The United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade just as President Joe Biden was preparing to leave for Europe for meetings with America’s closest allies, first at the Group of Seven and then at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Summit.
A president’s foreign trip is sometimes a respite from domestic turmoil, but the news followed Biden abroad. World leaders talked about it. They tweeted about it. The European press wrote about it. Some people protested in solidarity, in places like Paris.
But the Supreme Court’s overturning of a 50-year precedent establishing a constitutional right to an abortion would have been a jolt, globally, no matter the timing. It collided with a question that has percolated with particular ferocity since the Trump administration, which is something like: Who is America, now?
“People are waking up to the realization that our democracy is nowhere near as expansive, is nowhere near as nimble, as perhaps they thought [it] to be when it comes to accommodating these new challenges that we’re facing,” said Omar Guillermo Encarnación, professor of political studies at Bard University.
Not all allies and partners likely have the same interpretation of the merits of the Supreme Court ruling; the news, for example, didn’t seem to resonate as strongly in South Korea, according to Politico’s Alex Ward. But at least across much of Western Europe, where majorities are pro-abortion rights, leaders have largely framed this as a step backward for women’s rights and human rights. That puts the US on an entirely different course from many of its closest allies, and may further weaken the US’s leadership on human rights.
Beyond the substance of the opinion, the decision rattles because of what it means for America, and its political divisions, and how that might translate into how reliable and stable America and its institutions remain. The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overruling Roe is about to open up another huge chasm in American political life, said Sarah Croco, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. “I think this is just one more huge signal: The country’s not predictable anymore,” Croco said.
Of course, the Supreme Court’s decision is a domestic matter, and it won’t have the same effect as, say, pulling out of a major multilateral treaty. Stephen Wertheim, a senior fellow at the American Statecraft program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. said it was unlikely to have a major effect on allies and partners, but coming after other examples, like President Donald Trump and January 6, “it may contribute to a sense that the United States seems like a less familiar place, particularly to Europeans. Less aspirational, and so more distant.”
Biden promised allies at the start of his presidency that “America is back.” On the global stage, he has tried, from rejoining global institutions to the deep consultations with allies around the Ukraine war. But in Europe, especially, no one is quite sure how long that will last. The Supreme Court didn’t create that doubt. It’s just another reminder that such doubts aren’t going away.
“Is that something which, in and of itself, makes people kind of question the relationship with the US?” said David O’Sullivan, who served as EU ambassador to the United States from 2014 to 2019. “No, but in terms of the direction of travel, I think it’s yet another worrying indication of the deep divisions in American society.”
Roe may damage America’s soft power
On the same day the Supreme Court overruled Roe, Germany repealed a Nazi-era law that banned abortion providers from advertising or providing information about their services. It is part of a larger pattern: In the past 25 years, nearly 60 countries have expanded access to reproductive rights, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. The United States is just one of four countries — Poland, Nicaragua, and El Salvador being the others — that has rolled back rights since 1994. That group isn’t exactly the cohort of democracies the United States often sees itself as the leader of.
It’s good that #219a will soon be history. But yesterday also reminds us that there is still a long way to go for gender justice. In Germany – and in many other parts of the world. Women’s rights are threatened. We must defend them resolutely. #RoeVsWade
— Bundeskanzler Olaf Scholz (@Bundeskanzler) June 25, 2022
Though, to be clear, the US has always swung back and forth when it comes to promoting reproductive rights as part of its foreign policy; Republicans withdraw and Democrats restore funding for certain programs.
The Roe decision is in some ways more visible than, say, the funding for a UN agency. As experts said, gender and women’s rights have long been a rallying point for US foreign policy. The Dobbs decision isn’t the first thing to expose the gaps between America’s ideals and its realities, but it could make it harder for the US to take that stand. “It’s taking this huge step back, and so the soft power of the US is damaged in several ways,” said Michaela Mattes, an associate professor in international relations at the University of California Berkeley.
And Supreme Court rulings can matter internationally. Brown v. Board of Education — the landmark anti-segregation case — also helped the United States show the world it was trying to live up to post-World War II ideals of human rights, and it helped in the larger ideological battles of the Cold War between democracy and communism. As former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in 2004: “To sum up, Brown both reflected and propelled the development of human rights protection internationally. It was decided with the horrors of the Holocaust in full view, and with the repression of Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe a current reality.”
Encarnación pointed out that, when it comes to civil liberties, “it’s been a long, long, long, long, long, long, long time since the Supreme Court led the world” in policy or laws. (Same-sex marriage, maybe the last big progressive ruling, was already legal in about 20 countries when that ruling came down in 2015.) The question is whether Dobbs will have influence, but in an entirely different direction — either further damaging the US’s ability to advocate for human rights, or being used to justify rollbacks to women and human rights in other places.
“This is something that we saw with Brown v. Board of [Education] — how a domestic federal ruling had global dimensions,” said Joyce Mao, associate professor of history at Middlebury University. “The overturning of Roe may have a similar cultural, political, and diplomatic importance that is going to absolutely influence the way in which potential allies and existing allies view American democracy.”
America, the unpredictable
Allies and others have gotten pretty concerned and disillusioned with the United States before, as during the Iraq War. But then came Donald Trump, who did things like threaten to pull out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, actually pull out of the Iran deal negotiated with European partners, and start trade wars with allies. Also, Twitter wars. Things that seemed like bipartisan constants in American foreign policy were no longer.
But the Trump era also exposed how deeply divided and polarized America was, culminating in January 6, 2021, and the election fraud lies, which have only hooked themselves deeper into American political life. Biden is president, and right now, relations with allies and partners are copacetic, even invigorated. But that no longer feels permanent.
The Supreme Court’s decision fits into this larger pattern of unpredictability, which makes it hard to know where America will be in the next months, a few years, or a decade. As experts said, US institutions, including internationally, were often seen as creating this framework of stability — yes, different political parties won, there were tensions between branches, but pragmatism tended to prevail. “That pragmatism in terms of execution has been lost — and Roe and Dobbs illustrated that to the nth degree,” Mao said.
As Mattes said, now, the Supreme Court decision reaffirmed that the institutions once seen as stabilizing factors are not necessarily so. Instead, who has control over the institutions matters; and they may no longer have the same constraints.
Abortion is a fundamental right for all women. It must be protected. I wish to express my solidarity with the women whose liberties are being undermined by the Supreme Court of the United States.
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) June 24, 2022
And predictability is what you want when dealing with other countries, and it’s what you need when it comes to allies and close partners. Dobbs probably isn’t going to directly alter the US’s relationship with its allies in the immediate term, and it will land differently in different parts of the world. But among European partners, especially, it is likely to raise the ever-present worry that the Biden administration is less a restoration than a respite.