WASHINGTON – At a dinner with the president of Finland shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell assured his host that the U.S. Senate would swiftly ratify NATO membership if the north European country chose to apply to the military alliance.
It was a bold assumption for the Republican leader to make in the aftermath of the Trump era, when Donald Trump roused a neo-isolationist streak in the GOP, railing against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and threatening at times to upend the decades-old alliance. But over several courses of fresh fish and schnapps, McConnell, long a proponent of NATO's expansion as a bulwark against Russian aggression, sought to leave the impression that the U.S. would most certainly welcome the new NATO members with open arms.
Late Wednesday, the Senate did exactly that, as most Republicans joined Democrats in ratifying the accession of Finland and Sweden to the alliance, an overwhelming 95-1 vote. Other NATO countries also must approve the new members.
“What a big day," McConnell said during an interview with The Associated Press in his office ahead of the vote.
McConnell said he had just finished a phone call with the Finnish president, Sauli Niinisto, whom he now considers something of a friend. The two were “just talking about what we've sort of been through since we had dinner together," he said, noting "this new and strengthened NATO and the way it’s pulled together sort of the, shall I say, the democratic world."
The Republican is not the leader of the Senate's majority, but its minority, yet he has played a pivotal role in joining forces with President Joe Biden and the Democrats to nudge GOP senators off the Trump-era foreign policy approach and ensure NATO ratification.
It's a milestone for McConnell, who has championed the NATO alliance almost since he joined the Senate more than 35 years ago. That position put him at odds with Trump during his tenure 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 its 70th anniversary in direct response to Trump’s criticisms of NATO.
“That’s the role Sen. McConnell is trying to play,” said Eric Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Finland and Turkey.
"It's an ongoing struggle," Edelman said. "The whole fight over Ukraine has become a little bit of a microcosm, a microcosmic case, of the larger fight in the party over its future stand on foreign policy. And, you see, unfortunately, a lot of people who don’t see this as an important stake for the United States."
Speedy action in the typically slow moving Senate was no guarantee, particularly as Republicans are still sorting out their policies and politics after Trump’s presidency. The former president had awakened in the party, and many American voters, a newfound skepticism of the overseas alliance that lingers in the GOP at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has drawn the U.S. and its European allies closer together.
Privately, McConnell counseled his GOP senators ahead of the vote with the same arguments he makes in public — including the idea that part of being a leader is explaining complex choices to constituents, even if Americans may say they don’t like spending money or focusing attention abroad.
“The one thing I was concerned about, particularly at that point, was this sort of growing isolationist sentiment in the party, to some extent, given voice by President Trump," McConnell said in his office, steps off the Senate floor.
He had reason to be worried: Just a few months earlier McConnell believed as many as 25 GOP senators, half his caucus, would oppose $40 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine as it battled Russia. In the end, 11 voted against the Ukraine aid package, which Trump criticized.
Ahead of the NATO vote, McConnell said he sought to convey to senators that the U.S. leadership role in the world "is not just important militarily, but commercially, as well, all of which is good for this country. This is not a charity we’re involved in here. This is for the benefit of America.”
He added: “The world is better served if somebody stands up to dictatorships like we have in Russia and China.”
In the end, only one Republican, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, a potential 2024 presidential hopeful, voted against ratifying the NATO expansion, saying the U.S.'s attention would be better focused on China.
Even longtime non-interventionist Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., did not oppose the vote, choosing instead to abstain. Paul said in a floor speech that after Putin's invasion of Ukraine, “the world changed.”
McConnell shrugged off Paul's vote, saying he and his fellow Kentuckian often have different foreign policy views. 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 to visit 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 vowed that the Senate, which he did not control, would vote to ratify NATO membership by summer.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., another potential presidential hopeful who joined the March dinner, said of the GOP leader: “Sen. McConnell has been a strong proponent all summer long of not waiting around to get this done.”