By Paul Poast, World Politics Review, Friday, July 1, 2022
By a 5-4 vote last week, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade ruling that had established the constitutional right to abortion in 1973. As a result of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision, for the first time in almost 50 years, there are no national-level protections in the U.S. for women’s right to choose, with abortion policy now fully relegated to individual states. From Louisiana to Ohio to Texas, many states have already put in place strict restrictions, if not outright bans, on abortions.
Because the five votes in the majority decision to overturn Roe v. Wade were cast by justices appointed by Republican presidents, including three appointed recently by former President Donald Trump, politicians in the Democratic Party were notably upset by the decision. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, called it “cruel.” There are very real concerns that the ruling will undermine women’s health, and that women in states with outright abortion bans will essentially become less than full citizens.
But the reaction was not limited to individuals who identify as Democrats or even to U.S. citizens. The response was international as well, with particular dismay expressed by Washington’s NATO allies. French President Emmanuel Macron expressed “solidarity with the women whose liberties are being undermined by the Supreme Court of the United States,” while the French Foreign Ministry issued a statement that, while it didn’t call out the U.S. directly, pointed to the ways in which the right to abortion was being “violated and threatened in many regions of the world.” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the court’s decision “horrific.” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke of women’s rights being “under threat,” and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the ruling “a step backwards.”
Some observers might claim that such international condemnation is meaningless, as this is a domestic issue with little to no relevance for U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. alliance system, of which NATO allies are a core part, is based on shared interests, not necessarily shared values. It is predicated on the United States’ material power and its ability to militarily counter the regional adversaries of its allies. This grants the U.S. wide latitude in how it is perceived by its allies, who, because they are dependent on U.S. protection, will tolerate almost any set of policies pursued within the United States. Moreover, one can claim, as does the U.S. Conference for Catholic Bishops, that the Dobbs ruling promotes a “culture of life,” a value shared with many U.S. allies.
However, there are at least three ways in which the Dobbs decision undermines U.S. standing in the world.
First, it is embarrassing. As a result of it, the U.S. joins an inauspicious list of countries that have restricted abortion access in the past three decades—a list that is full of nondemocracies, notably Russia and Iran. When a clear majority of the U.S. public, including Republican-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts, thinks that abortions in some form should be protected at the national level, it seems contrary to a democratic system’s operating principles that the court would undermine the “will of the people.” Indeed, according to data from the Pew Research Center, the only subset of Americans that clearly favors bans on abortion are those that identify as white evangelicals. For a country ostensibly predicated on the value of pluralism, it is disconcerting when a major policy is set that is clearly favorable to just one religious and ethnic group.
This is only heightened by the seemingly capricious nature of the ruling. It is one thing to philosophically hold that, within reason, policies should be set at the level of individual states. But when the court rules in the same week that individual states can set any restrictions on abortions, but cannot impose limited restrictions on gun ownership, it feeds a perception, both domestically and internationally, that the U.S. democratic system of governance is dysfunctional.
Any major policy adopted by the United States will have global reverberations. That is the nature of hegemony. But with hegemony comes great responsibility.
Second, and related, the ruling is destabilizing and points to further instability in U.S. policymaking. After the Trump administration reversed numerous Obama-era policies via executive orders, followed by the Biden administration doing the same to Trump’s policies, Washington’s negotiation partners can be forgiven for viewing U.S. policy as erratic. Now the Supreme Court has overturned a policy that had stood for 50 years, and there are concerns that other domestic human rights policies that seemed to have been “settled law,” such as protections for contraception and same-sex marriage, could be revised as well.
This further underlines the instability of policies produced by the U.S. system of governance and, in turn, the U.S. government’s inability to maintain a long-term commitment to its policy agenda. Those alarmed by the current court’s trajectory might take solace in the hope that if the older conservative justices—Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas—retire under a Democratic president and Senate, it could shift the court’s balance to a liberal majority. But that would simply exacerbate the trend of instability.
Third, the ruling is foreboding, raising the question of whether this is just the “tip of the iceberg.” A decision released yesterday curbing the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to restrict power-plant emissions without congressional approval suggests it is, and that the goal is to end as much regulation as possible at the federal level—with the exception, of course, of gun control—thereby undermining the federal administrative state altogether. If the Supreme Court does go on to undercut the federal government’s ability to set regulations in a variety of issue areas, ranging from health policies to the environment, it would complicate the ability of the U.S. to broker agreements for some of the greatest challenges facing humanity in the next century and beyond, notably climate change.
Like its security and economic policies, any major policy adopted by the United States will have global reverberations. That is the nature of hegemony, which the United States still enjoys, even if the “unipolar moment” that marked the first two decades after the Cold War has passed. But with hegemony comes great responsibility. That means steadiness when it comes to policy, and particularly adherence to well-established legal precedent. That is the foundation of the rule of law, a key pillar of the democratic values that the U.S. espouses at home and champions abroad. Following last week, it will be ever more difficult for it to do either.
Paul Poast is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago and a nonresident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.