Will Finland’s NATO Accession Make a Difference?
One of the alliance’s long-awaited new members has joined, but it won’t necessarily bring Europe closer to strategic autonomy.
Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt! So, I have a delicate question for you: Have you ever been found naked in the basement of a European embassy?
Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt! So, I have a delicate question for you: Have you ever been found naked in the basement of a European embassy?
Matthew Kroenig: Not the way I was expecting to start today’s column! Please say more.
EA: Well, based on this story about the Finnish Embassy’s sauna diplomacy, I’m beginning to wonder if a certain Finnish tradition may have contributed to their newly minted NATO membership.
MK: I have not been to that one (still waiting for my invitation, Ambassador Hautala), but I did go to one in Helsinki where the practice was to go back and forth between the steamy hot room and then jump in the Baltic Sea—in November. The transition was a true shock to the system.
I also learned there are more saunas than people in Finland, they pronounce it sa-oo-na, and that there is a new one just installed in NATO’s headquarters. I can’t think of a better way to jolt the body to attention in order to defend the free world!
So, maybe it is their secret diplomatic weapon.
EA: Sounds delightful! So, I guess we should start the column by welcoming new allies—and their relaxing sauna facilities—to the NATO alliance. That has to be the fastest accession on record; they only applied to join following last year’s Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Is Finnish accession a win for NATO? Or just another example of the alliance’s already dysfunctional decision-making? After all, it hasn’t been a smooth process. It was originally a joint accession plan by Finland and Sweden, but the Swedes have been unable to get across the finish line. Maybe it was just sauna diplomacy that did the trick again; after all, the Turks are also famous for their hammam baths. But it sure seems as if this is at best a partial success.
MK: I think it is clearly a major win. As my colleague John Deni wrote, this is the biggest boost to NATO capacity since West Germany joined the alliance in 1955. Finland has a capable military and effectively fought Russia to a draw in its Winter War of 1939-40. It has a military force that can rise to more than 280,000 personnel with reservists called up. It recently purchased 64 F-35 fighters. It is one of the world’s technology leaders, including in 5G.
The geography is also critical. Defending the Baltic countries in the past would have required flowing forces through the narrow Suwalki corridor. Now, the alliance can also project power south from Finland. Once Sweden joins, which should happen soon, the Baltic Sea becomes a NATO lake.
Finally, there is the broader strategic message. Russian President Vladimir Putin went to war to keep a country out of NATO and to divide the alliance. Instead, the alliance is stronger than ever with a very capable new member and another one likely on the way.
What is not to like?
EA: It’s certainly a black eye for Putin, who has wasted so much military strength and political capital in his invasion of Ukraine that he cannot even prevent his nearest neighbor from joining NATO. But the purpose of NATO is not to annoy Putin, as enjoyable as that might be.
And you’re right that the Finns are militarily capable; they have long prioritized territorial self-defense as a key component of their policy of neutrality. Although I don’t think I’d call the Winter War a draw between Finland and the Soviets—since it required the country to adopt a stance of neutrality during the Cold War—Finland did hold off the much larger Soviet army and saved itself from annexation.
The Finns spend a reasonable amount on defense and appear to be focused on maintaining that self-reliant defense within NATO. Honestly, the rest of Eastern Europe could learn a lot from the Finns about how to defend themselves without outsourcing their security to the United States.
Finland has never had significant allies. No one intervened to help the country during the Winter War, and it spent the entirety of the Cold War with active conscription, a heavily armed and trained population, and a strong focus on civil defense to deter the Soviets. If more of Eastern Europe embraced that philosophy rather than just relying on Uncle Sam to protect them, it would be a windfall for allied security.
But that doesn’t mean Finnish membership in NATO is a slam dunk. What about the border issue? NATO has just doubled the length of its land border with Russia. That’s not a strategic win.
