Donald Trump’s arraignment in New York on Tuesday was only the second most important news story of the day. In Brussels, Finland abandoned its nonaligned status and officially joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, redrawing the map of Europe and bolstering the West’s front-line defense against Vladimir Putin. Finland’s accession into NATO was Tuesday’s most significant and historic event — by far.
It would never have happened if Trump were still in the Oval Office, rather than sitting in a Manhattan courtroom facing felony charges in a tawdry case involving a porn star and the National Enquirer.
Trump has committed many crimes; in addition to those of which he was accused in New York on Tuesday, he may soon face charges in connection with at least three other criminal investigations.
But he never got a chance to follow through with his plans for what would have been his most historic crime: destroying NATO. Former aides say that he planned to do so in his second term but was denied the chance when he was defeated in the 2020 presidential election.
Instead, NATO is expanding in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; Sweden, which has remained neutral for generations — even during World War II — is also seeking NATO membership.
Trump’s indictment and Finland’s accession to NATO both come just days after the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the shadow of that grim and misbegotten war still hangs over American domestic politics and foreign policy.
Revulsion against the war in Iraq and the broader war on terror inadvertently helped lead many American voters to Donald Trump. The ultimate con man, he appealed to people who were eager to upend the status quo, both at home and abroad. Trump responded to that sentiment by pushing for the United States to get out of Afghanistan; his 2020 agreement with the Taliban ultimately led to the U.S. withdrawal by the Biden administration in 2021.
After decades of appearing to be a Cold War anachronism, NATO has reemerged as the key alliance in the world today.
But American withdrawal from NATO would have marked a tectonic geopolitical shift, just as Putin’s Russia was once again becoming a threat to Western democracy. After decades of appearing to be a Cold War anachronism, NATO has reemerged as the key alliance in the world today, providing crucial support to Ukraine as it seeks to defend itself against Russia.
But Trump was ready to junk NATO. John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser in 2018 and 2019, has said repeatedly that he is convinced that Trump would have withdrawn the United States from NATO if he had been reelected in 2020. Other former senior officials in Trump’s administration, including John Kelly, who served as his chief of staff, have also said they were constantly worried that Trump would withdraw from NATO. That would have effectively destroyed the alliance, since the United States provides the bulk of NATO’s military power.
Certainly, Putin was eager for Trump to do it; dismantling NATO would have served Putin’s ambition to rebuild Moscow’s empire. But Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has now backfired, convincing Finland and Sweden that they are safer in NATO than as neutral states. Polls showed that after Russia invaded Ukraine, 80 percent of Finnish voters supported joining NATO.
Finland’s membership in NATO is particularly damaging for Russia. The two countries share an 800-mile border, and Finland’s location on the Baltic Sea will make it easier for NATO to defend the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, small NATO countries that Putin has repeatedly threatened. Thousands of Russian dissidents, including many Russian journalists, have fled to the Baltic states since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and his crackdown on all forms of dissent in Russia.
With NATO supporting Ukraine, Russia has suffered an estimated 200,000 casualties since the war began. Putin’s only real hope is to hang on long enough for NATO’s support for Kyiv to wane. That might require Republicans to keep rallying around the anti-NATO candidate, Donald Trump, as his legal troubles mount.