WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. senators on Wednesday bipartisanly approved Finland and Sweden for NATO membership and the expansion of the western defense bloc as a “slam dunk” for U.S. national security and a day of reckoning for Russian President Vladimir Putin for his Invasion denoted Ukraine.
Wednesday’s 95-1 vote – for the candidacy of two Western European nations that had long avoided military alliances until Russia’s war with Ukraine – was a crucial step in expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its 73-year-old defense reciprocal pact between the United States and democratic allies in Europe.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer invited the ambassadors of the two nations to the chamber gallery to witness the vote.
President Joe Biden, who was the key player in rallying world economic and material support for Ukraine, has sought rapid accession for the two previously non-military northern European nations.
“This historic vote sends an important signal of America’s continued, bipartisan commitment to NATO and to ensuring our alliance is ready to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow,” Biden said in a statement Wednesday night.
“I look forward to signing the accession protocols and welcoming Sweden and Finland, two strong democracies with highly capable militaries, to the largest defense alliance in history,” added the President.
The approval of all member nations – currently 30 – is required. The candidatures of the two prosperous northern European nations have received ratification from more than half of NATO member states in the roughly three months since the two’s candidacy. It’s a deliberately rapid pace meant to send a message to Russia about its six-month-old war against Ukraine’s west-leaning government.
“It sends a warning shot to tyrants around the world who believe free democracies are just for sale,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said in the Senate debate ahead of the vote.
“Russia’s unprovoked invasion has changed the way we think about world security,” she added.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who visited Kyiv earlier this year, pushed for unanimous approval. Speaking to the Senate, McConnell cited Finland and Sweden’s well-funded, modernizing militaries and their experience of working with US forces and weapons systems, calling it a “national security slam dunk” by the United States.
“Your entry will make NATO stronger and America safer. If a senator is looking for a justifiable excuse to vote no, I wish them the best of luck,” McConnell said.
Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican who often aligns his positions with those of former President Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters, cast the lone no vote. Hawley took the floor in the Senate to describe Europe’s security alliances as a distraction from what he called the United States’ main rival – China, not Russia.
“We can do more in Europe… more resources, deploy more firepower… or do what we have to do to deter Asia and China. We can’t do both,” Hawley said, calling his foreign policy “classic nationalist approach.”
Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, like Hawley a potential presidential nominee for 2024, refuted his points without naming his potential Republican rival.
This included arguing against Hawley’s claim that larger NATO would mean more commitments for the US military, the largest in the world. Cotton was one of many who cited the two nations’ military strengths – including Finland’s experience in securing its hundreds of kilometers of border with Russia and its well-trained ground forces, and Sweden’s well-equipped navy and air force.
They’re “two of the strongest members of the alliance once they join,” Cotton said.
US state and defense officials view the two countries as net “security suppliers” who specifically strengthen NATO’s defense position in the Baltics. Finland is expected to exceed NATO’s target of 2% GDP defense spending in 2022 and Sweden has committed to meeting the 2% target.
This is in contrast to many of NATO’s newcomers who used to be from around the Soviet Union, many with smaller militaries and smaller economies. North Macedonia, NATO’s most recent newcomer nation, brought with it an active military of just 8,000 when it joined in 2020.
The votes of senators approving NATO candidatures are often one-sided – that for North Macedonia was 91-2. But the approval of almost all senators present on Wednesday carried additional foreign policy weight in view of the Russian war.
Schumer, DN.Y., said he and McConnell made commitments to country leaders that the Senate would approve the ratification resolution “as soon as possible” to strengthen the alliance “in the face of recent Russian aggression.”
Sweden and Finland submitted an application in May, abandoning their longstanding stance of military non-alignment. It was a major shift in security arrangements for the two countries after neighboring Russia launched its war against Ukraine in late February. Biden encouraged their accession and welcomed the leaders of the two countries to the White House in May, who stood side by side to show US support.
The US and its European allies have joined forces in the face of Putin’s military invasion and the Russian leader’s sweeping statements this year condemning NATO, issuing veiled reminders of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, and asserting Russia’s historic claims to the territory of many Russias newly won partnership united neighbors.
“NATO expansion is exactly the opposite of what Putin envisioned when he ordered his tanks to invade Ukraine,” said Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. on Wednesday, adding that the West cannot allow Russia to “launch invasions of countries”.
Wednesday’s Republican-Democratic vote featured the normally slow and divided chamber. Senators voted against an amendment proposed by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to ensure that NATO’s guarantee to defend its members does not replace a formal role for Congress in authorizing the use of military force. Paul, a longtime advocate of keeping the US out of most foreign military action, voted “present” when Sweden and Finland ratified their bid for membership.
Senators approved another amendment by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, which stated that all NATO members should spend at least 2% of their gross domestic product on defense and 20% of their defense budget on major equipment, including research and development.
Each member government in NATO must give its consent to the accession of each new member. The process ran into unexpected trouble when Turkey expressed concerns about admitting Sweden and Finland, accusing the two of being lenient towards banned Turkish-Kurdish exile groups. Turkey’s objections still threaten the two countries’ membership.
Follow AP’s coverage of NATO at https://apnews.com/hub/nato.