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Josh Hawley votes to block Finland and Sweden from crossing the NATO finish line

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Maybe he was just late for the insurrection?

As you’ve likely seen elsewhere on the interwebs, the Senate voted in favor of adding Finland and Sweden to NATO. Mitch McConnell described approval of their bids for membership as “as a slam dunk for national security that deserves unanimous bipartisan support.” It came close: the vote was 95-1 in favor. Rand Paul voted “present.” Josh Hawley supplied the sole “nay” vote.

Hawley supported membership for North Macedonia in March of 2020, so one would expect he’d run to embrace Sweden and Finland. Both countries are more militarily capable than North Macedonia; they both already work closely with the United States and NATO. In fact, military cooperation between NATO and Sweden dates back to the Cold War.

As Tapani Vaahtoranta and Tuomas Forsberg write:

It is now known that while Sweden was officially pursuing a policy of neutrality, it at the same time made secret preparations for military cooperation with NATO should the Soviet Union have attacked Sweden or perhaps even before such an attack…

Sweden took measures that would have enabled the United States, in particular, to take military action against targets in the Soviet Union across the Baltic Sea…. These preparations continued until the end of the Cold War. For example, the communication links with Norway and Denmark were modernised as late as in the end of the 1980s and Swedish personnel stayed until the end of the decade at secret headquarters in Britain that were established for an exile government.

…Sweden was, in fact, covered by NATO’s security guarantees and the United States was prepared to defend Sweden with nuclear weapons. NATO was believed to have been interested in defending Sweden because it regarded Sweden as strategically important. Sweden was considered the key for the defence of Norway and Denmark and thus for maintaining the sea lines across the Atlantic Ocean. It is particularly significant that NATO did not believe that Sweden could stay neutral should war break out. Neither did NATO consider Sweden’s neutrality an obstacle to military cooperation, but expected that Sweden would join the West in the fight against a Soviet attack.

So what make Sweden and Finland different?

Hawley explains his vote in an essay that ran in The National Interest on Monday.

He argues that:

America’s greatest foreign adversary doesn’t loom over Europe. It looms in Asia. I am talking of course about the People’s Republic of China. And when it comes to Chinese imperialism, the American people should know the truth: the United States is not ready to resist it. Expanding American security commitments in Europe now would only make that problem worse—and America, less safe.

…Confronting [the] threat [posed by China] will force us to make tough choices. As the 2018 and 2022 U.S. National Defense Strategies both acknowledge, the United States cannot defeat China and Russia in two major wars at the same time. And we are not where we need to be in Asia. The U.S. is currently not prepared to fend off Chinese military aggression in the Pacific. Our forces are not postured as they should be. And we do not have the arms and equipment there we need, not least because we have been distracted for too long by nation-building activities in the Middle East and legacy commitments in Europe. In the face of this stark reality, we must choose. We must do less in Europe (and elsewhere) in order to prioritize China and Asia.

Okay. That’s interesting. Why exactly would formal U.S. security commitments to Finland and Sweden make it harder to confront China?

As the 2018 and 2022 U.S. National Defense Strategies both acknowledge, the United States cannot defeat China and Russia in two major wars at the same time. And we are not where we need to be in Asia. The U.S. is currently not prepared to fend off Chinese military aggression in the Pacific. Our forces are not postured as they should be. And we do not have the arms and equipment there we need, not least because we have been distracted for too long by nation-building activities in the Middle East and legacy commitments in Europe. In the face of this stark reality, we must choose. We must do less in Europe (and elsewhere) in order to prioritize China and Asia.

Right. Right. We get it. The U.S should do less in Europe. How will that be harder if Sweden and Finland join NATO?

To be clear, America shouldn’t abandon NATO. But it’s time for our European allies to do more. In particular, they must take primary responsibility for the conventional defense of Europe by investing more in their own militaries. All the way back in 2006, NATO member states pledged to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on national defense. It should be higher. The United States spends far more than that on defense. But many NATO members still haven’t met even this minimal commitment.

Yes, many NATO states still lag behind the (arbitrary) 2% target. That’s the status quo ante.

As to Sweden and Finland, both nations are advanced economies, with capable militaries. But they haven’t yet made the policy commitments appropriate to their geostrategic positions. Sweden doesn’t spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense and won’t for years to come. And Finland, though it announced a one-time defense spending boost, hasn’t made clear whether it will sustain these levels. In the event of a future conflict in Europe, U.S. forces would almost certainly be called in to defend both countries.

In the event of a future conflict in Europe, U.S. forces will be called upon to defend the Baltic States, Poland, Romania… and probably a good many other NATO states. The addition of Sweden and Finland won’t change that.

