Three states bidding for NATO membership have met with very different results, in ways that illustrate both the necessity of and challenges for our international political organizations.
On Monday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan promised to advance Sweden’s bid for membership to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Hungary, the only other hold-out for Swedish inclusion in the military alliance of 29 European and 2 North American states, agreed to follow suit if Turkey’s legislature ratified entry. Hours later, the US approved the transfer of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, an extension of diplomatic lobbying on Sweden’s behalf, and dangled the promise of deeper US-Turkey ties.
But in the messy world of NATO politicking, Erdoğan wasn’t finished yet. After promising to send a bid through legislature, he suggested a new condition of entry: Turkey’s own path to European Union inclusion, stalled for decades. Far from being a passive recipient of bribes, Erdoğan knows full well that he can leverage US efforts not to make military aid appear directly contingent on Turkey’s approval of Sweden for NATO. The jets are on their way. Sweden’s entry is still up in the air. And Erdoğan’s binding of an EU membership bid to NATO talks? Well, that gambit conflates two issues sitting members of both bodies would rather keep well apart.
Today, it’s Ukraine’s complex showing with NATO that carries the news cycle: no membership, no invitation, and only promises for a better shared future years away.
This was to be expected, because of the dire consequences of adding a country at war to NATO’s ranks. But the decision also reflects a much more delicate political landscape for both NATO and the EU, as regional power blocs with a global platform.
We are a world of nation-states grappling with problems at an entirely different scale. And three recent bids for NATO membership—Finland, Sweden, and Ukraine—highlight the challenge of comporting ourselves well in that loftier civic terrain.
Finland’s break with non-allegiance
Finland became the latest member of NATO earlier this year, on April 4. This membership was almost a year in coming, and marked a significant shift in Finnish foreign policy. Due to its longstanding and delicate relationship with Russia, which along with Sweden has played a significant role in its local history, Finland had been pursuing a more gradual approach to integration with the West. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and the emergent proof of war crimes in April 2022, escalated its perceived need for entry.
Prior to its NATO bid, Finland was part of a NATO-adjacent program called the “Partnership for Peace” (PfP), which still includes Russia among its members. Proposed by the US under former President Bill Clinton in 1993, the PfP was meant to advance global military transparency and democratic primacy. The PfP recognized the need for national military forces not only for state defense, but also to coordinate on humanitarian missions. It established international benchmarks for openness about military funding, the subordination of state militias to democratic proceedings, and the disclosure of imminent threats within any member state’s territory.
As a strong partner in that organization, Finland was long considered a good fit for eventual inclusion into NATO. Unlike other European countries, it never waived its conscription policy, or reduced its military might, and it retained constant, democratic vigilance with respect to threats to its sovereignty.
But what made it such an ideal participant was also the reason for its initial reluctance to pursue NATO membership. After enduring Soviet invasion twice during World War II, and losing parts of its territory to the USSR, Finland entered the second half of the century committed to acting as a middle-ground peace broker throughout the Cold War. In later stages of that standoff, this position allowed it to support former Soviet bloc countries after they had secured their own independence, but also compelled more cautious forms of endorsement in the process of the same.
During Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, Finland warned the world of another coming cold war. It condemned Russia’s actions and supported EU efforts against the invasion. It also withdrew from an economic relationship that had previously centered Russia as Finland’s most important trading partner, and in 2019 passed legislation restricting Russian real estate purchases, especially near key military sites within its territory. Only joining NATO was considered too provocative a move—until Russia launched its attack on Ukraine.
NATO requires unanimity among members before admitting new countries, though. Hungary and Turkey were hold-outs until the end, each with criticisms about Finland and Sweden’s local politics, but they granted Finland’s admission in late March.
Sweden, though, is another matter.
Sweden’s complicated democratic politics
Turkey has been part of NATO since 1952, and even as it benefited from inclusion in the Western Bloc throughout the Cold War, it offers a substantial military force in turn. Yet despite this longstanding collaboration with Western powers, Turkey has struggled to be accepted into the EU. The European economic and political body declared Turkey’s eligibility for membership in 1999, but has since delayed formal follow-through for reasons related to Turkey’s internal political situation, and military support for anti-democratic actions in Syria.
The EU grew out of preceding coalitions across European trade communities, but what made the Maastricht Treaty of 1992-3 so potent was its unification of European countries under shared judicial and political standards. Turkey’s human rights violations after eligibility, along with constitutional changes that created a “strong state” less favorable to democracy, brought negotiations for inclusion to a standstill.
This backdrop both explains and complicates Turkey’s contentions with Sweden. Sweden has been a part of the EU since 1995, but Turkey maintains that Sweden is harboring Kurdish groups recognized by many countries as terrorist organizations (such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK). Turkey also condemns Sweden’s toleration for anti-Islam action. Just weeks before NATO’s latest summit in Lithuania, the fourth such meeting since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Swedish government had authorized a Quran-burning protest outside a mosque during Eid-al-Adha, one of Islam’s highest holidays.
So when Turkey tries to swap Sweden’s admission to NATO for its own membership in the EU, it’s also performing an accusation of hypocrisy. If a state that supports internationally recognized terrorist groups is permitted in one European coalition, surely a few internal practices in Turkey that other countries disagree with can’t be an insurmountable barrier to entry into another, right?
Except that the EU has long been concerned about Turkey’s backslide into authoritarian rule, and views the ongoing possibility of EU membership as its only leverage to try to get Turkey to agree to more democratic reforms.
The power play presses on.
Ukraine’s long term security amid ongoing war
Similarly, when it comes to “keeping the peace”, NATO found itself in a sticky situation when trying to show support for Ukraine without pitching the alliance into a more active state of war. Thus we come to a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, held this July 10 to 12, with a mixed bag of news for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Although Zelensky understands the complexity of adding a country currently at war, he expressed disappointment at being denied an invitation, even if only as a symbolic gesture. NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg instead announced a three-part, multi-year package promising long term admittance and bypassing the common requirement of undergoing a Membership Action Plan. Other elements in the package focus on updating Ukraine’s military training, protocols, and holdings from Soviet-era standards to NATO expectations.
This move was joined with a general NATO commitment to ensuring 300,000 alliance troops in a state of readiness, with similarly robust aerial and ground support systems, against further Russian aggression and acts of global terrorism.
Zelensky also spent most of his time at the summit securing military aid for his country’s immediate crisis, through private meetings with NATO member states.
Make no mistake, though: for all of NATO’s careful hedging, we are at war.
US President Joe Biden’s government has sent $75 billion in aid to Ukraine between January 2022 and May 2023. The EU entered an eleventh round of sanctions against Russia this past June, building on embargoes around financing and petroleum sales also implemented by the US and Canada throughout Russia’s invasion. Britain, Canada, France, Germany, and the US are among the many countries providing material military aid to Ukraine combat operations.
The question isn’t whether we oppose Russia’s actions in Ukraine. It’s simply how much an expansion of the current field of combat, to include other declared nation-states at open war with Russia, will worsen an ongoing state of international conflict.
And therein lies the complex role for our global coalitions.
NATO, EU, and other international alliances
In an effort to stave off a repeat of traumas like World War II, especially in our now-nuclear age of potential military fallout, Western countries with mostly elected governments have sought international arrangements where they can cultivate shared norms for transparency and routines of participation in something beyond individual state destinies.
Amid the current rise of nationalist and imperial enterprises, though, these groups are undergoing extreme tests of character and commitment to coherent standards.
At present, one of the strongest means by which organizations like NATO and the EU can serve as enforcers of a greater peace and commitment to democratic action is through its choices of which, how, and when other nations earn a seat at the table. After that membership has been acquired, the pathway to its revocation becomes more challenging. NATO has no suspension clause, for example, so only a unanimous vote around a “material breach” could sever its agreement in part or in whole.
With Turkey grandfathered into NATO, entrance into the EU is the only compelling pressure point against further undemocratic action. Yet the urgency of ongoing military action with Russia also makes NATO vulnerable to Turkey’s dissenting vote on the membership of other members pertinent to Eastern European peace.
Meanwhile, the alliance for military action in furtherance of peace goals ironically cannot formally onboard a country actively being invaded by another. Not, at least, without escalating the boundaries of that same war to a more ruinous extent.
A more coherently integrated and collaborative world order is necessary to combat the greatest crises of our time: climate change, global health emergencies, energy futures, food security, waste management, democratic uplift amid stark income disparities, environmental and resource-war refugeeism, and local tyrannies promoting oppression unto genocide.
But as NATO and EU politics in the shadow of Russia’s war in Ukraine have made abundantly clear: we’re a long way from outgrowing nation-state supremacy—and easily hijacked, in our best efforts at change therein, by the actions of a few.
The best we can hope for is surviving their many missteps until we do.