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Vote on NATO expansion poses key test for Senate Republicans

Mitch McConnell is on board with quickly expanding NATO and adding Nordic allies. But will other Republicans be equally quick to agree?


To the extent that anyone, anywhere, still sees Russia’s Vladimir Putin as a strategic genius, recent events have shredded the idea. His invasion of Ukraine has done dramatic harm to Russia’s standing in the world, imposing brutal costs on his country, and exposing embarrassing weaknesses to the Russian military.

And then, of course, there’s NATO. It’s hardly a secret that Putin is not only fiercely opposed to the international alliance, he’s outraged by the very idea of NATO expansion, especially near Russian borders.

It’s against this backdrop that Putin’s unprovoked attack is producing the one outcome he desperately hoped to avoid: Finland, which shares an 810-mile border with Russia, has announced that it’s moving forward with plans to join NATO “without delay.” Sweden followed suit soon after. If successful, every Scandinavian country will soon be a part of the alliance.

Of course, it’s not up to individual countries to decide on their own whether to join NATO; current NATO members have to decide whether to welcome new members. Will the United States welcome our Nordic allies? According to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, this shouldn’t be a problem. The Associated Press reported over the weekend:

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday that Finland and Sweden would be “important additions” to NATO as he led a delegation of GOP senators to the region in a show of support against Russia’s aggression.... Speaking to reporters from Stockholm, McConnell said that Finland and Sweden, unlike some members of the Western alliance, would likely be in a position to pay their NATO obligations and would offer significant military capabilities.

“They will be important additions to NATO, if they choose to join,” the Kentucky Republican said, adding, “I think the United States ought to be first in line to ratify the treaty for both these countries to join.”

Congress’ top Republican went so far as to suggest the Senate should ratify Finland’s accession into NATO before members break for their August recess, which would be an extraordinarily quick turnaround.

So, all of this is great news for NATO proponents, right? Probably, but there are some lingering concerns — starting with the fact that Republican hostility toward the alliance has grown in recent years, McConnell’s position notwithstanding.

Donald Trump, of course, was far more antagonistic toward the alliance than any modern American leader, and as regular readers know, the Republican did more than just disparage NATO: On several occasions, Trump expressed an interest in abandoning NATO altogether. According to multiple accounts, it was a plan he intended to follow through on in a second term.

Others in his party have followed the former president’s lead. Last month, for example, when the U.S. House considered a non-binding resolution in support of the alliance, nearly a third of the Republican conference opposed it. A Washington Post report added soon after, “The vote underscores the Republican Party’s remarkable drift away from NATO in recent years, as positions once considered part of a libertarian fringe have become doctrine for a growing portion of the party.”

The Post’s Aaron Blake added in an analysis that Finland and Sweden would need at least two-thirds of the Senate voting to ratify their membership, and “exactly how that debate would go down could be quite interesting — especially in light of the GOP’s slight-but-significant Trump-era drift into more skepticism of NATO.”

Indeed, if the former president were to demand that senators oppose ratification, how many Senate Republicans would ignore Trump’s call? Watch this space.