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With Finland and Sweden in NATO, the U.S. Can Finally Pivot to the Pacific

Washington has a golden opportunity to finally do less in Europe.

By , an assistant professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and a fellow at its Center for the Study of Statesmanship, and , a senior research fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship.
A soldier of the Swedish Army's P18 Gotland Regiment takes part in a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.
A soldier of the Swedish Army's P18 Gotland Regiment takes part in a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.
A soldier of the Swedish Army's P18 Gotland Regiment takes part in a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17. JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images

The operative word at last week’s NATO summit in Madrid was “more.” More members (Finland and Sweden), more readiness (a seven-fold increase in the size of NATO’s high-readiness force), more onlookers (Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand), more challenges (adding China and climate change to NATO’s new Strategic Concept), and finally, more U.S. troops in Europe.

Amid all of this “more,” both supporters and opponents of greater U.S. commitment to Europe have talked about possible Finnish and Swedish membership as if it was just another step in the alliance’s established process of expansion. But adding the two Nordic nations to the bloc could be an opportunity for far more: These countries could fundamentally transform NATO in ways that expand Washington’s global freedom of action. Whether the United States will seize this opportunity is another question.

Some foreign-policy realists and advocates of U.S. restraint have opposed admitting Finland and Sweden to the alliance on the grounds that doing so would further extend the United States’ already unsustainable commitments to Europe and its potential conflicts. They are wrong: Adding Sweden and Finland will actually make it less likely that Americans will die fighting for these countries—and also reduce the odds that Americans will die for NATO’s likeliest flash point: the Baltic states.

The operative word at last week’s NATO summit in Madrid was “more.” More members (Finland and Sweden), more readiness (a seven-fold increase in the size of NATO’s high-readiness force), more onlookers (Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand), more challenges (adding China and climate change to NATO’s new Strategic Concept), and finally, more U.S. troops in Europe.

Amid all of this “more,” both supporters and opponents of greater U.S. commitment to Europe have talked about possible Finnish and Swedish membership as if it was just another step in the alliance’s established process of expansion. But adding the two Nordic nations to the bloc could be an opportunity for far more: These countries could fundamentally transform NATO in ways that expand Washington’s global freedom of action. Whether the United States will seize this opportunity is another question.

Some foreign-policy realists and advocates of U.S. restraint have opposed admitting Finland and Sweden to the alliance on the grounds that doing so would further extend the United States’ already unsustainable commitments to Europe and its potential conflicts. They are wrong: Adding Sweden and Finland will actually make it less likely that Americans will die fighting for these countries—and also reduce the odds that Americans will die for NATO’s likeliest flash point: the Baltic states.

Although Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are eager and serious NATO members, they are also uniquely difficult to defend, sandwiched between Russia, its ally Belarus, and Russia’s military exclave on the Baltic Sea, Kaliningrad. Military analysts have repeatedly identified the Baltic states’ defense as NATO’s preeminent military challenge. A 2016 Rand Corporation study found that Russian troops would enter the Estonian and Latvian capitals in 60 hours at most.

Swedish and Finnish NATO membership would transform the security challenge of the Baltics overnight. The Baltic Sea would immediately become a NATO lake; any Russian hope for sea control would be gone, with the Swedish island of Gotland serving as an especially formidable barrier to Russian air and naval forces.

Adding the two Nordic nations to the bloc could fundamentally transform NATO in ways that expand Washington’s global freedom of action.

A strategically sound and cost-effective defense of the Baltic states should not pile NATO brigades into a salient that can easily be cut off and surrounded. Instead, it should rest on deterrence, which requires a credible commitment to a counteroffensive that would push back and destroy invading Russian forces.

Finnish and Swedish ground forces, though they would take time to mobilize, could be mustered and deployed far more quickly than Western European armored brigades. They could also advance on a wholly new axis of attack: St. Petersburg, Russia, lies barely 110 miles from the Finnish border. Finnish and Swedish NATO membership would thus allow a resolute U.S. president to deny misguided Baltic requests for a forward-stationed U.S. garrison by pointing to a boost in conventional deterrence from NATO’s new members.

European NATO members’ free-riding—or getting their security on the cheap—has incensed U.S. presidents since John F. Kennedy. Only nine NATO members currently meet the alliance’s stated target of spending at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. In hard military terms, most NATO members aren’t war horses but show ponies.

That cannot be said of Finland and Sweden. Although Sweden has yet to reach the 2 percent threshold, both countries have dramatically increased their defense spending over the past decade. Should they join the alliance, Finland and Sweden would be immediate security contributors, not security consumers. This claim could not credibly be made for any new member since the end of the Cold War.

