In the aftermath of Russia’s immoral invasion of Ukraine, the news that Sweden and Finland are abandoning their long-held neutrality in favor of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is being met with much exuberance by the American political elite. President Joe Biden celebrated the move with a joint press conference at the White House featuring the leaders of both countries. On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Senators Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell — leaders in two parties that seemingly agree on almost nothing these days — jointly sponsored a resolution calling for expedited NATO accession.
Much of the Beltway media predictably joined the chorus, with editorials from newspapers such as the Washington Post heralding the move.
For America’s political establishment, NATO expansion has been one of the closest things to a foreign policy holy sacrament in the post-Cold War era. But our policy-making elite are doing the American people a disservice by rubber-stamping an expansion of America’s security commitments through NATO during a period of economic turmoil at home and emerging security challenges in other parts of the world.
It is not in the national interest of the United States, through NATO, to commit to defend two wealthy European welfare states whose neutrality has kept them safe and prosperous for more than 70 years. While some insist Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changes everything, the fact remains that new security guarantees will force trade-offs, consume more resources, and increase the likelihood of a confrontation with a nuclear-armed adversary.
Despite rhetoric from NATO evangelists that can often give the contrary impression, adding Finland and Sweden to NATO will lead to increased costs for the U.S.
Admitting both nations to NATO could generate up-front expenses of over $8 billion along with $1.5 billion in additional annual costs. And while U.S. military leaders are currently claiming that their membership in NATO won’t lead to a permanent stationing of troops in either nation, they do admit that more U.S. troops will likely rotate to both Finland and Sweden on a more frequent basis. This will place further strain on a U.S. military that is already struggling to sustain deployments in support of dozens of ongoing operations including active combat missions in Iraq, Syria, and Somalia.
One frequently cited justification for admitting Finland and Sweden to NATO is that they have capable militaries that would enhance NATO. However, the reality is that both countries have relatively small professional militaries of around 20,000 troops each that rely on large reserve forces in a time of war and which lack long-range force projection capabilities. Sweden is already requesting a larger U.S. naval presence in the Baltic Sea, calling into question the ability of their military to secure their own backyard.
Additionally, neither country currently meets the 2 percent of GDP defense spending goal that was agreed to by NATO members. Just as in other parts of Europe, a security guarantee provided by the United States could encourage free-riding and disincentivize increased investment in defense capabilities in favor of more spending on politically popular social programs.
But most dangerously, adding Finland and Sweden to NATO will increase the risk of a nuclear confrontation with Russia. As a result of its failures in Ukraine, the threat posed by Russia’s conventional forces has been reduced. But Russia still possesses a large nuclear arsenal that, according to the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, they will likely rely on more to secure their borders — including the nearly 850-mile one they share with Finland. NATO membership for Finland and Sweden includes extending the umbrella of America’s nuclear deterrent to both nations, thus elevating the risk that any border dispute could escalate into a nuclear exchange.
Instead of enabling NATO accession for Finland and Sweden, the United States should take actions to encourage the strengthening and development of non-NATO security architectures in Europe like the Nordic Defence Cooperation, which Finland and Sweden are already a part of. The failures of Russia’s military in Ukraine have demonstrated that collectively Europe is more than capable of securing itself without significant U.S. support, as long they properly prioritize defense investments.
At a time of record inflation and a $30.5 trillion national debt, it is hard to justify spending more American tax dollars and committing more American troops to defend two wealthy European social democracies.
This is particularly true when neither state enhances U.S. security and both have benefited from neutrality for decades. The lack of robust debate around this important topic and the smearing of those who dare to question the benefits of NATO expansion only raises the risk that the United States will become overextended, or worse, potentially sleep-walk into a war with a nuclear-armed Russia.
After decades of foreign policy failures that have cost the United States dearly, America’s elected officials owe the American people better than more costly security commitments disconnected from our safety and economic prosperity.
Russ Vought is the president of the Center for Renewing America and was President Trump’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget.