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Echoes between Spain’s NATO membership and Swedish and Finnish candidacies

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Flags fly in front of NATO headquarters in 2019. (DoD Photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

This is the latest in a series of regular columns by Robbin Laird, where he will address current defense issues through the lens of more than 45 years of defense expertise in the United States and abroad. The purpose of these chronicles: to revisit how issues and perspectives from the past should inform decisions made today.

Recently, Spain celebrated the 40th anniversary of its decision to join NATO. In a situation few believed possible in early February, the upcoming NATO summit conference in Madrid will feature major talks around Finland and Sweden pushing for membership. For those of us who lived through the push to bring Spain into the alliance in the 1980s, there are echoes that are hard to ignore.

Spain’s decision 40 years ago was seen as a referendum on Russia’s ability to keep nations in a more neutral position. It was also accompanied by serious questions about whether the Spanish government could sell membership in the alliance to a skeptical public, many of whom saw US military bases in their country as part of the fascist past, and not of the democratic future.

This skepticism emerged just four years later, when a socialist government came to power and held a national referendum on, essentially, whether to stay in NATO. After a significant debate and political dispute, the country voted in favor of the alliance, but for the moment it was far from a sure thing.

At the time, I was at the Institute for Defense Analysis, part of a team on a DoD contract that did important work with the Spanish in the run up to the NATO referendum. . We worked closely with the José Ortega y Gasset Foundation in Madrid to organize seminars and then a conference in Toledo, which brought together senior Spanish officials and commentators to discuss the way forward for Spain. A key player in our efforts has been my friend and colleague, Dr. Kenneth Maxwell, a renowned historian, who helped shape the effort, as well as my colleague Susan Clark, with whom I had initially worked for several years. at the Center for Naval Analysis and then at IDA on the evaluation of Soviet evaluations of Europe and the Alliance. (A discussion of our work dealing with Spain and defense during this period was provided in Maxwell’s 1991 book.)

We had discovered a very useful and little-known Soviet General Staff publication that provided detailed assessments of European NATO nations and their forces. We took a close look at the articles in this publication, which then gave an insight into how the Soviet military actually viewed the state and role of Western European military forces and how the Soviets would try to deal with these forces in the event of a general war.

We first used the information collected in the publication to generate perspective on how the Soviets viewed France and how they assessed the impact of French military and deterrence policy within the alliance. We discovered that they take these capabilities seriously enough to plan counter-actions at the start of any major conflict, rather than waiting for the outcome of a campaign on the inner German border. This assessment was read carefully by the French government and impacted the thinking of the Mitterrand administration and became part of my commitment to working with the French government as well as in the evolution of administration policy. Mitterrand towards the Soviet Union.

We discovered something similar with regard to Spain and its impact on the military options for the United States and NATO, and began to realize that from the Soviet point of view, the ability to use the territory Spanish in a wider European campaign meant almost certain defeat for Moscow. . They would face both a northern and southern European logistical route, which would indeed make it very difficult to defeat the United States and the Europeans. Susan presented the results of the evaluation at the Toledo conference, and it had a major impact on the Spanish public.

The key point here: Engage in an honest discussion about the threats posed by adversaries and find common ground, and it will help make a much better case with allies. And the Spaniards remained allies, and they brought with them new ways of thinking about NATO operations.

The Spanish government and elite have made very specific military reform efforts to shape their path within NATO, especially after going through the Franco period. These reform efforts not only shaped how Spain prepared for its role in European defense, but also had repercussions for other European allies. There was simply no linear projection of the military past under Franco on how Spain would reshape its forces and strategy within the framework of NATO and then the European Union,

RELATED: What Finland will bring to NATO – and how it could change the alliance

We are now faced with the prospect of Sweden and Finland joining NATO. Like Spain, these latest NATO expansion partners were never part of the Warsaw Pact. But their entry breaks decades of tradition – neutrality and “Finlandization” – which, like Francoism, made them distinctive within Europe. And each has native defense industries that have supported their ability to defend themselves. The arrival of Sweden and Finland will not resemble eastward expansion, but rather Spanish development, in which older national traditions are redefined and new defense approaches shaped. And that means for NATO that the alliance will be changed significantly.

As a result, expect NATO to emerge from this month’s Madrid conference with a new strategic concept, albeit a preliminary one at best. The Russians are rewriting European history in Ukraine, and Sweden and Finland will be key players both in interpreting that history and in reshaping how Europe will act in politics in the future. defense and security. As sovereign states with a long history, like Spain before it, their national traditions will reshape the European and transatlantic approach in ways not yet known.