

A major part of Lisbon’s strategy for greater and more continuous Portuguese participation in global affairs is to seek international visibility whenever the opportunity presents itself. Particular achievements include Portugal’s tenure as a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council three times since the transition to democracy in the mid-1970s (and its candidacy again for the 2027–2028 term); its 2014 election to the UN Human Rights Council for a three-year mandate; and its current co-presidency, with Mauritania, of the Western Mediterranean Forum.

Portugal is also a founding member of the Ibero-American Summit and has hosted two of the organization’s yearly meetings. And in 1996 and 2008, Portugal organized the Conference of Heads of State and Government of the CPLP, whose headquarters are in Lisbon.

One could rightly argue that due to its geographic location and political and economic ambitions, Portugal should concentrate its efforts on its relationships with Europe, the Americas, and Africa. However, there is also scope for advancing Portuguese interests in Asia. The Asian continent is increasingly becoming part of Portugal’s foreign policy—albeit at a slow pace and mostly on an economic perspective—but there is still progress to be made in deepening relations with Asian actors.

It's not bad for #Portugal to have such good cards up its sleeve.
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It remains to be seen in what capacity Portugal can succeed in engaging with Asia and to what extent Lisbon can acquire greater influence there. Admittedly, resources and political capital are scarce, but that does not necessarily mean that Asia should be deemed a secondary priority. A starting point could be to leverage Timor-Leste’s membership in the CPLP and take advantage of Indonesia’s expressed intention to join the Lusophone community.

All in all, it is not bad for a country as politically and economically marginal as Portugal to have such good cards up its sleeve.


Paulo Gorjão is the director of the Portuguese Institute of International Relations and Security.