NATO Expansion for Finland and Sweden: A Dangerous and Unnecessary Distraction from US Interests
By Dr. Sumantra Maitra
In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the geopolitical considerations of several European nations are changing. Finland and Sweden are now accelerating a transition away from their historic neutrality by attempting to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO is the historic alliance of thirty nations that served as a bulwark against the Soviet Union until the latter’s demise, and its founding treaty includes Article 5, which commits each alliance member to the defense of any other member that is attacked. As a result, the decision on whether to expand NATO to Finland and Sweden must take into account a fundamental consideration: is it in America’s interest to bind itself into a commitment to go to war with a nuclear power over the structural integrity of these two nations? Should the American people be willing to send their servicemen and women for such a national security interest?
“NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defence alliance,” Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in a joint statement citing the Russian threat of invasion. “Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay.”1Jari Tanner, May 12, 2022, “Finland’s leaders call for NATO membership ‘without delay,’” Associated Press.The very same day, The Times of London reported (albeit, per Ukrainian military sources) that the Russians lost an entire battalion with over 50 vehicles, and “as many as 73 T-72 and T-80 tanks, BMP armoured fighting vehicles, armoured tractors, a tugboat and other equipment were destroyed,” and that around 1,000 to 1,500 soldiers were killed, while crossing a tactical bridge in Eastern Ukraine, arguably near Russian strongholds.2 Charlie Parker, May 12, 2022, “Russian battalion wiped out trying to cross river of death”, The Times.
Threat is a combination of intention, power, proximity and capability. For that reason, the lackluster performance of Russia in Ukraine, and corresponding heightened threat perception in Europe, is baffling to realists. After all, what is the hegemonic threat potential of a great power across a continent that cannot provide air cover to its massacred battalions over a pontoon bridge, much less total air supremacy over a theatre of war? It is a pertinent line of inquiry. Wounded by her own folly, Russia remains without any demonstrable hegemonic capabilities to conquer Ukraine and molest parts of Eastern Europe or the wider continent.3Sumantra Maitra, Spring 2022, “A lost opportunity of a grand bargain: Security architecture between NATO and Russia”, International Journal, Canadian International Council. Without the threat of Russia as a hegemon, the argument in favour of the US incurring further security commitments in Europe by expanding the NATO alliance to Finland and Sweden is weak.
This policy brief addresses some fundamental questions arising out of Finland and Sweden’s applications to join NATO. The brief explains the historic neutrality of both Finland and Sweden, as well as their force posture and threat perceptions, and highlights why the West should avoid forcing a scenario that leads to a weakened, cornered and potentially destabilized Russia. The brief then discusses the pro-accession arguments, while addressing why NATO expansion should be rejected. It then addresses the changing security dynamic in Europe, while recalibrating what US policymakers should view as their permanent interests in Europe.
Finland and Sweden, alongside Austria and Switzerland, were nominally neutral in recent history, a policy that served the countries remarkably well, although the reasons for such neutrality were very different for each. After the Cold War, both Sweden and Finland increasingly shifted towards western security architecture, although that was achieved more often within the framework of the European Union or bilateral ties, especially with the US, than under an explicit NATO umbrella. Finnish neutrality, geopolitically necessary after the Finnish-Soviet war, started to gradually erode with the collapse of the USSR. For example, Finland bought US jets in 1992, and within a few years, joined the EU alongside Sweden and Austria.
