WASHINGTON ― The Senate overwhelmingly voted to add Finland and Sweden into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Tuesday, a historic move aimed at countering Russia’s aggression in Europe.
Only one senator, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), opposed the ratification. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), meanwhile, voted “present.”
Hawley, a potential 2024 presidential contender, argued that Finland and Sweden would have trouble spending on their own defense, putting the onus on the U.S. to get even more involved in the region. He said the U.S. should focus instead on countering China, and that it wouldn’t be able to do both.
“Our foreign policy should be about protecting the United States, our freedoms, our people [and] our way of life,” Hawley said in a floor speech. “Expanding NATO, I believe, would not do that.”
NATO was founded after World War II to create a pact of mutual defense among member nations in the event of Soviet aggression. NATO member countries are treaty-bound to defend any member in the event of an armed attack.
Hawley, who led the effort to overturn the 2020 electoral results in Congress that gave rise to the Jan. 6 insurrection, called for adopting a “nationalist” foreign policy. He later went on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to make his case. Carlson was an early critic of U.S. efforts to counter Russia, amplifying the Kremlin’s talking points as it launched its brutal invasion of Ukraine.
Nearly every one of Hawley’s GOP colleagues disagreed with his rationale.
“Both countries already participate in NATO and American-led missions,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday. “Finland already meets NATO’s 2% spending target, and Sweden is making significant investments in modernizing its military.”
“If any senator finds a defensible excuse to vote no, I wish them good luck,” McConnell added.
NATO members have pledged to spend at least 2% of their gross domestic product on defense, a target that some nations have met and others haven’t yet. Sweden is in the latter group, though it has said it will meet the goal. Hawley has said the target should be higher.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) appeared to accuse Hawley of hypocrisy ― albeit without naming him ― for opposing Finland and Sweden joining NATO while voting in favor of North Macedonia joining the alliance in 2019.
“It would be strange indeed for any senator who voted to allow Montenegro or North Macedonia into NATO to turn around and deny membership to Finland and Sweden,” Cotton said. “I would love to hear the defense of such a curious vote.”
The Arkansas Republican is another official who seems to be laying the groundwork for a presidential bid in 2024, making several trips to the early nominating state of Iowa this year.
Hawley told HuffPost on Thursday that he doesn’t think Finland and Sweden joining NATO would be at all comparable to North Macedonia and Montenegro doing so.
“Their entrance to NATO presents no strategic implications for the United States in terms of our posture, our military forces in Europe,” Hawley said. “Finland and Sweden present huge, huge strategic implications for the United States. Finland has an 830-mile border with Russia. Sweden already wants increased U.S. naval presence in the Baltic Sea.”
Hawley also questioned whether Finland will maintain its current military spending, and argued that adding the two countries to NATO would ultimately burden the U.S.
Cotton, on the other hand, said that adding Finland and Sweden to NATO would make it easier, not harder, for the U.S. and its allies to defend themselves from Russia.
“Aside from their military strength and economic power, Finland and Sweden also allow us to turn the Baltic into a NATO lake, bottle up Russia’s Baltic Fleet, cut off its isolated military base at Kaliningrad, and expose Russia itself to much greater risk in the event of a conflict,” he said.
Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO is not yet a done deal. All NATO parliaments must ratify new members, and Turkey has threatened to block their accession.
But the overwhelming Senate vote on Tuesday sent an unmistakable message of bipartisan unity in support of Europe, with ambassadors from Finland and Sweden watching the proceedings from the public gallery above the Senate floor.
“We are at an unparalleled moment in history,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said. “Since Vladimir Putin’s cruel, unjustified invasion of Ukraine, people all over the world have been waking up out of a two-year plague, out of a slumber, to realize just how fragile our democracy is.”
“We realized it here in this building when, not so long along, insurrectionists invaded this Chamber,” Klobuchar said, referring to the events of Jan. 6, 2021.
Hawley played a starring role that day — raising his fist to the Donald Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol and then, after the attack, voting against certification of Trump’s 2020 election loss.
“We didn’t just sit back and say, ‘Well, there goes our democracy,’” Klobuchar said. “We stood up. We stood up, Democrats and Republicans, in this very chamber.”