Josh Hawley Is Wrong About NATO

In his recent National Interest article vowing to vote against Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession, Sen. Josh Hawley’s core argument is about China. China, he writes, is America’s main security problem, and “expanding American security commitments in Europe now would only make that problem worse—and America, less safe.” He continues, “We must do less in Europe (and elsewhere) in order to prioritize China and Asia.”

Hawley is not the first Republican to make statements like this. This attempt to excuse being soft on Russia by redirecting the conversation toward China’s growing threat is an increasingly common tactic among Republican doves who masquerade as hawks. In a way, the tactic is a curious rehash of Barack Obama’s failed “pivot to Asia” initiative to cover his precipitous cut-and-run policies in the Middle East, policies that resulted in the rise of ISIS, the near-collapse of Iraq, and an Iran deal that will likely end with a deliverable Iranian nuclear warhead. Obama’s public folly was rooted in the same truth that Hawley’s is: China is the biggest long-term threat to American interests. However, China’s threat does not magically shrink if America neglects its defenses in other regions, and imprudent underinvestment in a region could end with us spending far too much fighting a hot war and distracting us still further from Asia, as Obama discovered. 

Hawley writes that we should not abandon NATO. Agreed. But if we don’t abandon NATO and Russia attacks a NATO member and starts a war in Europe, the U.S. will have to spend trillions and trillions and probably lose thousands of soldiers while defending our allies. In that situation, does Hawley believe that there will be much of anything left over to bolster our deterrence in Asia? If we are going to spend the appropriate amount of resources on Asia in the long-term, we need to make sure we don’t spend an insane amount of money on a war in Europe.

Hawley’s argument that the U.S. should “do less” in Europe would make more sense if he wrote this article arguing against stationing more troops in Poland or for dismantling missile defense infrastructure there. Instead, he is saying he opposes bringing one of the most militarily capable countries in Europe into NATO. Bringing Finland into NATO would significantly increase the alliance’s strength overnight. Unlike most NATO countries, Finland has a capable military and a huge well-trained reserve army that is ready not only to be called up to fight Russia within days but also able to fight on its own.

Unlike most European countries, Finland never got rid of conscription, and with a few exceptions all Finnish men receive training and serve for a time in Finnish military units. They are not training to defend against a Norwegian invasion; the Finnish military has been ready to stop Russian mechanized attacks for decades and has established itself as a recognized leader in preparing for non-linear Russian aggression, the so-called “hybrid warfare.” If there is any country in Europe that knows how to deter and stop Russian attacks it is Finland. If we are interested in getting our European allies to prepare to fight Russia with less U.S. help, then why should we keep the only country in Europe that has prepared to go it alone out of the alliance?

The argument for bringing Sweden into NATO is not as easy or as obvious. Sweden has a world-class arms industry but has seriously underinvested in its defense since the end of the Cold War. Unlike Finland, it may not be able to stand on its own against aggression in the near future. However, Sweden’s geographic position makes it an incredibly important place for NATO to defend. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are all in NATO, but any NATO resupply or reinforcements during a crisis would need to pass through the Baltic Sea (which Russia has access to) or run the gauntlet through the Suwałki Gap ​​between Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. In a crisis, Russia could take advantage of a weak and unallied Sweden and land special forces troops on the Swedish island of Gotland along with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile batteries, or even attempt to seize the island outright in order to close the door for reinforcements to the Baltic states. If Sweden is not in NATO, Russia could even do this preemptively, invading a bit of Sweden in the run-up to a crisis with NATO and complicating NATO’s ability to prepare for war, all without triggering Article 5. With Sweden in NATO, allied troops can be permanently stationed in Gotland and train closely with the Swedish military as part of a common strategy to defend Europe.

Finland is a great potential ally for NATO and for America because of its outsized ability to fight the Russians, and Sweden because of its strategic location. However, one of Hawley’s core arguments is about military spending, not about capabilities or geography. 

Sweden doesn’t spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense and won’t for years to come. And Finland, though it announced a one-time defense spending boost, hasn’t made clear whether it will sustain these levels.

This is another argument one sees regularly from those advocating imprudence in Europe. Once again, it is true that Sweden’s military has been woefully neglected—but as for Finland, there are few countries on earth that spend their defense resources more effectively. Defense capabilities cannot just be described as a percentage of GDP. Greece spends 2.8 percent of its GDP on defense, while Finland spends “only” 1.9 percent. With all due respect to the Greek army, if you were facing down a Russian armored assault, would you rather have a Finnish or a Greek brigade with you? I’m a bit surprised that one of our more feckless European allies has not used the opportunity of uninformed American politicians making this “argument from GDP” to turn their army into a massive pork barrel and jobs program and boost their “defense spending” to 3 percent. Fortunately these days Europeans are taking their defense increasingly seriously. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 was the major reason for their change in attitude.