While Finnish neutrality was due to geopolitical necessity, up until now, Swedish neutrality was a historic identity. Swedish history was one of true equidistance from both the Western bloc and the Soviet bloc, upholding a uniquely Scandinavian social-democratic position which critiqued both capitalism and communism. Sweden’s last major great power conflict with Russia was centuries back when Sweden was an imperial power. Finland on the other hand, faced Russian aggression as recently as the 1940s. After joining the EU, Finland also participated in NATO’s partnership for peace program, served on NATO missions, and shared intelligence on cyber defense. In 2014 and 2016, both Sweden and Finland were given special preference compared to other non-NATO partners, especially in discussions about interoperability, hybrid warfare and intelligence sharing — domains where Sweden and Finland have major experience regarding Russian threats of hybrid warfare, espionage, military probing by jets and warships, psychological warfare and cyber attacks. Other recent areas of cooperation included disaster relief, maritime security, intelligence gathering, and Arctic security, all of which increased after the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine scrambled the security perceptions in the region. As late as February 2022, Finnish public opinion about joining NATO was stagnant; while in Sweden the public opinion about joining NATO is still more or less evenly balanced. However, the desire to join NATO has gathered remarkable momentum among the ruling elite of both countries as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shattered the status quo.
Prior post-Soviet conflicts involving Russia had some semblance of a casus belli. The Georgians, for example, fired the first shot in 2008, albeit after Russian provocation; the Syrian regime invited Russian air intervention; and the Crimean annexation was a relatively bloodless operation wherein the majority of the pro-Russian population acquiesced to Russian rule without any resistance. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was purely a territorial “war of conquest” couched in a regime-change rhetoric, a markedly different event that harkened back to an era before World War II, which changed the European order, and one might argue, propelled Finland and Sweden to rethink their position in the European balance.4Frank Langfitt, May 15, 2022, “Finland and Sweden announce they want to join NATO, marking a big blow to Putin”, NPR.
Within ten weeks, Finland’s eight decades-long equidistance, and Sweden’s two centuries long neutrality were jettisoned, in favor of unprecedented levels of military bloc formations and foreign military power support pledges, most notably from fellow Scandinavian nations: Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and a post-Brexit Britain.5“Prime Minister signs new assurances to bolster European security: 11 May 2022”, available at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/prime-minister-signs-new-assurances-to-bolster-european-security-11-may-2022; and, “Statement by Denmark, Iceland and Norway on Finland and Sweden’s decision to apply for NATO membership: 16 May 2022”, available at https://www.government.is/diplomatic-missions/embassy-article/2022/05/16/Statement-by-Denmark-Iceland-and-Norway-on-Finland-and-Swedens-decision-to-apply-for-NATO-membership/. Having rejected their historic neutrality, Finland and Sweden have now made formal applications to NATO membership. However, the new desire for NATO membership should not be construed as revealing a lack of current defenses or alertness towards the danger posed by Russia.
The existing force postures of Finland and Sweden are uniquely designed to deter Russia unilaterally. The Finnish force of 280,000 is augmented by around 900,000 reservists who are trained for wartime.6Finnish army reserve numbers available at https://intti.fi/en/in-the-reserve; “Finland to raise wartime strength to 280,000 troops”, February 2017, Helsinki Times. Finland never abolished conscription, so the Finnish population is functionally ready for wartime service at a moment’s notice. Finnish “Comprehensive Security” stresses training to balance Russian hybrid warfare, with intelligence exchange, interoperability, and training with Western forces.7Finland “Comprehensive Security Strategy”, Finnish Security Committee, Security Strategy for Society last updated in 2017, available at https://turvallisuuskomitea.fi/en/frontpage/. Finnish strategy of insurgency as a deterrence tactic to blunt massive occupation forces is designed with Russia in mind. Finnish defence spending is roughly 2% of GDP and certain to increase.8Elisabeth Braw, April 14, 2022, “What Finland Can Offer NATO”, Foreign Policy. Finland is thus well positioned to blunt and deter any Russian invasion on its own and is almost certain to have major western support in arms and resources in case of a war, even without NATO membership, as Ukraine has enjoyed.
