The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which had 30 members, just added Finland, bringing its membership to 31. Liberal media outlets immediately portrayed the news as a substantial shift in European geopolitics, with some saying it was a big blow to President Putin.
Neither assertion is wholly accurate.
Finland, despite its neutrality, is as close to European culture as countries go. Its liberal values and generous cradle-to-grave benefits have earned it an iconic status among the American Left. Bernie Sanders never lets a single interview pass by without mentioning the social safety network of one of the Nordic countries - Sweden, Norway, Finland, or Denmark. Iceland, the fifth, is so far away that it is often on no one's radar.
If Finland had shed its neutrality, it would have been one of the first countries to be included during NATO's expansion after the Soviet Union fell. But NATO's goals in the 1990s were to solidify former Soviet states under its umbrella.
In 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland gained NATO membership.
On March 29, 2004, under the urging of President George W Bush in the wake of the global war on terror, NATO expanded by seven new states on a single day - Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Each was a Soviet satellite during the Cold War.
Liberated from the authoritarian past by Mikhail Gorbachev's Glasnost and Perestroika, Russia, first under Boris Yeltsin and later under Vladimir Putin, was eager to embrace partnerships with the West.
President Bush and Putin met 18 times over seven years! Putin made plans with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder for a "Greater Europe" from Lisbon to Vladivostok as a "cooperation mechanism." Putin finally achieved his Kleptocratic dream when the elite G-7 countries expanded membership to the G-8 to include Russia in 1997, thus welcoming the country into the world order. Russia even hosted the Winter Olympics. So, when ten former Soviet states/satellites joined NATO by 2004, the reaction from Putin was no more than a shrug.
But Putin had drawn a red line with two countries - Georgia and Ukraine - insisting that their assimilation into NATO was unacceptable to Moscow. Both countries had a sizable Russian ethnic population, and their integration with NATO threatened Russia at its borders. On April 4, 2008, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko warned on the sidelines of the NATO summit: "Georgia's and Ukraine's membership in the alliance is a huge strategic mistake which would have the most serious consequences for pan-European security." The West then could not agree to offer Ukraine and Georgia a gateway to possible entry, so the problem disappeared, hidden under the carpet.
To Russia, Finland joining NATO is not a big deal, although it shares an 800-mile border with it. The region is primarily barren, in the Arctic Circle, and is sparsely populated. Finland does not have a sizeable Russian ethnic population. Russia attacked Finland in one of the first battles of World War II in 1940. But since then, the two countries have had peaceful relations. Since 1994, Finland has enjoyed de-facto NATO protection as a member of the NATO Partnership for Peace program. Had Russia attacked Finland instead of Ukraine, the West would have reacted with even more solidarity and brute force, perhaps even deploying NATO resources to defend Finland.
Sweden, the other Nordic country which wants to join NATO but whose application is being held up by Turkey and Hungary, will likely become member #32 soon. But this development, too, is unlikely to change anything materially.
Of far more vital concern to the West should be the way Russia has become a Chinese client state, a situation most Western capitals never anticipated when Russia invaded Ukraine. President Biden's National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan threatened Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in Rome a year ago, warning that Beijing would face isolation and penalties if it helped Moscow.
As though to snub Sullivan, the two powers have solidified their partnership so intensely that President Xi visited Moscow for three days last month. President Xi’s parting words to his Russian counterpart following a state dinner at the Kremlin pointed to the changing power dynamics: “Together, we should push forward these changes that have not happened for 100 years. Take care.” Xi was referring to leveraging the Russian partnership to cement China as a counter-balancing power to the American-led alliance that has maintained global security and the world order since 1945.
Beyond Finland's induction into NATO, the immediate need is to define America's role in a war that seems to be grinding on with no Ukrainian victories in months. America has already spent $115 billion on the war, with reconstruction costs now reaching $1 trillion.
Beyond broad generalities about helping protect Ukraine's sovereignty and punishing Russia for violating it, President Biden is yet to make a solid case for why America is so heavily involved in defending a non-NATO country. "As long as it takes" cannot be the cornerstone of America's foreign policy at a time when China strengthens partnerships with non-Western nations to threaten America's global standing and the world order.
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