One month into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Joe Biden is in Brussels for an emergency meeting of NATO’s leaders. But for current and potential future members, the very purpose of the alliance is in doubt.
PARIS — If we are to believe Vladimir Putin, NATO policy of the past three decades forced him to invade Ukraine. Safe to say, we don’t believe Vladimir Putin. Still, the Transatlantic military alliance, which marks 73 years since its founding next week, is a problem.
Ukraine is pleading in vain for membership. The U.S. has made it clear that troops on the ground is off the table and NATO has rejected Ukraine’s pleas for a no-fly zone. President Joe Biden’s goal in arriving for an emergency summit this week in Brussels is to ensure that Western leaders are moving in lockstep to tighten sanctions on Russia and coordinate defense preparations.
Sweden warms to membership
But how does the alliance remain relevant while explicitly avoiding direct military engagement? How do you expand your sphere of influence without upending the balance of powers, which can trigger (or at least offer an alibi) to an ambitious and possibly irrational authoritarian leader like Putin?
In Sweden, a national poll published two days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows that for the first time, more Swedes are in favor of a NATO membership than against. In Finland too, where a 1,300-kilometers border is shared with Russia, a survey by broadcaster Yle found that a record 53% of Finns support their country joining NATO.
Finland and Sweden come from a post-War standing firmly in the West, yet perched so close to Russian territory that NATO membership was seen as too dangerous a provocation for anyone to consider for decades. Four weeks ago, Russia — by acting on its ambition to extinguish the independence of its neighbors — proved that system outdated.
In northern Europe, the option to join the alliance has been widely portrayed as a binary and mechanistic choice between accession or staying outside NATO: on the one hand, there’s the risk of a Russian invasion — to which Finland and Sweden would lack commensurate answers — and on the other hand, there’s the fear that enlargement risks becoming a self-fulfilling action that brings about large-scale conflict.
G7 leaders at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on March 24, 2022
Article 5 responsibility
But the debate, even today, tends to be largely abstract. Not enough has been said about what it really means to be a member of this military alliance, in particular the responsibility of intervening on behalf of other members if they are attacked. The core of NATO is still its Article 5 provision, that an attack on one nation is deemed as an attack on all.
Are we considering the full price of joining the alliance, and what we would actually gain?
For Finland and Sweden, it’s all very close to home, with it more likely that they’d be called in to rush to the defense of the three Baltic members of NATO — Latvia, Lithuanian and Estonia — than themselves being the target for Russian aggression.
Beyond Europe, we should also consider that NATO has come to America’s defense as well. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks — the only example of NATO’s invocation of its Article 5 provision — member nations sent soldiers to fight alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan. It cost the lives of more than 1,000 allied troops.
So it begs the question: Are we considering the full price of joining the alliance, and what we would actually gain?
Sweden and Finland already have far-reaching defense cooperation, and the two countries are since 2014 "Enhanced Opportunity Partners” to NATO — frequently participating in joint military drills, information sharing and consulting. On top of that, the EU’s solidarity clause stipulates that the Union provides assistance by all possible means to a member under attack.
What do we get?
But in the last few weeks, proponents of NATO membership in both Finland and Sweden have argued that the level of protection guaranteed by the current partnerships and alliances is insufficient. For example, as said in a recent OpEd in Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter about the EU’s solidarity clause: “What do we get? Active military assistance against the attacker or "only" financial and / or material support in the form of weapons, ammunition, combat vehicles and aircraft?”
Indeed, those are the right questions to ask — but also for NATO membership. So before we archive a 200-year-long policy of non-alliance, let’s investigate what security guarantees are offered through our current partnership with NATO, our EU membership, and indeed the dozen other agreements and bilateral cooperations Sweden has with countries and regions ranging from the Nordics and Baltics to Germany, France and the UK.
Can we imagine another — better — architecture that can enforce European security by containing the aggression of Russia, countering the influence of China, as well as the creeping authoritarian tendencies found in several members of a NATO now numbering 30 states?
War, they say, is politics by other means. That makes the mapping out of future military alliances one of the diciest political jobs on earth.