From its intermediate geographic position between the Atlantic and Mediterranean regions and between Europe and Africa, as well as owing to its recent history, Portugal is keenly aware of the importance of building bridges and the notion that only together can we respond in a more effective way to multidimensional and complex global (security, political, developmental) challenges. The commitment to multilateralism, including support for multilateral action and coordinated responses to crises and conflicts, is therefore an important feature of Portugal’s foreign policy.
As a small country with limited resources, Portugal’s external actions have always stressed the importance of multilateral responses based on a wider international effort, perceiving the EU, NATO and the UN as complementary rather than competing frameworks. In this context, at the national level, Portuguese governments have viewed sharing collective responsibilities and participating in international efforts aimed at fostering peace and security (e.g. participation in all EU CSDP missions) as an instrument for strengthening the country’s external reputation and credibility.
It should be noted that Portugal was struggling to fulfil its commitments during the financial/economic crisis and the so-called Adjustment Programme (2011–2014), a period in which there was a political decision to reduce participation in international missions to a minimum and even to halt participation in EU missions. In the last few years, however, there has been an effort to increase participation in and contributions to international security efforts. For example, at present, 11 percent of Portugal’s armed forces are engaged in international missions (a total of 19 missions in 2019), with the largest headcounts being in the Central African Republic and Afghanistan.
The perception of participating in international efforts as an instrument for strengthening Portuguese external action necessarily implies increased coordination among policies, instruments and actors. In this context, there is an increasing awareness of the need to improve coherence and joint approaches (particularly between the diplomatic and defence axes, which implies the reformulation of legal instruments and strategic documents) as well as to increase coordination between different instruments, actors and institutions in what is often referred to as a whole-of-government approach (WGA). Despite this awareness, these efforts are not being implemented in a very structured way in practice, and there is some resistance to them from institutional structures and cultures.
Most strategic guidance related to a WGA is linked to Portugal’s foreign policy priorities, which have not changed for many years and rest on four main pillars: the Atlantic, including relations with the United States; the European Union and the European integration process; the Portuguese-speaking world (with special attention being paid to Portuguese-speaking African countries (PALOP) and the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP)); and Portuguese communities abroad.
On the one hand, particularly regarding external action related to defence and security, Portuguese strategic documents mainly highlight the country’s participation in NATO and in external missions of the European Union. On the other hand, Portuguese action in response to external crises and conflicts is very much linked to Portugal’s focus on the most vulnerable and fragile countries as well as related security, diplomatic and development efforts. Some of the main partners of Portuguese development cooperation are fragile and/or affected by situations of fragility (e.g. East Timor, Guinea-Bissau, and São Tome and Príncipe), and supporting them – through both bi- and multi-lateral cooperation – is of particular importance to Portugal.
At the bilateral level, Portugal’s development-cooperation attaches particular importance to peacebuilding and statebuilding, including institutional strengthening and capacity development in key areas, such as governance, the rule of law, security and the provision of essential services. This is also linked to Africa as a foreign policy priority, which is reflected in Portugal’s participation in EU CSDP missions and in its diplomatic stances regarding the importance of Africa to EU external relations. For example, there are the past Africa-EU summits and the Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES); the new European Peace Facility and its stress on the need for increased commitments to Africa; and, most recently, the negotiations surrounding a post-Cotonou framework. Focusing on Africa will also be a major priority when Portugal holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU in 2021.