Indeed, in case anyone missed it, there is, at this very moment, a fairly major conflict going on in Europe. I will grant the the word “Ukraine” never appears in Hawley’s essay. But he does genuflect toward the existence of a reasonably-sized conventional war on NATO’s doorstep: “Finland and Sweden want to join the Atlantic Alliance to head off further Russian aggression in Europe.”

I kind of understand why Hawley dances around Russia’s war against Ukraine. It does, after all, complicate his threat assessment.

The war raises another, more difficult, issue for Hawley: Ukraine isn’t in NATO, and yet the United States is engaging in a variety of very costly actions on its behalf.

We might also note that despite crucial assistance provided by NATO members to Kyiv, Moscow has not attempted to widen the war to, say, the Baltic States.

Anyway, let’s see if Hawley connects the dots for us.

And even absent armed conflict, NATO expansion would almost certainly mean more U.S. forces in Europe for the long haul, more military hardware devoted there, and more dollars spent—to the detriment of our security needs in Asia, to say nothing of needs at home.

So here’s the thing. This piece weighs in at around 800 words; that’s a standard length for newspaper op-eds. I suspect that it was published online-only in The National Interest because none of the major national newspapers were interested in running it. If that’s correct, we should expect an essay like this to be both short and superficial.

Nonetheless, the piece could easily shed 50-100 words without any loss of meaning. All I’m saying is that it wouldn’t have been difficult to make room for some explanation of how “Finland and Sweden join NATO” results in “a net increase in U.S. military expenditures.”

Because, and I’m spitballing here, it seems quite possible that Finnish and Swedish accession will strengthen NATO; that it could make it easier for the United States to spend less or relocate forces to a different region. At the very least, incorporating Sweden and Finland into NATO might improve the alliance’s strategic position in the Baltic Sea and in the Arctic, no?

Hawley concludes:

U.S. resources are not unlimited. Already we spend the better part of a trillion dollars a year on defense. And our manpower is already stretched thin across the globe. The United States must prioritize the defense resources we have for the China effort, while there is still time. Until our European allies make the necessary commitments to their own national defense, we must not put more American lives at risk in Europe while allowing China’s power to grow unchecked.

For decades, NATO stood as a bulwark against a militant Soviet Union, protecting the Western world by blocking Communism’s westward expansion. But more than three decades after the Soviet Union’s fall, the geopolitical landscape is very different. Russia is still a threat, but the Chinese Communist Party is a far greater one. And a truly strategic American foreign policy—one that looks to this nation’s strategic interests now, rather than the world of years ago—must embrace this reality, and prepare for it.

Let me offer three ways that we can make sense of this essay.

First, Hawley means exactly what he (or Colby or whoever) writes. The United States should not abandon NATO, but it does need to shift military capabilities away from Europe and toward the Pacific. Expanding NATO to include Finland and Sweden will require additional deployments in Europe. Therefore, we should reject their application.

The problem, as we’ve seen, it that his argument just doesn’t hold together. If we’re going to be honest, that’s probably because it can’t. Defense spending and force posture are policy choices. If the United States decides to shift resources toward the Pacific, it can shift resources toward the Pacific — regardless of whether or not Finland and Sweden join NATO.

Hawley also suggests that accession will increase the risk of a war between the United States and Russia. The reason seems to be that each additional country in NATO is another possible source of military conflict. That’s not terribly compelling. Allowing Finland and Sweden into NATO might very well reduce the risk of miscalculation and war.

Why? I think we can assign better than 50-50 odds that some NATO members would commit forces to defend Sweden or Finland even if neither country joins the alliance. The Russian invasion of Ukraine probably increased the likelihood of some kind of direct NATO intervention on their behalf. Keep in mind that the European Union’s Mutual Defense Clause means that the vast majority of NATO states already extend, at least on paper, security commitments to Sweden and Finland. Formal membership in NATO should make Russia less willing to probe the extent of that commitment, and less willing to roll the dice on an invasion.

Second, Hawley wants the United States to de facto abandon NATO, but thinks saying so will damage his presidential prospects. That sure seems like the logical implication of the argument. The last two paragraphs come very close to an explicit call for the United States to leave its European allies on their own; in context, “to be clear, America shouldn’t abandon NATO” seems more like a tell than a disclaimer.

Third, it’s all about the presidency. Hawley’s solo “nay’ vote allows him to claim that he’s the only U.S. Senator who is truly committed to “national conservatism” and MAGA foreign policy. Complete arguments? Meh. Hawley doesn’t need them for this kind of appeal.

I suspect Hawley’s vote reflects a combination of the second and third. If so, then how Hawley fares will be an early indicator of whether the GOP remains an overall pro-NATO party.

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