The Finns and Swedes are among the very few European militaries that boast both military quantity and quality. Unlike almost all of NATO, Finland and Sweden have military conscription, which provides both a huge trained reserve and a society committed to national defense. (Sweden restored conscription in 2018 after an eight-year hiatus.) The Finnish military has a wartime strength of 280,000 troops and a reserve of nearly 1 million people. A 2015 poll of 64 countries found that Finns were the most willing to defend their country of any European nation surveyed, with the Swedes not far behind. The Finnish and Swedish populations have skin in the game in a fundamental way, which could serve as a benchmark within NATO once the two countries are in the alliance.

Both countries also field cutting-edge equipment and capabilities. With 1,500 artillery and rocket systems, Finland has one of Europe’s strongest artillery forces—a key to modern warfare, as the battle of attrition in Ukraine’s Donbas has again proved. Swedish fighter jets and diesel-electric submarines are some of the most advanced in the world. In December 2021, Finland announced it was ordering 64 U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets—relative to population, the equivalent of 3,840 F-35s for the United States.

Most importantly, Finland and Sweden are joining NATO for reasons of pure security—not, as in previous NATO expansion rounds, as an entrée into the trans-Atlantic community or validation of political reforms. Finnish and Swedish admission would strengthen NATO in hard-power terms and restore its role as a fundamentally military-focused alliance against an overriding security threat. It would mark a long-overdue return to NATO’s core and founding mission.

With the blunting of Russian conventional military power in Ukraine and Moscow’s generational task to resupply and modernize its shambolic military, it has become clear that European security can be an almost wholly European responsibility. Indeed, given the magnitude of China’s challenge in the Pacific and the United States’ deteriorating position there, European security urgently needs to be a European responsibility. Washington’s nuclear umbrella will remain, but the burden of conventional deterrence and warfighting in Europe should rest on European NATO members. Finnish and Swedish NATO membership can be a critical step toward making the alliance self-sufficient and opening a path to a responsible U.S. drawdown from the current U.S. military posture in Europe.

The addition of Finland and Sweden to the alliance could enable a major—if belated—U.S. strategic reorientation to the Pacific.

The European defense of Europe that Finland and Sweden make possible is the solution to the strategic dilemma the United States faces. Although there has been talk of transforming NATO into a looming contest with China—of which adding Beijing to the Strategic Concept is the latest manifestation—this effort is doomed to fracture along a thousand lines. The military structures are simply not in place for a two-theater effort, and there is no political will in Europe to be a junior partner in the United States’ struggle against China.

The latest, most violent phase of Russian revanchism has increased Europe’s perceived security needs. Despite Russia’s military struggles since February, the United States is facing increasing calls to defend Europe directly, especially in the Baltics. Doing so would require substantial resources: One study found the job could be done with seven brigades, one-fifth of the entire active-duty U.S. Army.

This is not just a problem of force structure or military spending. The commitment to bear the majority of the burden in opposing both the Russian and Chinese militaries prevents military doctrine, weapons acquisition, training, and many other aspects of defense from cohering around a single, specific strategic problem. At the height of the Cold War, it was the specificity of the Soviet threat as a continental power that guided the U.S. Army and Air Force to create and implement the transformational AirLand Battle doctrine. China’s challenge to the United States is primarily naval and of an entirely different nature.

The Biden administration seems to hope that a pivot to Europe now will somehow later support a pivot back to Asia. On the same day that Finnish and Swedish accession moved forward after Turkish acquiescence, the White House announced the deployment of more U.S. troops to Europe and the construction of a new corps headquarters in Poland. There is probably less than meets the eye to these moves, but the additional destroyers to be home-ported in Spain and the F-35 fighters being stationed in Britain are exactly the kinds of weapons the Pacific theater demands. It’s an odd paradox: At the same moment that NATO’s European side is growing dramatically in size and readiness, the United States has chosen to do more in Europe, not less.

Since the end of the Cold War, despite browbeating and even threats, no U.S. president from any party has been able or willing to insist that Europe be defended primarily by Europeans. The addition of Finland and Sweden to the alliance could enable a major—if belated—U.S. strategic reorientation to the Pacific. The Madrid NATO summit indicated that this is currently unlikely. But it is not too late for a visionary U.S. administration to grasp the geopolitical opportunity offered by this unique moment for the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Jonathan Askonas is an assistant professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and a fellow at its Center for the Study of Statesmanship. Twitter: @JonAskonas

Gil Barndollar is a senior research fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship.

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