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Opinion Some conservatives oppose Sweden and Finland joining NATO. They’re wrong.

President Biden, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, left, and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson arrive to speak in the Rose Garden at the White House on May 19. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
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Most conservatives support adding Sweden and Finland to the NATO alliance, which President Biden endorsed after meeting with leaders of the Nordic nations on Thursday. But some do not. It may be tempting for the right to oppose whatever Biden wants, but opposing their membership is very wrong.

Conservatives who oppose extending NATO northward make a few simple arguments. Some contend that the two countries would not significantly add to the alliance’s strength. Others argue it would be an unnecessary provocation to Russia, which strongly opposes the expansion. They also note that Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia, which could increase the chance of conflict.

None of these arguments should be blithely ignored, but the balance of factors weighs in the opposite direction. Keeping Europe aligned with the United States has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. There’s a simple reason for this: If Europe’s economic might were added to that of our enemies, the combined power would either eventually result in the United States fighting a war it would likely lose or slowly compromise its security or freedom.

This remains true even as the rise of China, India and other nations has tilted the global balance away from older European powers. The European Union’s combined economy remains larger than China’s despite the latter nation’s stupendous growth. If Europe aligns with the United States globally, even a Eurasian axis of China, Russia and Iran would have to be careful to avoid the risk of significant conflicts. If Europe were to detach from us, even only as a neutral party in a U.S.-China confrontation, the risk to the United States would escalate dramatically.

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These considerations mean that the United States should do what it can to address the security concerns of our European allies while pushing them to take our concerns with China and Iran more seriously. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shocked traditional European powers such as Germany and France because they naively believed that integration with Russia’s economy and soothing Vladimir Putin’s ego would deter the Russian bear from expansion. They now recognize that rearmament and confrontation are needed to keep themselves free from Russian dominance, and they are increasingly willing to pay the economic and military price to do so.

If the United States were to refuse to admit Sweden and Finland to NATO, it would tell these nations that we no longer value the European alliance. That cannot possibly be in our interest.

Nor is it true that adding Sweden and Finland would be a drain on our military. Both nations have maintained serious, if relatively small, militaries. Finland ordered 64 F-35 warplanes from the United States before Russia’s invasion, and Sweden’s domestic defense industry produces some of the world’s most advanced equipment. Both nations plan to significantly increase their defense spending in light of the invasion of Ukraine, making their contribution to collective defense even more important. The United States will not have to station thousands of troops in these countries to protect them.

The nations’ strategic location also adds to NATO security. For years, Russia has been increasing its military provocations in the Baltic Sea, which both Sweden and Finland border. This had already frightened Sweden in particular, which has been increasing its defense budget and informal cooperation with the U.S. military in response. Formally adding the nations to NATO also increases its capacity to protect the three Baltic NATO members — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — if Russia threatens them. Failure to admit Sweden and Finland would signal that the United States doesn’t value these members’ independence, which could start the unraveling of the entire alliance.

The decision will also impact our ability to successfully confront China. European nations have been rethinking their prior benign view toward China because of its tacit support for the Russian invasion. The United States should encourage this shift, as it makes it easier to use economic muscle to discipline and limit Chinese aggression. European leaders might rethink again if the United States signals it is pulling away from them by refusing to admit the Nordic nations. That would weaken the United States in its conflict with China, the exact opposite outcome to what many conservatives who object to NATO expansion say they want.

Our security needs force us to be involved globally to a degree that would have been unnecessary a century ago. American independence requires keeping dictatorial enemies bottled up overseas while aligning a clear majority of the global economy with our own. We ought not to go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” as John Quincy Adams put it, but neither should we pretend that monsters aren’t lurking beyond our shores.

What happens in Helsinki won’t stay in Helsinki. Conservatives should understand this and enthusiastically back Swedish and Finnish NATO membership.

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