Finland state

Finland and Sweden joining NATO could put Trump’s GOP in the hot seat

For several weeks, there have been signs that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could backfire on President Vladimir Putin in one key area: bringing NATO closer to Russia’s doorstep.

Like Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor reports today, Finland and Sweden have taken steps to potentially join NATO, after decades of resistance to such a move. Ukraine might not join anytime soon (or at all), but including Finland in particular in the alliance would add more than 800 miles of NATO presence on the Russian border. Russia’s western border north of the Black Sea would suddenly consist of all but one NATO country: Belarus.

The latest big news: As Finland has pondered the prospect of NATO membership in recent weeks, Sweden’s Social Democrats, who have long opposed NATO membership, have published A declaration indicating that they are re-evaluating this position.

Of course, NATO membership is not just a matter of Finland and Sweden deciding to become members; it’s also about whether the current members would agree with that. The conventional wisdom is that both countries would be welcomed with open arms. In the United States, this would require at least two-thirds of the votes of the Senate to ratify their membership.

But exactly how that debate would play out might be quite interesting — especially in light of the slight but significant drift of the Trump-era GOP toward more NATO skepticism. And the looming unknown would be Donald Trump himself who would weigh in on the process – and not necessarily in his favour.

NATO’s last two major expansions were in 1999, when Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined, and in 2004, when seven former communist countries and Soviet republics joined. The latter was completely uncontroversial, with the Senate voting 96 to 0 to ratify their membership. But the first presents some important lessons about how an addition of Finland and Sweden might play out – and who might resist it.

The vote ended up being strongly in favour, 80 to 19, but there was a lot of uncertainty at the start. Throughout the debate, senators from both parties feared the move would be viewed as a provocation by Russia. They warned that Russia would view NATO expansion as an “iron ring” around its borders.

“I believe it replaces, symbolically, the Iron Curtain that was established in the late 1940s, which faced west, now with an iron ring of nations that face east towards Russia. “said Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) during the debate on the subject. “That worries this senator a lot.”

Warner proposed an amendment that would have barred further admission to NATO for three years, and he got 41 votes – including many proponents of the expansion being debated.

In the years since, many prominent foreign policy observers have questioned the wisdom of expansion, as we summarized last month:

… You need not look far into the past to see studied minds warning of a situation similar to the one we find ourselves in today. Former Clinton administration Secretary of Defense Bill Perry said in 2016 that Putin bears most of the responsibility for Russian aggression in Crimea, but “I have to say that the United States deserves a great share of responsibility” for supporting NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe. George Kennan, former US ambassador to the Soviet Union, called it a “tragic mistake” after the Senate in 1998 ratified NATO expansion, even as Russia was still picking up the pieces of the dissolution of the ‘Soviet Union. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (DN.Y.) warned at the same time: “We have no idea what we are getting into. Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski have argued relatively recently that Ukraine should not join military alliances and instead stick to a Finnish approach of remaining neutral while cooperating with the West in other ways.

All of this plays into the impending debate over Finnish and Swedish NATO membership. Enlarging the alliance was a matter of consensus – and even unanimous in 2003-2004 – but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlights the prospect of a perceived provocation that critics had warned against .

Admitting Finland and Sweden would be a strong repudiation of Putin, but it would also arguably be a provocation. Russia has made its strong opposition clear, saying NATO “remains a confrontational tool” and that Finland and Sweden would face “serious military and political consequences” if they joined.

While concerns about the provocation have always been bipartisan, the question today seems to be about how Republicans might respond.

Just last week, more than 30% of House Republicans voted against a symbolic measure reaffirming support for NATO. Their reasons were varied and often not entirely apparent, but it stemmed from years of the GOP swinging toward NATO skepticism — with a few not-so-gentle nudges from Trump.

As president, Trump claimed he supported NATO, but he regularly attacked other countries for not paying enough, and numerous news reports indicate he wanted the United States out of NATO altogether. alliance during his second term. It is a prospect that remains real and important if he is elected in 2024. And it could also color his position vis-à-vis NATO enlargement, especially since much of this long process could unfold when he is officially declared a candidate for 2024.

Add to that Trump’s regularly pro-Putin comments, and it’s not hard to see him adopting a view more in line with Putin’s wishes – and in line with some of the skeptics of NATO expansion in 1999. .

Despite all of Trump’s comments about NATO over the years, he has generally not been asked about the alliance’s expansion. During the 2015 campaign, he offered a indifferent response to potential Ukrainian membership.

“I don’t care,” Trump said. “Yes [Ukraine] come in, great. If he doesn’t come in, so much the better.

At the start of 2020, Trump floated the prospect of further NATO expansion – but in the Middle-East rather than Eastern Europe. (There doesn’t seem to have been much or no follow-up to this proposal.)

Republicans have taken issue with Trump’s skepticism of NATO during his presidency. In 2018, the Senate voted 97 to 2 to affirm support for NATO as Trump attended a summit in Brussels – a fairly direct message for him on the eve of the rally, as well as what became his infamous press conference with Putin in Helsinki. In 2019, only 22 House Republicans voted against a bill that would have prevented Trump from unilaterally withdrawing from NATO.

Given those votes, and given that it would be in the hands of the Senate, where Republicans were more likely to thwart Trump on foreign policy, it’s not clear he can stop his party from signing the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO. Nor would he necessarily try. But for a guy who has made questioning NATO a calling card – and whose views on the subject were often outside the party mainstream – it would be an important development that could lead to a worried dynamic in his side.