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NATO Adding Sweden and Finland Is Bad News for America

F-18D Hornet in service with the Finnish Air Force.

Yesterday at the NATO summit, the transatlantic alliance officially invited Finland and Sweden to join. After the two indicated their interest last month, the only question was how fast they would be inducted

One hurdle obstructed membership: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan initially delayed the process. However, in Madrid, he dropped his objection after collecting his winnings – concessions to his war on Turkey’s Kurds.

The alliance celebrated the two states’ still pending membership as if they already had been inducted: “The accession of Finland and Sweden will make them safer, NATO stronger, and the Euro-Atlantic area more secure. The security of Finland and Sweden is of direct importance to the Alliance, including during the accession process.” The only delay now will be the time necessary to round up legislators in NATO’s 30 member states to vote yes.

It is obvious why Stockholm and Helsinki want to join. For smaller nations, the U.S. defense dole is wonderful to behold. Washington provides garrisons to guarantee sovereignty, subsidizes the development of armed forces, constantly seeks to “reassure,” and even risks the destruction of its own cities by deploying nuclear weapons in an alliance country’s defense. All a country does is agree to be defended. Such a deal!

Figuring Out What America Gets Out of the Process is Much More Difficult

Foreign policy is dependent on circumstances and highly contingent. After World War II, Europe and Japan were wrecked by war; their former colonies, most notably South Korea, were left adrift. All were vulnerable to pressure from or even conquest by the Soviet Union, its satellite states, and, soon thereafter, the newly emergent People’s Republic of China. 

Washington chose to create multiple alliances in service of the policy of containment. That gave weak states time and space to recover.

The policy proved to be a great success, highlighted by the dramatic recovery of Japan and Germany, Washington’s not-too-distant enemies. Also recovering from war, the Republic of Korea enjoyed one of the most rapid growth rates of any nation. Europe’s combined economic strength nearly equaled America’s. By the 1980s an international environment that had looked so hostile to America had been completely transformed. 

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the end of Maoism in China, and the disappearance of many hostile emergent regimes, the U.S. should have adjusted its foreign policy, stepping back from its role as military nursemaid to a score or more well-heeled industrialized states.

But Washington Didn’t Do So

America’s foreign policy elite, or “the Blob” in common parlance, preferred to continue dominating friend and foe alike. Hence the U.S. didn’t simply tolerate but effectively encouraged cheap-riding in Asia and Europe. Washington officials pressed friendly states to do more, but only under American authority. And since the U.S. would never do less, allies never had an incentive to do more. Even as American administrations were requesting, cajoling, and begging the Europeans to spend more, the same U.S. officials were desperately attempting to “reassure” allies that America would always be there for them, no matter how little they did. 

Blob Members Never Appeared to Recognize the Glaring Contradiction

Little changed even after President Donald Trump’s well-publicized (and largely deserved) tirades against European fecklessness. Several NATO members continued to modestly increase military expenditures after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Donbas. Even so, last year just one spent more of its GDP on defense than did Washington. The one country was Greece, which viewed, with good reason, neighboring “ally” Turkey as the proximate enemy. Only seven European states hit the two percent guideline set in 2006.

Even two percent is far too low for countries claiming to fear attack. The Baltic States and Poland endlessly fingered Moscow as a threat but devoted a minuscule amount of their GDP to defense. They prefer to lobby Washington to do more for them than to do more for themselves.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, not much changed with the Europeans even after Russia invaded Ukraine. A lot of promises were made. A fair number of weapons were transferred to Kyiv. Handfuls of troops were pledged for Eastern Europe. But few extra Euros and other currencies were spent on Europe’s defense. For instance, one of the biggest talkers, seemingly seeking to channel Winston Churchill, has been the United Kingdom’s Boris Johnson. Yet, reported The Times of London, the latter “has refused to increase defense spending this year, as ministers and the head of the army plead for more money to deal with the Russian threat. 

The Prime Minister arrived in Madrid for a NATO summit calling on the alliance to set a more ambitious defense spending target. His arrival was overshadowed by the acceptance that he would break a key manifesto pledge on military spending and warnings from Ben Wallace, the defense secretary, that the armed forces were surviving on a ‘diet of smoke and mirrors’.”

Moreover, enthusiasm for action is likely to lag the moment the war ends, whenever that is. Three of the European countries with the greatest military potential, France, Italy, and Germany, are both far from Russia and supportive of speedy reconciliation with Moscow. Indeed, skeptics believe Berlin’s highly touted efforts already are flagging. Although the German public still favors aiding Ukraine against Russia, such sentiment won’t be enough to undergird a far-reaching and sustained military build-up.