What is the purpose of NATO? Why should America care if NATO exists or not, or is strong or weak? There is an official reason for NATO, sure, but let’s overlook the diplomatic jargon and state the deep purpose: NATO has two overlapping goals: 1) To deter Russia from starting a war with NATO members and 2) To prepare to fight such a war if it ever breaks out. NATO has come to the defense of the U.S., sending allied troops to Afghanistan after we were attacked on 9-11, but its core purpose is about preventing a war with Russia. If Romania or Turkey or Norway and other countries were not in NATO, Russia would be much more likely to attack or coerce them, as they are smaller countries without nuclear weapons. With NATO Russia faces the prospect of tangling with the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and other NATO allies if they attack any of them. There is an important geographic aspect of this: If Russia tries something with Norway it can expect a threat emanating from Turkey. If it attacks Poland then Russian ships in the Pacific and Mediterranean will be potential targets of Poland’s allies. And yes, if we are attacked again on our own soil (by Russia, China, or another enemy) then we would be able to call on our NATO allies to help fight back and our military could use European bases and infrastructure.

If this accession goes forward, then if Russia tangles with Romania it will face the prospect of Finland’s massive reserve army mobilizing and fighting against it up north. Would Hawley prefer it if there is a conflict with Russia and Finland not help the U.S. and its allies fight back? Would it be better to defend Estonia without the use of Swedish territory? Bringing Finland and Sweden into NATO will strengthen NATO’s deterrent posture and therefore make war in Europe less likely. This should be a core U.S. goal, especially if we are serious about increasing our defense resource expenditure in Asia over the long term.

Hawley concludes his argument with a weird appeal to the future, claiming that his vision of a NATO frozen in time is part of some kind of “truly strategic American foreign policy” that “looks to this nation’s strategic interests now, rather than the world of years ago.” I think Obama said it better when Sen. Mitt Romney warned about Russia back in 2012: “The 1980s are now calling and asking for their foreign policy back.” Hawley’s mistake is the same as Obama’s: believing that they can neglect important regions because they know the future. They believe the rest of the world will cooperate if we decide to massively prioritize one region (and, for example, that China would not take advantage of a weak NATO to prop up Russia and generate conflict in Europe, which would further distract the U.S.)

We don’t know the future, but we can make careful plans based on likely scenarios and change our posture as conditions change. Finland has been serious about deterring Russia for a century, but Putin’s expanded invasion of Ukraine has made many Finnish leaders re-evaluate their security and prioritize joining NATO. One could argue that this decision was at least partially based on a realization that Russia’s leaders are much more willing to take risks and act “irrationally” than they had in the past, and that Finland needs a nuclear umbrella and the ability to expand the pain for Russia if Russia decides to attack it. Finland had a Cold War strategy, building up its defenses, conscription, adopting a diplomatically neutral line, but the situation has changed, so it is time to change Finland’s strategic posture. America would be wise to help Finland, and do the same with its own strategic posture. We don’t know where the next big war will be, but we can reduce the chance that one will happen in Europe by shoring up NATO’s northern flank with Finland and Sweden, as well as make a war there less difficult should one break out.

During the first half of the 20th century America did not have any binding defensive alliances with Europeans, but we still found ourselves in two massive European wars. After 1945 we resolved to make sure this did not happen again, not by turning again to isolationism or ignoring Europe, but by drawing friendly European powers into an alliance, helping them re-arm and coordinate with us and each other. We no longer need to station massive amounts of troops in Europe to deter Russia, but some troops help and the advisers, staffers, and technical and training assistance we provide help massively. Above all, U.S. nuclear weapons deter Russia from attacking its non-nuclear NATO neighbors and also makes German, Polish, and Turkish nuclear programs less likely (which in the long run cuts down on nuclear proliferation). This model, by the way, may be a model for how we can deter China in Asia, but let’s imagine that one day in the not-too-distant future (surely after taking important behind-the-scenes steps) another power that offers important capabilities or a strategic position publicly asks for a formal defensive alliance with the U.S. against China (Vietnam or India, for example). I hope Hawley, at least in this case, would not denigrate our willingness to fight for valuable new allies or insist on freezing our strategic posture in order to concentrate our resources on defending already existing allies, like Japan or South Korea. I hope he would still support U.S. help for preparing Taiwan for a Chinese invasion even if there is another, more important defense priority elsewhere.

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