Sweden saw major cuts in defense spending and manpower in the immediate post-Cold War era similar to other major powers, but brought back conscription in 2017, after some deliberation following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.9“Sweden Brings Back Military Conscription Amid Baltic Tensions,” March 2, 2017, BBC. Sweden boasted of mass conscription during the Cold War and had one of the largest trained militaries, which were downsized as the Soviet threat receded. Sweden is also fortunate to have the Baltic states and Finland as buffer states from a direct Russian land invasion. In recent days however, Sweden increased its draft by 4,000 soldiers per year and reinstated a garrison on a dormant but strategic island base in Visby, Gotland. Overall, both Sweden and Finland have been and arguably are capable of deterring a Russian push for conquest.10“On Sweden’s Gotland, Ukraine war revives fears of Russia”, March 5, 2022, France 24; “Sweden Reinforces Its Defence Posture Along The Baltic Sea”, February 4, 2022, Naval News.
The Case Against NATO Expansion:
In a recent open survey of Euro-Atlantic foreign policy experts, a question was posed about whether Finnish and Swedish memberships are useful for NATO. The answers ranged from “no doubt,” to “certainly,” and “definitely,” to “straight yes” and “enormously so,” before reaching the broad consensus that the accession of Finland and Sweden would “strengthen the alliance’s defenses and greatly increase security in the Baltic region.” There was not a single voice of dissent.11“Judy Asks: Is Finnish and Swedish NATO Membership Useful for European Security?”, April 28, 2022, Carnegie Europe. While this might be exemplary of a typical selection bias in such quarters, and design flaw in open question surveys, the Atlanticist foreign policy community has been overwhelmingly supportive of adding further commitments and members in the alliance. This is symptomatic of the long generational and ideological shift in foreign policy thinking in Washington, from serious scholarly opposition to NATO’s first round of expansion during the Clinton administration, to an overwhelming support in recent days.12For historic scholarship opposing NATO enlargement, see, Michael E. Brown, 1995, “The flawed logic of NATO expansion,” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy; Dan Reiter, 2001, “Why NATO enlargement does not spread democracy,” International Security; Kenneth N. Waltz, 2000, “NATO expansion: A realist’s view,” Contemporary Security Policy; John J. Mearsheimer, 1994, “The false promise of international institutions,” International Security; 3rd May letter to Talbott published in Richard T. Davies, “Should NATO grow? A dissent,” September 1995, New York Review of Books.
Support for Finnish and Swedish membership can be categorized into three broad arguments.13For recent arguments in favour of NATO membership of Finland and Sweden, see, “Defending every inch of NATO territory: Force posture options for strengthening deterrence in Europe”, March 9, 2022, Atlantic Council Issue Brief; “Will Finland and Sweden Join NATO?”, April 15, 2022, CSIS policy paper; Anna Wieslander and Christopher Skaluba, “Will Finland and Sweden join NATO now?”, March 3, 2022, Atlantic Council; Ivo Daalder, May 12, 2022, “If Finland and Sweden join NATO, it’s on Russia”, Politico; “Judy Asks: Is Finnish and Swedish NATO Membership Useful for European Security?”, April 28, 2022, Carnegie Europe; and Minna Ålander, April 27, 2022, “Finland wants to use the “NATO option”” Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik. First, that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unleashed an intense “security dilemma” and the smaller states who now feel threatened should be immediately added as protectorates and the western (primarily American) nuclear umbrella extended. Second, Sweden and Finland are already de facto part of the Western alliance, through either regional cooperative frameworks such as the Nordic Defense Cooperation and Joint Expeditionary Force, or collaborations within the EU framework and partnerships with NATO. Third, Sweden and Finland already have strong militaries and countries with democratic foundations, and both bring unique deterrence capabilities and strengthen NATO’s northern flank which will make NATO stronger. These arguments are contradictory, often paradoxical, and strategically flawed.