MK: Admittedly, the alliance will need to defend NATO’s new, longer border with Russia. But Finland has basically demonstrated the ability to do that largely on its own. I understand that NATO is already incorporating Finland into the alliance’s new regional military plans. Moreover, with Putin’s difficulties in Ukraine, I don’t think he is looking to attack a NATO ally anytime soon. If you need further evidence, just look at the different responses to the news: NATO leaders were celebrating this week, while Putin was complaining.
So, on balance, I think this is a good thing. Do you disagree?
EA: As I wrote last year, I’m honestly ambivalent about adding Finland to NATO, given how militarily capable the nation is—and how integrated it already was with other European states through the European Union and through various Scandinavian and Baltic initiatives. I oppose further NATO expansion in general. The alliance is already too large and unwieldy, too dependent on U.S. resources, and the remaining potential candidates for membership all have serious problems, like territorial disputes within their borders. But Finland is not Ukraine or Georgia, and there are far fewer downsides. By far the biggest of those is the territorial issue.
But I think you’re highlighting another problem here. NATO leaders were celebrating this week, but as usual, they were celebrating expansion and not actually focusing on solving the alliance’s real problems.
No one should expect Finland to show up and fix all of NATO’s issues; that would be pretty unfair to the Finns! But it’s obvious that this expansion is mostly a distraction from NATO’s broader problems: internal dissension on key issues, an overreliance on U.S. forces, and increasingly tenuous extended deterrent commitments in Eastern Europe. It doesn’t seem as if leaders have a good plan to address any of those.
MK: Well, we should debate Ukraine in NATO in a future column. What the alliance says about that topic will be an issue at the upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.
But I don’t agree that NATO has so many problems. The alliance is more unified now than in recent memory; a major war in Europe clarifies the mind. Non-U.S. NATO allies do need to do more, but they are moving in that direction, with Germany, Poland, and other large member states announcing defense spending increases. The new regional military plans announced after the Madrid summit last summer will apparently carve out more concrete roles for each member to play in the defense of Europe.
And what do you mean that the extended deterrence commitments are tenuous? If you look at the list of countries banging down the door to get in, it seems that they are not too worried about the credibility of the alliance’s commitments.
EA: As you know, NATO’s Cold War strategy was based on extended nuclear deterrence: the idea that if the Soviets invaded Western Europe, the United States would use nuclear weapons in response. The problem, of course, was the credibility of that commitment and whether the United States would be willing to suffer the consequences. As French leader Charles de Gaulle once memorably put it, would American voters be willing to trade New York for Paris?
During the Cold War, with Europe divided and with the risk that the Soviets could entirely overrun the continent with conventional forces, it was a mostly credible commitment, one that thankfully was never called into question. But today, NATO has expanded thousands of miles farther east to countries that have no concrete strategic value to the United States. Would U.S. voters be willing to risk nuclear war over Helsinki or Estonia’s capital of Tallinn? I think that’s a much more tenuous commitment. You’re not concerned about that?
MK: Well, it was always tenuous, as you point out. But extended deterrence has basically worked without a major failure for 70 years. I wish I could say the same about other aspects of U.S. security policy.
So, I am not too worried, but I do think the West needs to adapt NATO’s nuclear deterrence posture for a new era. NATO’s current nuclear posture (about 200 U.S. gravity bombs in Europe with several allies possessing dual-capable aircraft) was designed at the end of the Cold War. The world is in a very different strategic environment today, and the posture should adapt.
I am always happy to discuss nukes, but I am also interested in your take on the elections in Finland. Will the change of government affect Helsinki’s foreign policy?
EA: Nope. Large majorities of Finns supported the NATO decision; outgoing Prime Minister Sanna Marin lost primarily on domestic issues. Her key opponent ran mostly on economic issues like taxation and cuts to welfare benefits. The only real surprise is that Finland’s far-right anti-immigration and anti-EU party may be included in the final coalition government—and that just mirrors a trend we’ve been seeing across Europe.
