Portugal’s Strategic Depth

With close to 900 years of history, Portugal is one of Europe’s oldest and most stable nations.

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Portugal’s oldest alliance is with the UK. It was with British mediation that Portugal and the US came to cooperate strategically during the Second World War in the renting of the Lajes air base to Washington.

The Treaty of Windsor with London emerged in the context of the Hundred Years War and the associated conflicts with Spain. Spanish dominance in the Iberian Peninsula inspired Portugal to expand overseas and counter-balance its power and influence.

Consequently, Lisbon played a significant role in the European age of discovery and ensured its colonial future for 600 years. By the twenty century Portugal’s colonies had become anachronistic according to the bipolar geopolitical paradigm and transatlantic relations were strained.

While Portugal was a founding member of NATO, diplomatic relations with Washington deteriorated under the Kennedy administration’s arms embargo. The Portuguese Carnation Revolution in 1974, which started the decolonization of Lisbon’s African possessions, brought about a gradual normalization of bilateral ties with the US.

Today Portugal is a close American ally on par with other pro-American NATO allies such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Poland, and other more unreliable pro-American nations like Greece, Italy and Spain.

Portugal has participated in NATO operations in Kosovo, the Baltic States, Afghanistan and Somalia.

It is precisely Portugal’s euro-centrism which is at stake in the current economic crisis. Lisbon perceives the EU as a new foreign policy anchor, and as a way of shifting focus from its colonial past. It is in Europe that Portugal’s current regime – the 3rd republic – has invested its foreign policy and economic credentials. Two trends are currently at odds: on the one hand, one of Portugal’s commercial escapes from the crisis has been precisely its former colonies of Brazil, Angola and Mozambique which are emerging economies and growing quickly.

On the other hand, Portugal’s current elites have for decades depended on Brussels for financial support and political guidance, and the EU model is at the moment risky and may lose relevance. For instance, Portugal’s main left-wing Socialist Party has drawn inspiration from European social-democrats in Germany, Sweden and Finland for economic experiments in Portugal but these managed only to increase the country’s social spending while increasing the debt. The country’s financial woes would have been revealed sooner had the European monetary system not disguised Portugal’s problems.

The introduction of the euro gave European economies the reputation of the Deutsche Mark and allowed its most feeble ones to continue their indebtedness inconspicuously. Their fate however had been sealed with the end of the Cold War, the opening of the eastern European as well as Asian economies and the delocalization of American and European manufacturing jobs to developing nations. For peripheral economies like Portugal, highly dependent on foreign direct investment, these events proved fatal and the 2008 economic crisis exposed what had been a reality for a long time.

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Three main parties form the Portuguese political system.

The left-wing Socialist Party, the right-wing Social Democratic Party and the smaller People’s Party (center-right). Currently though the Portuguese political class is under great pain to reassert its credibility with the public. The Portuguese society, like its Mediterranean neighbors, has a weak civil society and the political dynamics of the country’s political system tends towards “clientelism.”

This means that for decades politicians promised as much as they could to get elected and are now paying a price. The tragedy is that all the centrist parties incurred in the same error and the opposition is made up of far-left parties. Therefore the Portuguese people now lack a clear political alternative.

To Portugal’s credit, the state has no outstanding security issues to solve other than some minor territorial issues with Spain (Olivença and Desertas islands) and it is not burdened by a large defense budget like Greece. This has granted Portugal the freedom to project power from time to time as it did with emergency deployments to Guinea Bissau or Timor-Leste.

Conversely, Portugal’s foreign policy has been an exercise in post-modernism by attempting to maintain friendly relations with all states – and thus suffering but not keeping close relations with any – and its defense policy has struggled from cutbacks to the benefit of social spending.

One major factor will decide Portugal’s future: economic growth. If Portugal’s commercial partners manage to prosper so will Portugal; and if they don’t Lisbon will have to undergo cuts more drastic than the ones it has undergone thus far. Be it feeble or sustainable, Portugal is always a solid ally and a responsible partner.

This article has been updated since original publication in Sharnoff’s Global Views.

Miguel Nunes Silva is a Master’s student at the College of Europe, a researcher with the geostrategic consultancy firm Wikistrat and a contributing author for the Atlantic Sentinel.

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