The first line of argument – that the Russian threat has morphed to now require NATO protection – is predicated on Sweden and Finland’s threat perceptions. While Russia’s revanchism in Ukraine is clear, the fundamental security dynamic has not changed. At the time of this brief, Russia is suffering from enormous and potentially unbridgeable battlefield setbacks. The Russian dash to Kiev failed, and Moscow is seemingly unable to compensate battlefield attrition, including an overwhelming number of officer class attrition, unthinkable for any other top-tier military and unseen in any other recent conflicts. The Russian battlegroups are not in full operational strength. Russia is unable to fill the gaps created by casualties, troop morale is low, and around a fifth of Russian invasion force hardware have been destroyed. In short, Russia is in no position to continue a “war of conquest,” much less a war of occupation or attrition, without declaring a “total war” that requires vast levels of domestic conscription, which is of course, politically unpopular and potentially volatile for Vladimir Putin. While there have been some indications of a willingness to broaden the Russian military base, it is certainly not in the interests of Western policymakers to incentivize such a development. The much-vaunted Russian military reforms quite clearly did not materialize. The Russian-backed air war over Syria was dependent on Syrian regime troops as cannon fodder, and is materially different and far less costly than a multi-spectrum state-vs-state war of conquest in Ukraine. Russia isn’t capable of the latter.
Despite her historic aspirations, Russia enormously overestimated her own power in Ukraine. Instead, the Russian experience in Ukraine, while a humanitarian catastrophe, has demonstrated long term hardware, personnel, intelligence and training deficiencies, as well as structural issues including endemic corruption, old school planning, authoritarian decision-making echochamber, and low troop morale.14For first assessment analyses of Russian military failures, see, Justin Bronk, March 4, 2022, “Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?” Royal United Services Institute; Justin Bronk, February 28, 2022, “The Mysterious Case of the Missing Russian Air Force” Royal United Services Institute; “Russian Losses in Ukraine Highlight Manpower Problem”, April 3, 2022, Warcast, War on the Rocks; Sumantra Maitra, April 19, 2022, “For Russia and the West, the Moskva’s Sinking Is Truly Historic”, The National Interest; Jeffrey Edmonds, April 2022, “Start with the Political: Explaining Russian’s Bungled Invasion of Ukraine”, War on the Rocks; Alexander Crowther, April 2022, “Russia’s Military: Failure on an Awesome Scale”, CEPA; and the ongoing “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment” briefs, Institute for the Study of War. Russia also lacks the economic base and material power and is increasingly reeling under sanctions.15Dara Massicot, May 18, 2022, “The Russian Military’s People Problem”, Foreign Affairs. Put simply, Russia is not going to be the hegemonic spectre looming over Europe anytime in the near future. What logically entails, is that the Ukraine invasion is not the first domino to fall across Europe, meriting a preoccupation with Russian encroachment, but rather, Russia is a manageable threat that European states can increasingly balance on their own collectively. Europeans are perfectly capable without further investment of American treasure or promise of American blood, and a primacist grand-strategy requiring American forward presence.16For a comprehensive military analysis detailing European potential military full-spectrum capabilities vis-à-vis Russia, see, Barry R. Posen, 2020, “Europe Can Defend Itself”, Survival. The only reason Europe is taking a backseat is because they are reliant on the unending generosity of Americans.17Rajan Menon, February 15, 2022, “A new and better security order for Europe”, Defense Priorities policy paper. In addition, a much-weakened Russia can also be extremely volatile, prone to miscalculation and paranoia, which might be exacerbated by the “chain-ganging” of Western great powers by their activist junior allies–a very common and observable dynamic especially seen under the conditions of multipolarity wherein smaller protectorates and hectoring and sanctimonious allies attempt to drag much larger benefactors to a great power war. It is a trap the US must judiciously avoid at all cost. Otherwise the result could well be greater misunderstanding and an even greater risk of accidental conflict along a much longer border with NATO. This paradoxical dynamic isn’t new in international relations, the First World War being the most ruinous example.18For “Stability-Instability Paradox”, see, Robert Jervis, 1979, “Why Nuclear Superiority Doesn’t Matter”. Political Science Quarterly; for “Security Dilemma”, see Robert Jervis, 1978, “Cooperation under the Security Dilemma”, World Politics; on the risk of “chain-ganging”, see Thomas J. Christensen and Jack Snyder, 1990, “Chain Gangs and Passed Bucks: Predicting Alliance Patterns in Multipolarity”, International Organization.
