The Supreme Court of the United States quashed Roe v. Wade just as President Joe Biden was preparing to leave for Europe to meet with America’s closest allies, first in 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 quashing of a 50-year precedent establishing a constitutional right to abortion would have come as a shock worldwide, regardless of the timing. It collided with a question that has seeped through with a certain ferocity since the Trump administration, namely: Who is America now?
“People are waking up to the realization that our democracy is not nearly as expansive, not nearly as agile, as they may have thought [it] when it comes to meeting these new challenges we face,” said Omar Guillermo Encarnación, a 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 didn’t seem to catch on very well in South Korea, for example, according to Politico’s Alex Ward† But at least in much of Western Europe, where the majority is in favor of abortion rights, leaders have largely instituted this as a step backwards for women’s and human rights. That puts the US on a very different course from many of its closest allies, and could further weaken US leadership on human rights.
Opinion content aside, the decision rattles because of what it means for America and its political divisions, and how that could translate into how reliable and stable America and its institutions remain. The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overrule decision roe is about to open a new huge divide in American political life, said Sarah Croco, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. “I think this is another huge signal: the country is no longer predictable,” Croco said.
Of course, the Supreme Court’s decision is a domestic matter and will not have the same effect as, say, withdrawing from a major multilateral treaty. Stephen Wertheim, a senior fellow with the American Statecraft program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. said it was unlikely to have a major effect on allies and partners, but after other examples, such as President Donald Trump and January 6, “it may add to the feeling that the United States seems like a lesser-known place, especially to Europeans. Less ambitious and therefore more distant.”
Biden promised allies at the start of his presidency that “America is back”. On the world stage, he has tried, from his return to global institutions to deep consultations with allies over the war in Ukraine. But especially in Europe, nobody knows exactly how long that will take. The Supreme Court has not aroused that doubt. It’s just another reminder that such doubts don’t go away.
“Is that something that, in itself, makes people question its relationship with the US?” said David O’Sullivan, who served as EU ambassador to the United States from 2014 to 2019. “No, but as far as the direction of travel goes, I think it’s another worrying indication of the deep divisions in American society.”
Roe can damage America’s soft power
On the same day, the Supreme Court rejected roe deer, Germany repealed a Nazi-era law that prohibited abortion providers from advertising or providing information about their services. It’s 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 only one of four countries — Poland, Nicaragua and El Salvador being the others — that have had rights rollbacks since 1994. That group is not exactly the cohort of democracies where the United States often sees itself as the leader.
It’s good that #219a will soon be history. But yesterday also reminded 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 under threat. We must defend them resolutely. #RoeVsWade
— Chancellor Olaf Scholz (@Bundekanzler) June 25, 2022
Although, to be clear, the US has always waved back and forth when it comes to promoting reproductive rights as part of its foreign policy; Republicans pull out and Democrats restore funding to certain programs.
The roe decision is in some ways more visible than, say, the funding of a UN agency. As experts said, gender and women’s rights have long been a rallying point for US foreign policy. The dobbs decision is not the first thing to do exposing the gap between America’s ideals and reality, but it could make it harder for the US to take that stance. “It takes this huge step back, and so the soft power of the US is damaged in several ways,” said Michaela Mattes, an associate professor of international relations at the University of California Berkeley.
And Supreme Court rulings may have international significance. Brown v Board of Education — the landmark anti-segregation case — also helped the United States show the world that it was trying to live up to post-World War II human rights ideals, and it aided in the larger Cold War ideological battles between democracy and communism . As former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in 2004, “In summary, Brown both reflected and propelled the international development of the protection of human rights. It was concluded with the horrors of the Holocaust in full view and with the repression of communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as 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 ruled the world” in policies or laws. (Same-sex marriage, perhaps the last major progressive) ruling, was already legal in about 20 countries when that ruling came out in 2015.) The question is whether dobbs will have an impact, but in an entirely different direction – either further damaging the US’s ability to stand up for human rights, or being used to justify rollbacks to women and human rights elsewhere.
“This is something we saw with Brown v. Board of [Education] — how a domestic federal ruling had global dimensions,” said Joyce Mao, an associate professor of history at Middlebury University. “Toppling over roe may have a similar cultural, political, and diplomatic importance that will absolutely influence the way potential allies and existing allies view American democracy.”
America, the unpredictable
Allies and others have become quite concerned and disillusioned with the United States before, such as during the Iraq war. But then came Donald Trump, who did things like threaten to leave the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, effectively withdrew from the Iran deal negotiated with European partners, and trade wars start with allies. Also Twitter wars. Things that seemed like two-pronged constants in US foreign policy were no longer.
But the Trump era also revealed just how deeply divided and polarized America was, culminating on Jan. 6, 2021, and the lies about voter fraud, which have only hooked themselves deeper into American political life. Biden is president and at the moment relations with allies and partners are copacetic, even strengthened. But that no longer feels permanent.
The Supreme Court’s decision fits into this larger pattern of unpredictability, which makes it difficult to know where America will be in the coming months, a few years, or a decade. As experts said, American institutions, including internationally, were often seen as creating this framework of stability — yes, several 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 down to the last detail,” said Mao.
As Mattes said, the Supreme Court decision now reaffirmed that the institutions that were once considered stabilizing factors are not necessarily so. Instead, it matters who is in control of the institutions; and they may no longer have the same limitations.
Abortion is a fundamental right for all women. It must be protected. I want to express my solidarity with the women whose freedoms are being undermined by the United States Supreme Court.
—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 is unlikely to directly change the US’s relationship with its allies in the near term, and it will land differently in different parts of the world. But especially among European partners, it is likely to raise the ever-present concern that the Biden administration is less of a recovery than a breath of fresh air.