But I’m not letting you off this easily. We need to talk about the other big problem with NATO: The major European defense reforms that were promised in the last year have stalled. The policy divisions in Europe—particularly between Eastern and Western Europe—have only gotten worse. And many policymakers in Europe almost seem to have given up on defense reform or building up Europe’s defense industrial base. A year after Germany’s so-called Zeitenwende, it’s just the same old, same old in European security, while the United States foots the bill.
MK: Europe is a big place. Let’s get specific. The center of gravity in NATO has moved to the North and the East, and the Nordic and Baltic countries are serious about the threats the world faces, and—
EA: What does that mean, though? I keep hearing people say “the center of gravity has shifted” in Europe, and it honestly just seems as if the Eastern European states are now louder and more insistent. It certainly doesn’t mean actual military power has shifted.
MK: I mean it in the Clausewitzian sense. During the Cold War, Germany was the center of gravity for any major war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. That is no longer true. If there is going to be a major fight between NATO and Russia, which countries matter most? I would say Sweden, Finland, Poland, Lithuania, Romania, etc.
Moreover, look at some of the other major economic powers in NATO. The U.K. and Italy’s conservative government also seem to be on the same page in terms of supporting Ukraine and defeating Russia. Even though some wrongly assumed Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni (in a coalition that includes Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini) would have an affinity for Putin, she has turned out to be a strong supporter of the trans-Atlantic alliance.
So, I would love it if France and Germany played a more active role in the defense of Europe. But if you want to understand European defense policy today, Paris and Berlin simply do not matter as much as they used to.
EA: That’s true geographically. But European defense policy, sadly, is not made between smaller groupings of states but rather between NATO members or under the auspices of the European Union. And reforms on things like joint procurement, improvements to the defense industrial base, or Europe’s excessive reliance on U.S. arms and equipment have all gone nowhere. Eastern European countries are going around French and German arms manufacturers to the United States, arguing that they need to restock sooner, and the United States is enabling them by lobbying for U.S. companies to play a bigger role in these purchases.
If you want to reform any of those things, you need the United States to get out of the way, and you need Europe’s biggest economies on board. That means support in Berlin and Paris.
The end result of expansion and a lack of reform in NATO is this: We may say that the center of gravity has shifted in Europe and that states in Eastern Europe are now leading on defense, but it’s only because the United States continues to carry most of the practical burden for them. Without U.S. forces on the ground, I suspect those states wouldn’t be nearly as dismissive of German or French leaders. The United States is reinforcing Europe’s defense pathologies—and doing so at the expense of its own security needs elsewhere.
MK: I was about to debate you on the specifics because I do think NATO is reforming on many of the areas you mentioned, but I now see this really comes down to first principles.
My vision for the future of European defense is a strong trans-Atlantic alliance, with European allies doing more, led by an engaged and present United States.
I believe your vision is “strategic autonomy”: Europe doing more so the United States can exit. If that is correct, then I agree that recent developments have not gone your way.
EA: Yes, it’s very depressing. I don’t necessarily think that Europe needs strategic autonomy as much as it needs to dramatically increase its military capacity and capabilities (although the two are likely to go hand in hand). But it seems as if there has been little progress on either, despite the events of the last year.
OK, one more thing before we wrap up: We haven’t mentioned Sweden at all, even though the initial membership application was a joint application from Finland and Sweden. I think we need to address the Turkey factor in all of this. It seems as if this process has really highlighted that there are some big internal divisions within the alliance, and Turkey (and to a lesser extent Hungary) is the most blatant case.
MK: We’ll see. I think this is more about domestic politics for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Sweden’s freedoms allow the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to operate there, and bashing the PKK and its perceived protectors in Stockholm is understandably good politics in Turkey. But the best Turkey experts I know still think Erdogan (or his successor, if he loses and concedes the presidential election in May) will approve Sweden’s membership after the election.
I hope they are right.
EA: We’ll see! I hope the Swedes have thought about what they’ll bring to the NATO welcoming party. Finland’s new NATO sauna will be a tough act to follow.
Emma Ashford is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford
Matthew Kroenig is a columnist at Foreign Policy and vice president and senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig
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