The only development that might reverse an emerging natural equilibrium, is a Ukrainian counterattack on Crimea or somewhere deep inside Russian territory, or a major expansion of an alliance which justifies Russia’s historic and entrenched paranoia, such as a renewed push for further NATO enlargement. A Ukrainian counterattack might result in Russia pulling the nuclear card. It might also solicit a “rally around the flag” effect for this otherwise unpopular and deteriorating war. Barring those, Russian aspiration to be a major revanchist great power in the European balance is practically over, and Russia’s current near total international isolation in 2022 is comparable to her isolation in 1856 or 1921. Meanwhile Ukraine has managed with conscription and compulsory male draft to gather an overwhelming number of men willing to defend their country, and is well supplied with practically unlimited foreign resources and weaponry, an example to other states in the region.
In that light, the idea that Finland and Sweden, with significant military capabilities of their own, need to be in an alliance for protection against Russian revanchism at a time when Russia’s status as a revanchist great power is itself in question, is fallacious, especially with Russia facing a quagmire in Ukraine. The possibility of a Russian invasion and conquest of Finland or Sweden is nearly non-existent.19Kimberley Marten, May 4, 2022, “Finland’s New Frontier”, Foreign Affairs; John Grady, February 22, 2022, “Finland Prepared for Worst, But Sees No Immediate Russian Threat to Its Border, Defense Minister Says”, USNI.
Likewise, it is also paradoxical to argue that Finland and Sweden need protection, while simultaneously contending that they are uniquely powerful militaries with deterrence capabilities needed for strengthening NATO’s northern frontier.20Heljä Ossa and Tommi Koivula, May 9, 2022, “What Would Finland Bring to the Table for NATO?”, War on the Rocks; Zachary Basu, May 19, 2022, “Finland and Sweden bring military might to NATO”, Axios. The capabilities that Sweden and Finland has, including a top-tier airforce, are formidable, but not novel to NATO. Addition of another approximately two hundred jets will not significantly alter the combined air power of NATO, which is already superior to Russia. Sweden and Finland will not bring any new capabilities that would drastically alter the balance of power in the region, and other than intelligence sharing, would not add any material advantage to an already overwhelmingly superior NATO. Given that Swedish and Finnish conscription forces and reservists only come into play during a war, and the chance of a war with Russia is negligible, they are also not adding any significant manpower to NATO. NATO’s “enhanced forward presence” from Poland and the Baltic states, can already cover and protect the allies in the region, as well as project power in the Arctic without the need for any new bases in Sweden or Finland. According to NATO’s website, the force projection includes eight multinational “battlegroups, led by the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and the United States respectively, [which] are robust and combat-ready forces,” and a “multinational brigade, under Multinational Division Southeast in Romania” for improved situational awareness and enhanced readiness.21 “NATO’s military presence in the east of the Alliance”, March 28, 2022, NATO brief, available at https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_136388.htm. The Baltics and the Arctic are challenging frontiers to defend, and some of the older arguments against NATO enlargement touched upon it. Russia is considered to have an escalation dominance in the region, due to sheer manpower it can muster in a full spectrum war. However, recent Russian experience in Ukraine, and the negligible chance of a full spectrum war should ease some of the concerns about mindless Russian imperial revanchism. According to a Rand Corp analysis, even though the Baltics are hard to defend in case of an actual war, deterring Russia is relatively easy with a few divisions of forward positioned troops, with the implied threat that any casualty would trigger a NATO – Russia war. Newer bases in Finland and Sweden are unnecessary in that regard for any extended deterrence in the region.22David A. Shlapak and Michael Johnson, 2016, “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics”, RANDCorp research reports.
