Roe Reversal Exposes the ‘Ever-Growing Value Gap’ Between U.S. and Allies

The decision is part of a broader trend of domestic dysfunction that undermines U.S. President Joe Biden’s democracy agenda.

By , an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.
Abortion rights activists react to the Dobbs ruling outside the U.S. Supreme Court.
Abortion rights activists react to the Dobbs ruling outside the U.S. Supreme Court.
Abortion rights activists Carrie McDonald (left) and Soraya Bata react to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling, which overturns the landmark abortion Roe v. Wade case, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on June 24. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Nearly two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the ruling’s domestic ramifications are becoming devastatingly clear, with a growing number of states slashing abortion access and many women’s futures left in uneasy limbo. 

The decision, part of a broader trend of domestic dysfunction that includes mass shootings and the incriminating Jan. 6 hearings, could also have significant U.S. foreign-policy consequences. The United States’ own crumbling record, many experts say, has raised questions about U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration’s global credibility as well as the future of the president’s democracy agenda.

The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, which overruled Roe, “is one of many problems or negative events in recent American history that has kind of whittled away at the fantasy notion that the United States is like the shining city on a hill,” said Sarah Croco, a professor at the University of Maryland. “That’s just not credible anymore.”

Nearly two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the ruling’s domestic ramifications are becoming devastatingly clear, with a growing number of states slashing abortion access and many women’s futures left in uneasy limbo. 

The decision, part of a broader trend of domestic dysfunction that includes mass shootings and the incriminating Jan. 6 hearings, could also have significant U.S. foreign-policy consequences. The United States’ own crumbling record, many experts say, has raised questions about U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration’s global credibility as well as the future of the president’s democracy agenda.

The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, which overruled Roe, “is one of many problems or negative events in recent American history that has kind of whittled away at the fantasy notion that the United States is like the shining city on a hill,” said Sarah Croco, a professor at the University of Maryland. “That’s just not credible anymore.”

Since Dobbs, at least eight states have banned abortion, with several more expected to follow close behind. In Ohio, one pregnant 10-year-old girl, the victim of child rape, was forced to go to another state to obtain an abortion. Some women have resorted to deleting apps that track their periods to avoid potential criminal charges brought against them in the future.

The Supreme Court’s ruling drew sharp criticism from Washington’s allies, with French President Emmanuel Macron deeming abortion “a fundamental right” and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling it a “big step backwards.” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz tweeted that “there is still a long way to go for gender justice” while Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it was “one of the darkest days for women’s rights in my lifetime.”

Célia Belin, an expert on trans-Atlantic relations at the Brookings Institution, said this level of condemnation reflects a widening value gap between the White House and its European partners, even as their political interests largely converge over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“What we are seeing is a sort of the weakening of the value-based element of the relationship and a strengthening of the interest-based element,” she said. “The paradox of the situation is that we are really very much at the high point of trans-Atlantic relations, but also, its a moment where fundamental values between the two sides are also not necessarily aligned or at least they are questioned.”

It’s not just Europe either. “I was struck by how many NATO and G-7 allies apparently raised the Dobbs decision at the summits” in Germany and Spain, said Marti Flacks, a director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who formerly served on the U.S. National Security Council. “It’s a broader concern about [how] they want to know that the U.S. continues to share their values.”

The Biden administration made democratic renewal a cornerstone of its foreign policy at a time when global democracy is largely in decline, according to Freedom House. In 2021, the organization said, 60 countries experienced democratic erosion—and the United States has not been immune to this decay. Between 2010 and 2020, the United States’ democratic score dropped by 11 out of 100 points.

Given these challenges, when the Biden administration hosted the Summit for Democracy in December 2021, it positioned the event as an opportunity to strengthen democracy and human rights both within the United States and abroad. “The administration very smartly framed it as a two-way conversation so that other countries could come to the table and have a frank discussion,” Flacks said.

But with Dobbs, the United States has truly become a global outlier, joining the ranks of just 11 other countries—including North Korea, Iran, and Russia—that have dramatically reversed reproductive rights in the past three decades. According to Foreign Policy analysis, nearly 60 countries have increased abortion access. In one prominent case, Ireland voted to legalize abortion in 2018 in a landslide victory that had record turnout.

If the United States’ domestic record continues to weaken, experts say it could be increasingly difficult for Washington to make a compelling case for global democratic reforms.

“The question in my mind is: How long can we keep asking other countries to make these commitments but then not produce them here at home?” Flacks said, citing the example of how Biden championed new voting rights legislation as a cornerstone of U.S. democracy at the summit yet hasn’t succeeded in passing them. “At some point, we do start to sort of lose our credibility in that process,” Flacks added.

Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia this month will likely further underscore the United States’ shaky stance. During the trip, key U.S. interests—such as securing energy assistance amid skyrocketing prices—will trump the kingdom’s troubling human rights record, especially regarding its alleged assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The upcoming U.S. midterms in November and the 2024 U.S. presidential election will be watched closely by allies and others. “One of the biggest question marks for Europeans, even in terms of foreign policy, is that if there is another change of leadership in the U.S. … will the interest-based side of the issue be enough to compensate [for] the ever-growing value gap?” Belin said.

Christina Lu is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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