Most disappointing, despite European promises, American behavior has been more of the same, doing ever more for its cheap-riding allies. For instance, since Russia’s invasion, Washington has added 40,000 troops to Europe. Reported CNN: “The US is expected to keep 100,000 troops stationed in Europe for the foreseeable future … The numbers could temporarily increase if NATO carries out more military exercises in the region, and the US could add additional bases in Europe if the security environment changes, the officials added.”

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, in April urged the establishment of permanent bases in Eastern Europe. He favored rotating U.S. personnel, but forces recently deployed for temporary duty have been replaced, suggesting a presence that could become permanent, an approach favored by many Washinton analysts.

Indeed, at the NATO summit, the Defense Department announced various new permanent and expanded rotational deployments throughout Europe. In addition, “All of these combat-credible forces and enablers are supported by significant investments in the long-term U.S. presence in Europe. In Fiscal Year 2022, DoD continues to execute $3.8 billion in European Deterrence Initiative funding (with another $4.2 billion requested in FY23) for rotational forces, exercises, infrastructure (construction of storage facilities, airfield upgrades, and training complexes), and prepositioned equipment.”

NATO Structure Changes While Also Adding New Members

All this is happening alongside the rushed induction of Finland and Sweden into the alliance. Of course, their perspective entry has been presented as a grand augmentation of the alliance, sure to scare off the latest version of Ivan the Terrible from committing any new aggressions. Yet this presentation is simple nonsense. Helsinki’s and Stockholm’s accession will actually make the U.S. worse off, increasing Washington’s security liabilities. They, too, will become defense dependents, like everyone else in NATO, expecting generous military support, troop garrisons, and constant reassurance from America.

This Has Become NATO’s Modus Operandi 

Recent alliance entrants were military midgets: North Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, and Croatia. If the Duchy of Grand Fenwick had asked, it would have been invited to join as well. At least Finland has a serious, competent military, which does a good job of deterring Russian adventurism. Although Finland’s active-duty army numbers a modest 13,400, the reserve is a much more serious 185,000.

Moreover, Helsinki and Stockholm have no serious disputes with Russia and even the worst fearmongers have had trouble concocting a scenario under which Moscow is likely to attack them. The Soviet Union honored its 1948 agreement with Finland, which preserved Finnish independence while constraining Helsinki’s foreign policy and Russia has shown no hostile intent. To reach Sweden overland would require invading Finland (or, less practically, Norway, a current NATO member).

Increasing NATO on Russia’s Borders

Now, however, Moscow will see its 810-mile border with Finland as another potentially hostile line. After all, the further advance of NATO underscores the multitude of broken allied promises about not expanding the alliance and moves allied forces closer to St. Petersburg on a potential second front. Although Moscow has reacted calmly – it has little choice, with conflict continuing in Ukraine – Russia’s relations with Finland cannot help but deteriorate. 

With the Baltics and Poland constantly screaming and scheming to win permanent placement of U.S. units, always U.S. units, is Finland likely to be far behind? Western analysts contend Helsinki’s addition will further stretch Russia’s military, but Moscow appears likely to rely on nuclear weapons to help fill the gap. How does this help the United States, which is supposed to be Washington’s priority?

This is the basic point lost in the celebration over adding Finland and Sweden to America’s long list of security welfare clients. It was Dwight Eisenhower, not Charles Lindbergh, who warned America against acting like “a modern Rome guarding the far frontiers with our legions.” Rather, NATO’s first military commander supported helping “these people [to] regain their confidence and get on their own military feet.” Wrote scholar Mark Sheetz, “The purpose of America’s ‘temporary’ intervention in Western Europe was to eliminate the need for ‘permanent’ intervention.”

Alas, that objective disappeared decades ago. Washington policymakers insist that they must make China the main target of the U.S. military, seeking to impose America’s will on a rising great power thousands of miles away. 

Finland F-35

F-35A JSF. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin.

Washington remains ensnared in the Middle East, as the president plans to make a very public kowtow to the Persian Gulf’s brutal medieval kingdoms and promise to defend them if their people refuse to do so. The armed services are struggling to make their recruitment goals, with fears that they could suffer the worst results in a half-century. And America’s finances are spinning out of control, with Washington’s debt-to-GDP ratio approaching the record of 106 percent set in 1946, and likely to nearly double by mid-century as America’s population ages.

Yet Washington plans to increase its military subsidies to Europe while adding more defense dependents?

That which is unsustainable cannot continue forever. There was much disagreement about President Donald Trump’s approach to the world. However, he recognized that Uncle Sam must stop playing Uncle Sucker. The outcome of the Madrid summit demonstrates how desperately the American people need someone, anyone, in Washington to speak on their behalf. The next administration should focus on their interests, and especially their security.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Times. Bandow speaks frequently at academic conferences, on college campuses, and to business groups. Bandow has been a regular commentator on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. He holds a JD from Stanford University.

Written By

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times.