Finland remained neutral between East and West during the Cold War. Even after joining the European Union in the mid-1990s, the Finns were overwhelmingly against NATO membership; as recently as 2017, fewer than 20% supported the idea. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, public opinion has changed dramatically. Support for NATO membership is now 68%. If the government, as expected, submits an application for membership, the Finnish parliament appears to approve it before the NATO summit in June.
For Finland, the benefits are clear. Full membership would bring the country under NATO’s collective defense umbrella, guaranteeing that the alliance would use force in the event of a Russian attack – a once remote possibility which, in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, now seems more plausible. Finland will be fully integrated into Western intelligence and defense planning events, which will improve its ability to monitor Russian military deployments along its border.
As far as NATO is concerned, the Finnish bid would certainly make sense militarily. Although it has a small standing army, Finland’s reserve force is Europe’s largest; about 900,000 Finns have military training. The country’s air force and intelligence services are among the most advanced in Europe. If Sweden joins, its military air defenses and submarine capabilities will strengthen NATO’s ability to counter hostile Russian activity in the Baltic Sea and the Arctic.
There would also be political benefits. It is true that previous rounds of expansion, especially to less developed democracies in south-eastern Europe, have strained the Alliance’s resources and forced it to do business with illiberal governments. But adding Finland and Sweden, both prosperous democracies, would only strengthen NATO’s credibility as a defender of liberal values. It will also help disperse the long-term costs of maintaining European security, allowing the United States to pay more attention to the Pacific. Despite Putin’s repeated threats, history shows that a larger alliance provides greater deterrence against Russian aggression in Europe, no less.
That said, the risks involved must be openly confronted. Expansion of the alliance requires the approval of the governments of all 30 member states – including Hungary, whose newly re-elected prime minister, Viktor Orban, has made no secret of his admiration for Putin. In the United States, two-thirds of the Senate must approve. A protracted debate in Western capitals could create a dangerous interregnum, where the Nordic countries would have renounced their neutrality, but not yet received any collective defense guarantees.
NATO leaders can prepare for this opportunity. Once Finland and Sweden make their intentions clear, President Joe Biden should present a public argument as to why their membership of NATO would benefit US national security and the faltering senators of the press to quickly ratify the agreement. European governments should strengthen their defenses against Russian disinformation campaigns and other interference. As the ratification process unfolds, the United States and Britain should expand defense cooperation agreements with Finland and Sweden and coordinate with both countries to intervene against Russian provocations.
A final risk is that Russia will react belligerently to NATO’s expansion – perhaps by deploying additional nuclear weapons in the Baltic region. Such a move would undoubtedly increase tensions and risk miscalculations. As a precautionary measure, the United States and Europe should reiterate that the purpose of the alliance is purely defensive – but that their commitment to collective security is unshakable. The potential new members should also adopt a membership model similar to Norway’s, according to which they will comply with the alliance’s treaty obligations, but not host permanent US bases or nuclear weapons on their land.
Expanding NATO is not without potential dangers. But the cost of backing Russia’s threats and aggression is likely to be far greater. A bigger NATO is a stronger NATO.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• Macron’s victory is an opportunity for France and the EU: Lionel Laurent
• In Germany, Scholz the Bold returns to Smølfen Scholz: Andreas Kluth
• The Ukraine war depletes America’s arsenal of democracy: Hal Brands
The editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion