Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell had dinner with the president of Finland and informed his host that if Finland choose to ask for NATO membership, the U.S. Senate would do it quickly.
The Republican leader made a big assumption after the Trump administration, when Donald Trump stoked the GOP’s neo-isolationist tendencies by raging against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and occasionally threatening to topple the decades-old alliance. However, McConnell, who has always supported NATO enlargement as a line of defense against Russian aggression, tried to give the idea that the United States would most definitely welcome the new NATO members with open arms over multiple courses of fresh fish and schnapps.
On a resounding 95-1 vote late on Wednesday, the Senate accomplished just that when the majority of Republicans joined Democrats in approving Finland and Sweden’s entry into the alliance. The new members require approval from other NATO nations as well.
Before the vote, McConnell spoke with The Associated Press in his office and remarked, “What a momentous day.
McConnell claimed to have just wrapped up a phone conversation with Sauli Niinisto, the president of Finland, whom he now regards as a sort of buddy. He noted “this new and reinforced NATO and the way it’s pulled together sort of the, should I say, democratic globe,” adding that the two were “just talking about what we’ve sort of gone through since we had dinner together.”
The Republican has played a crucial role in working with President Joe Biden and the Democrats to steer GOP senators away from the Trump-era foreign policy approach and achieve NATO ratification, while being the minority’s leader in the Senate rather than its majority.
For McConnell, who has supported the NATO alliance virtually from the moment he entered the Senate more than 35 years ago, it’s a significant accomplishment. During his time in the White House, this placed him at conflict with Trump. In reaction to Trump’s attacks of NATO at the time, McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi publicly asked NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to address Congress on its 70th anniversary.
Sen. McConnell is seeking to play that role, according to former U.S. ambassador to Finland and Turkey Eric Edelman.
It’s a never-ending battle, Edelman added. “The greater conflict inside the party over its stance on foreign policy has become kind of a microcosm, a microcosmic example, of the overall debate over Ukraine. Unfortunately, there are a lot of individuals who do not consider this to be a crucial issue for the US.
Fast Senate action was not a given, especially as Republicans are still figuring out their positions on policy and politics in the wake of Trump’s election. In the GOP, the former president had reawakened a renewed cynicism of the international alliance at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine had brought the United States and its European allies closer together.
Even while Americans may claim they dislike spending money or concentrating attention abroad, McConnell privately advised his GOP senators ahead of the vote with the same justifications he offers in public, such as the concept that part of being a leader is explaining hard decisions to voters.
Stepping off the Senate floor, McConnell remarked in his office, “The one thing I was concerned about, particularly at that moment, was this sort of rising isolationist mentality in the party, to some extent, given voice by President Trump.”
Just a few months before, McConnell had reason to worry that up to 25 GOP senators, or half his caucus, would vote against providing $40 billion in military and humanitarian help to Ukraine as it fought Russia. Trump blasted the final 11 votes against the Ukraine aid plan.
Prior to the NATO vote, McConnell stated that he aimed to convince senators that the United States’ global leadership position “is not just vital militarily, but also important commercially, both of which are beneficial for our country.” We are not active with a charitable organization here. America will profit from this.
“Somebody standing up to dictatorships like we have in Russia and China is better for the globe,” he continued.
Only one Republican, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, who may run for president in 2024, ultimately voted against ratifying the NATO expansion, arguing that the U.S. should be concentrating more on China.
Even steadfast non-interventionist Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky decided to abstain rather than oppose the vote. In his floor speech, Paul claimed that following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, “the world changed.”
Paul’s vote was dismissed by McConnell, who claimed that he and his fellow Kentuckian frequently had opposing views on international affairs. The GOP leader did not attempt to influence Hawley’s vote, saying only that he “couldn’t disagree more.”
Following the meal in March with the president of Finland, McConnell led a team to Kiev to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. After that, the senators made stops in Sweden and Finland to express their support for the coalition.
McConnell promised that the Senate, which he did not control, would vote to confirm NATO membership by the summer during a press conference in Stockholm.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a future presidential candidate who attended the March dinner, praised Sen. Mitch McConnell as “a big proponent of not sitting around to get this done” during the summer.