The Senate on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to admit Finland and Sweden to NATO, putting the military alliance on track for a historic expansion in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
With 95 senators voting in favor, the defense treaty heads to President Joe Biden’s desk where he is expected to ratify it in the coming days, making the U.S. the 22nd NATO nation to give its approval. All 30 NATO members are expected to complete the ratification process before the end of the year, in a signal to Moscow that the alliance will not shirk from deterring future Russian aggression.
The vote represents the latest Western condemnation of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine, which is entering its sixth month. Putin’s invasion has united Western democracies and has had the unintended consequence of strengthening the NATO alliance amid fears that other Eastern Flank allies could be next.
“A year ago, no one would have thought that Sweden and Finland would have wanted NATO membership,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who co-chairs the Senate’s NATO Observer Group. “But, of course, a lot has happened in that year. Vladimir Putin made one of the most consequential miscalculations in modern history.”
Putin has long feared an expansion of the alliance to include nations that border Russia as well as former Soviet states. Finland and Sweden have taken pride in their independence, but Russia’s war in Ukraine changed both countries’ thinking. Finland in particular is a major addition to the alliance because it shares an 800-mile border with Russia.
Just one senator, Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), voted against the treaty — raising concerns about expanding NATO and staying involved in Europe’s security challenges while the U.S. struggles to contain China’s rise. Supporters, though, argue that allowing Finland and Sweden to join the alliance would reduce the burden on the U.S., NATO’s biggest contributor by far. Both Scandinavian countries have technologically advanced and have capable militaries.
Hawley’s opposition has re-ignited a battle within the Republican Party over foreign policy — one that prompted some of his fellow GOP senators to call him out, though not by name.
“If any senator is looking for a defensible excuse to vote no, I wish them good luck,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “This is a slam dunk for national security that deserves unanimous bipartisan support.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who along with Hawley is widely believed to be considering a future presidential run, went even further by obliquely referencing Hawley’s support for admitting North Macedonia to NATO in 2019.
“It would be strange indeed for any senator who voted to allow Montenegro or North Macedonia into NATO to turn around and deny membership to Finland and Sweden,” Cotton said. “I would love to hear the defense of such a curious vote.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who opposed Montenegro’s and North Macedonia’s accession and has been generally skeptical of NATO, voted “present.”
The Senate resoundingly rejected Paul’s amendment to the treaty earlier Wednesday that would have placed conditions on Article 5 of the NATO charter — the provision that requires all member-nations to come to the defense of a NATO partner when it comes under attack. Paul’s amendment would have clarified that Article 5 “does not supersede” the constitutional authority of Congress to declare war.
Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said an amendment wasn’t necessary because “the U.S. Constitution reigns supreme in all of our actions.”
Separately, the Senate unanimously adopted an amendment from Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) that reinforces the alliance’s requirement that members must spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Former President Donald Trump, who once called NATO “obsolete” and toyed with the idea of withdrawing the U.S. from the alliance, publicly pushed U.S. allies to meet the defense spending threshold.
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