Finland and Sweden have broken with their longstanding traditions of neutrality to seek NATO membership, and the U.S. and most other allies are eager to accept them. Like previous rounds of NATO expansion, this one is proceeding without any serious consideration of the possible costs that come from adding new allies. The last thing that the US needs more than thirty years after the end of the Cold War is to be devoting more attention and resources to European security when European countries are more than capable of providing for their own defense. Adding two more security commitments in Europe makes no sense for US interests. Doing this will also discourage European allies from taking greater responsibility for themselves. There ought to be no further NATO expansion in any direction, and the US should be shifting the burden for European security to the wealthy allies that can easily afford it.
The odd thing about the sudden clamor for admitting Finland and Sweden is that they are far more secure today than they were at any point during the Cold War. Whatever threat they might have faced from Russia is much smaller than they previously thought. If Russian forces have had this much difficulty in Ukraine, Finland and Sweden are in no immediate danger and don’t need alliance protection. Given Russia’s evident weakness, further NATO expansion isn’t addressing a real security problem in Europe. NATO doesn’t need any new members, and Finland and Sweden don’t need to be part of NATO, but that hasn’t stopped a surge in support for this completely unnecessary change.
NATO has already become what Michael Kimmage has referred to as a "loose and baggy monster" with 30 members. The alliance has expanded in fits and starts over the last twenty-five years to give the organization something to do when it wasn’t bombing countries that posed no threat to it, and it is on the cusp of doing it again. Each time that the alliance seems to have reached its limit, it keeps looking for excuses to expand. Each new round gives encouragement to other aspirants that they will one day be allowed to join. Bringing in Finland and Sweden will likely lead to more irresponsible talk about adding Georgia to the alliance as well.
European autonomy in providing for their own security is something that the US has consistently opposed, but it would be in the best interests of all concerned if European states no longer depended on US guarantees. Expanding NATO again undermines the cause of European autonomy just as some major European governments seemed ready to pursue it. The loss of Swedish and Finnish neutrality is also unfortunate for those countries, since membership in NATO will one day drag them into the alliance’s "out of area" interventions that their governments will feel obliged to support.
The Turkish government has stated its opposition to membership for Sweden and Finland, but this is probably only temporary. Turkey objects to Swedish and Finnish membership because of their obsessive hatred of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), some of whose members have found refuge in Sweden and Finland. Since Ankara considers the group to be a terrorist organization, they say that they won’t let the new applicants join the alliance until they extradite PKK members and lift arms export bans against Turkey. Assuming that Sweden and Finland are willing to make these concessions, we won’t be able to count on Turkey to derail the expansion.
The US has never considered defending Sweden and Finland to be among its vital interests, and it strains credulity to claim that it is now imperative that the US should be willing to go to war for these countries. There is no compelling reason to make these commitments now, and it is doubtful that there ever will be. While it is unlikely that these countries will be threatened in the near term, we know that the US almost never ends alliance commitments once they have been made. If the US agrees to Finnish and Swedish membership, it will be on the hook for guaranteeing their security for decades to come. Once these commitments have been made, there will eventually be demands in Washington and in allied capitals that the US deploy more forces to Europe to back up its increased commitments. None of this will make the US more secure, and it will be another unnecessary drain on our resources.
No one expects a serious debate about any of this in the Senate, which has always served as a rubber stamp for adding new members to the alliance. Our government has made a habit of making major commitments that bind the US to go to war for other countries without carefully weighing the costs and benefits of these pledges. One day, the US will be called on to honor commitments that were carelessly made, and we will all come to regret that no one bothered to consider the costs.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.