September 28, 2022

At a dinner with Finland’s president shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell assured his host that the US Senate would quickly ratify NATO membership if the northern European country chose to apply to the military alliance.

It was a bold move by the Republican leader in the wake of the Trump era, when Donald Trump has sparked a new isolationist streak in the Republican Party, railing against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and at times threatening to upend the decades-old alliance. . But over several plates of fresh fish and schnapps, McConnell, a longtime advocate of NATO expansion as a bulwark against Russian aggression, tried to leave the impression that the US would certainly welcome new NATO members with open arms.

Late Wednesday, the Senate did just that, as most Republicans joined Democrats in ratifying Finland and Sweden’s entry into the alliance by an overwhelming 95-1 vote. Other NATO countries must also approve the new members.

“What a great day,” McConnell said during an interview with The Associated Press in his office before the vote.

McConnell said he had just finished a phone call with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, whom he now considers a friend. The two were “just talking about what we’ve been through since we had dinner together,” he said, noting “this new and strengthened NATO and the way the, shall we say, democratic world has kind of come together. “

The Republican is not the Senate majority leader but its minority, yet he has been instrumental in joining forces with President Joe Biden and Democrats to push senators away from Trump-era foreign policy and secure his confirmation. NATO.

It’s a milestone for McConnell, who has defended the NATO alliance almost since he joined the Senate more than 35 years ago. This position has put him at odds with Trump during his time in the White House. At the time, McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi famously invited NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to deliver a speech to Congress on his 70th anniversary in direct response to Trump’s criticism of NATO.

“That’s the role Senator McConnell is trying to play,” said Eric Edelman, a former US ambassador to Finland and Turkey.

“It’s a constant struggle,” Edelman said. “The whole fight over Ukraine has become a bit of a microcosm, a microcosmic case, of the party’s larger fight over its future foreign policy stance. And, you see, unfortunately, a lot of people don’t see that this is a significant stake for the United States ».

Swift action in the typically slow-moving Senate was no guarantee, particularly as Republicans are still fine-tuning their policies and politics in the wake of a Trump presidency. The former president had awakened in the party, and in many American voters, a new skepticism about the overseas alliance that remains in the GOP at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has drawn the US and its European allies closer.

Privately, McConnell counseled GOP senators before the vote with the same arguments he makes publicly — including the idea that part of being a leader is explaining complicated choices to voters, even if Americans may say they don’t like spending money or focus attention abroad.

“The one thing that concerned me, particularly at that point, was this sort of growing isolationist feeling in the party, to some extent, given by President Trump,” McConnell said in his office, stepping off the Senate floor. .

He had reason to worry: Just months earlier McConnell believed 25 GOP senators, half his caucus, would oppose $40 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine as it fought Russia. In the end, 11 voted against the Ukraine aid package, which Trump criticized.

Before the NATO vote, McConnell said he tried to convey to senators that the US’s leadership role in the world “is not only important militarily, but also commercially, all of which are good for this country. This is not a charity. We’re participating here. This is for America’s benefit.”

He added: “The world is better served by standing up to dictatorships like we have in Russia and China.”

In the end, only one Republican, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, a possible 2024 presidential candidate, voted against ratifying the NATO expansion, saying US attention would be better directed to China.

Even longtime non-interventionist Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., did not oppose the vote, opting instead to abstain. Paul said in a speech that after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, “the world has changed.”

McConnell declined Paul’s vote, saying he and his Kentucky colleague often have different views on foreign policy. As for Hawley, the GOP leader said he “couldn’t disagree more” but didn’t try to change his colleague’s vote.

In the months after that March dinner with the Finnish president, McConnell led a delegation that visited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv. The senators then stopped in Sweden and Finland in a show of support for the alliance.

At a news conference in Stockholm, McConnell promised that the Senate, which he did not control, would vote to ratify NATO membership by the summer.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., another presidential candidate who attended the March dinner, said of the GOP leader: “Sen. McConnell has been a strong advocate all summer for not waiting to do this.”

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