For any other military or intelligence needs, bilateral or EU frameworks are more than sufficient.23Gene Germanovich, James Black, Linda Slapakova, Stephen J. Flanagan, Theodora Ogden, 2021, “Enhancing US-Finnish and regional defence cooperation”, RANDCorp research reports. Sweden and Finland’s telecom companies such as Nokia and Ericsson already can get privileged treatment and American defense contracts, and provide a bulwark against Chinese dominance in the domain; a formal alliance isn’t necessary or needed for that. The argument that adding more countries in the alliance will free up American troops is also flawed, as historically that has only led to further Eastern European reliance and demands as well as West European free-riding on the American military. It is simply ahistorical to contemplate that this particular dynamic would change with Finland and Sweden within NATO. Consider that Sweden is not even in NATO yet, and is already calling for more US naval presence in the Baltic sea.24Sam LaGrone, May 19, 2022, “Swedish Officials Ask Pentagon to Increase U.S. Naval Presence in Baltic Sea”, USNI. In fact, Russian force posture towards Finland and Sweden might change once they join NATO, with more potential Russian bases in the Arctic, adding to further increased demands of American military presence.25Christopher S. Chivvis, April 14, 2022, “The Dilemma at the Heart of Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO Membership Bids”, Carnegie Commentary. The cost-benefit analysis suggests that the only material difference for NATO will be the cost of an additional nearly thousand-mile frontier, and further chances of miscalculation and feeding of Russian paranoia about encirclement, which the Russian ruling elite will use to further justify their worldview.
The Need for American Restraint:
America’s strategic interest in the European balance is not under any significant threat from a potential hegemonic challenge that seeks to dominate the entirety of European landmass under one army and one flag.26On American grand-strategy, balance of power, and the strategy of “offshore balancing”, see, John J. Mearsheimer, “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics” 2003, W. W. Norton & Company; and Barry R. Posen, “Restraint: A New Foundation for US Grand Strategy”, 2015, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs. During the early years of the Republic, American grand strategy in Europe was one of cautious detachment and non-interference in the imperial affairs of the European great powers. After the fall of the traditional historic balancer of Europe, the British empire, and facing two world wars and hegemonic threats to security from Imperial, and subsequently Nazi Germany, American strategy evolved to one that mirrored the historic British grand-strategy of “offshore balancing,” that ensured that America would intervene whenever there was a hegemonic threat in the European horizon. To that end, the interests of the United States, much like the British empire before her, is to ensure a militarily disunited Europe, and maintain open trade and sea routes.
The difference in this instance was that the British aspired to attain this objective through a delicate “balance of power” within the continent with minimal interference to tilt the balance as and when required, while cautiously avoiding continuous engagement in the domestic affairs of European countries, or commitments about spreading rights and values. While the American interest in ensuring no hegemonic threat in the European continent remained intact, the American grand-strategy, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, deviated from an earlier realist one. It in turn sought to institutionalise peace across the continent, while ensuring fundamental human rights in every corner – or in the words of John Mearsheimer and Barry Posen, ensure primacy and spread “liberal hegemony.”
Unfortunately, that resulted in the atrophy of Europe’s traditional security providers–the western powers–and at the same time, encouraged free riding on American treasure and muscle. The institutionalisation of peace, first through an expansion of NATO and then through support of the EU, also resulted in buckpassing wherein Western European great powers are perfectly content to wave the EU flag but simultaneously rely on the US tax-funded security subsidies. The Eastern European powers are permanently activist with lofty rhetoric about values and human rights, meanwhile leaving the security burden in large part to be covered by the US. Both Western European states and the Eastern European states act rationally based on their narrow security interests, and that is perfectly understandable. The narrow American interest is the only one ignored in this context.
