Talks between President Carter and leading Portuguese officials during a recent lightning six-hour trip to Lisbon have confirmed Portugal as the United States's most firmly committed ally at a time when the alliance is under considerable strain.
This is a very different picture than just over five years ago, when this small country stuck on the tip of Europe appeared to be in the throes of a pro-Soviet revolution.
The change was symbolized within minutes of President Carter's arrival at Lisbon Airport. Soldiers in a regiment that once raised clenched fists at the mere mention of the US presented a perfectly disciplined march of honor.
It was much to be expected that Portugal should provide a fitting last stage for President Carter's "mission to Europe." The President's eight-day trip was aimedprincipally at mending the damaged fences of the Western alliance and at coordinating a response to the Soviet threat.
Portugal, perhaps Europe's weakest country politically and economically, has gained a new stature due to its readiness to commit itself when other countries have been vacillating. Earlier this year Portugal became the first European country to freeze its relations with the Soviet Union and to impose a full-scale trade embargo on Iran.
President Carter received asssurances from President Antonio Ramalho Eanes and Prime Minister Francisco de Sa Carneiro that this commitment would not waver in the future, as long the US felt toughness was necessary. And President Carter went out of his way to praise the Portuguese.
Beyond platitudes that emerged in public, the June 26 talks are believed to have centered on ways in which Portugal might increase it defense role as NATO strives to secure its southern flank. Portugal has already expressed its willingness to extend US facilities in the Azores and to discuss the possible stationing of aircraft carriers in Lisbon harbor.
Portugal's willingness to contribute more substantially to the alliance in military terms has two clear political motives.
First, Portugal's center-right government is firmly anticommunist and wants to detach itself from the ambiguous mix of third worldism and pro-Sovietism that has characterized Portuguese foreign policy in the past.
Second, both the government and President Eanes have publicly emphasized their commitment to getting Portugal's volatile armed forces well out of politics. Officials believe that one of the best ways of doing this is by involving the military more fully in NATO.
It is significant that lates Portuguese initiatives have taken place against the background of President Carter's public support for Spain's membership in NATO.
Members of Portugal's armed forces continue to be worried about the prospect that their role might be relegated once their neighbors join the alliance. They intend to play their strongest cards before it's too late. It seems likely that one of these might be the offer not just of the Azores but of other bases on mainland Portugal that could provide an alternative once the US agreement on its bases in Spain expires in 1981. In return Portugal would expect a generous package of military aid from the US to boost its armed forces.
It is doubtful that any firm agreement will be reached before next October. Portugal is facing a general election then and the issue of the bases is a subject that would need to be discussed in a climate of consensus rather that electioneering. But Mr. Carter must have come away from Lisbon convinced that the will is there.