Several American presidents and policymakers, from Dwight Eisenhower to John Kennedy to Donald Trump, have attempted to grapple with European free-riding and “buckpassing.”27Thomas J. Christensen and Jack Snyder, 1990, “Chain Gangs and Passed Bucks: Predicting Alliance Patterns in Multipolarity”, International Organization. Various attempts were made either through implicit warnings (such as Bob Gates’ final speech to NATO in 2011) or explicit threats (under the Trump Administration) to encourage or compel Western European powers to shoulder more security burden and provide security umbrella to theatres in Eastern Europe.28“Reflections on the status and future of the transatlantic alliance”, delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Brussels, June 10, 2011; “Trump says NATO countries must pay 2 percent of GDP immediately”, July 11, 2018, Reuters.
Further enlargement of NATO in the current scenario risks doubling down on American security commitments. That, coupled with unlimited financial aid for Ukraine, or further permanent troop additions in theatres of Eastern Europe, reverses all the recent gains that were made to require Europe to fund more of its own security requirements. In the face of renewed Russian aggression, a one-time US infusion of resources and weaponry to Ukraine may have been understandable, as were enhanced bilateral alignments with Finland and Sweden. However, those efforts should have been accompanied by corresponding requirements that rich European states shoulder the long-term localized security architecture and endure the majority of the future cost. This is especially so given that a localized war in the periphery of their continent is of far more strategic significance to Europeans, than it is to the United States. As the accompanying chart demonstrates, it is not justifiable to American taxpayers that Europe is once again subsidized by the US.
Instead, the Biden administration is absolutely determined to double down on the failures of the post-Cold-war strategy in supporting the addition of Finland and Sweden to NATO. The shift of NATO frontiers further to the east and north, and adding more buffer states, would only disincentivize rich Western European nations from providing security in their own backyard. With the rising threat of a near-peer rival in China, severe economic downturn, and looming strategic trade-offs, committing more to NATO is irresponsible and imprudent.
A fast-track process for Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership is now underway, at the behest of those European states who are taking advantage of the situation and war hysteria to further enlarge an already bloated and diluted alliance. Consolidating an arrangement that has worked well for them in the past few decades is an understandable desire, but it does not correspond that it has worked well for the US. Policymakers in the United States should ignore the popular currents and encourage open public debates about the limits of NATO’s constantly mutating frontiers and fluid commitments.
Finland and Sweden are in no real danger of any invasion, and neutrality worked well for them. Russia is a shadow of its former self, with a broken military and damaged economy due to an attritional war of choice, and collectively, Europe massively outspends Russia. In fact, Germany, France, and Britain combined are more than capable of providing deterrent forces in the Baltics, and have their own nuclear umbrella. Neither Finland nor Sweden adds enough to the security of the alliance to justify the additional costs. Adding them would mean two more states as protectorates for whom the US would be treaty bound to go to a nuclear war.
Neither war hysteria, nor a desire to punish Russia, nor sympathy for democratic values and human rights should affect narrow strategic calculations in such a permanent way. Instead, the Russian debacle in Ukraine demonstrates that it is increasingly time for the US to reorient away from Europe and focus on more pressing issues such as the southern border, inflation, and the rise of China.
Americans are already familiar with George Washington’s warnings about avoiding “passionate attachments” and interweaving destinies with any parts of Europe. The emerging global order encourages everyone to pay heed to another George. In 1822, after the collapse of Napoleonic France and resulting multipolarity in which Great Britain enjoyed overwhelming preponderance and faced no long-term hegemonic threat from Europe, the British conservative foreign minister George Canning coined the guiding principles of “non-intervention and every nation for itself…in a balance of power; respect for facts, not for abstract theories; respect for treaty rights, but caution in extending them.” Those principles underscored a certain conservative realism that served Britain well for over a century. While unfashionable in the post-modern world, now is the time for America to look back to the wisdom of an era functionally similar to ours.
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