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It’s another sign of America’s increasing unpredictability.
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.
Turkey dropped its opposition after striking a deal with the Nordic countries at the NATO summit, paving the way for the alliance to officially expand.
Finland and Sweden are now on an unencumbered path to joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a major expansion of the Western alliance as war continues in Europe.
Finland and Sweden applied for NATO membership in May, a historic shift for two traditionally non-aligned countries. But what many expected to be a rapid and relatively smooth succession process got sidetracked after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan objected to their bids because of what he saw as the countries’ support for Kurdish groups that Erdogan regards as terrorist organizations, and because of the countries’ arms embargoes on Turkey. All 30 NATO countries must approve any new members, so Erdogan’s objection was an effective veto.
On Tuesday, Turkey ended its opposition, signing a memorandum with the two Nordic countries at the start of the NATO summit in Madrid, adding to the symbolism of a conference that seeks to showcase Western unity.
“NATO’s open door policy has been an historic success,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, in a press conference announcing the deal. “Welcoming Finland and Sweden into the alliance will make them safer, NATO stronger, and the Euro-Atlantic area more secure.”
This memorandum, which agrees to lift the arms embargo and cooperate with Turkey on terrorism, will allow Sweden and Finland to proceed with NATO membership — which is itself a dramatic turn for the two countries. Both had defined their geopolitical identities around nonalignment — Finland, for decades, and Sweden for two centuries. After resisting NATO membership for so long, Russia’s invasion forced Finland and Sweden to reconsider their security interests, and see ascension as a deterrent to future Russian aggression.
“This is pretty monumental,” said Katherine Kjellström Elgin, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “It’s a fundamental change to the European alliance structure.”
Finland and Sweden already closely cooperate with NATO but had eschewed formal membership, a stance that worked both politically and strategically. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine changed everything.
“Popular opinion, and the way Finnish political decision-makers see this, turned around very rapidly after Russia attacked Ukraine in February,” said Janne Kuusela, director of defense policy at the Finland Ministry of Defense. “It changed dramatically the security situation in Europe, and the way most Finns see how we best take care of our own defense and security, and how we contribute to the overall stability in northeastern Europe.”
That swing in public opinion — there is now majority support for joining NATO in both Finland and Sweden — reflected a broader awakening that the status quo with Russia would not hold. Finland felt the shock most abruptly because of its geography (it shares an 800-mile border with Russia) and its history. Joonas Könttä, a member of parliament from Finland’s Center Party who serves on the defense committee, said the common memory of the Soviet Union’s attack on Finland in 1939 led to a logical answer: “Finns realized that it could happen to us.”
Finland’s resolve is, in some ways, pulling Sweden along with it, which was a bit more politically divided on the issue, and reckoned more deeply with its longstanding tradition of nonalignment. “We will never have this sense of urgency, in the same way as Finland because of its history, its proximity to Russia,” said Anna Wieslander, the Stockholm-based director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council.
But Sweden and Finland’s close partnership means they will likely move quickly through the ascension process, at least now that Turkey’s opposition has lifted. There is also a sense of urgency. Finland and Sweden are not formally protected by NATO’s mutual defense guarantees until they are actually in the pact.
Russia, of course, is not thrilled. Moscow had repeatedly warned against NATO membership for these countries, but also seemed to concede it had limited recourse. Putin in May said there is “no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion [of NATO] to include these countries.” And Russia’s war in Ukraine, among other factors, makes any sort of military threat against Finland or Sweden unlikely, though experts and officials believe other types of hybrid warfare are possible, like disinformation campaigns or cyberattacks.
But Finland and Sweden’s prospective NATO membership is ultimately a defeat for Putin. The war in Ukraine is about more than NATO expansion, but if Putin sought to curtail the alliance’s influence in Europe, he has only managed to broaden and deepen it. Or as Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said in May, when asked how Putin might respond to his country’s NATO decision: “You caused this — look at the mirror.”
When two nonaligned countries stop being polite and start getting real(ly into NATO)
Sweden and Finland joined the European Union in the post-Cold War 1990s, but continued to embrace a policy of military nonalignment. That is, no official NATO membership.
Sweden has practiced a version of nonalignment since the 19th century. Finland’s story is a bit more complicated. The then-Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939, and while the Finns fended off a full-on takeover in the Winter War, the threat from their neighbor persisted. That forced Finland to adopt a stance of nonalignment during the Cold War, although with quite a lot of Soviet meddling and domestic political influence.
Finland has since maintained nonalignment out of pragmatism. It shares an 800-mile border with Russia, and the two governments maintained neighborly relationships, even as Finland invested very seriously in its defense, including maintaining a conscription army.
Especially in recent years, Finland and Sweden have become strong partners with NATO — they are basically as close as a country can get to the alliance without formally being in it. They do military exercises together and share some intelligence; both Sweden and Finland supported NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. And NATO’s open door remained, well, open to Sweden and Finland, but was not something either had to pursue unless the security situation in Europe drastically shifted. Which is exactly what happened when Russia began threatening Ukraine.
Last December, as Russia built up troops along Ukraine’s border, Moscow issued ultimatums that sought to remake the European security architecture — demands like no NATO enlargement, and a Russian sphere of influence. That rattled Sweden, but it really shook Finland. Wieslander, of the Atlantic Council, said for Finland’s leaders, it was a reminder of the very limited space Finland had to operate during the Cold War, both internationally and domestically. Moscow’s demands created this “feeling that Finland’s road to be part of the West could not be jeopardized, and that the informal position that Finland could have in relation to NATO was not strong enough.”
That kicked off the soul-searching in Helsinki; Russia’s Ukraine invasion delivered the shock. In Finland, support for NATO typically hovered in the 20 or so percent range. In January 2022, less than 30 percent of the Finnish public was in favor of NATO membership. After Russia’s invasion, it rose 53 percent, to an incredible 76 percent in May.
As extraordinary as the swings in public opinion were, Finland’s already close ties with the West and NATO helped make the possibility of membership more palatable. “It’s still much more an evolution rather than revolution, in a way, the attitude towards NATO,” said Sinikukka Saari, a leading researcher on Russia at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
Finland and Sweden, as EU members, joined the strong sanctions against Russia, and both sent military equipment to Ukraine. They were united with the West, except for actually being part of NATO, and after Russia’s invasion, it exposed a vulnerability, especially for Finland.
In Sweden, experts said, the calculus was a bit more complicated. Support for joining NATO jumped by double digits since January to about 57 percent, according to April polls. But the backing was not as dramatic as in Finland. Sweden holds tightly to a perception of itself as a neutral country, an identity it has preserved throughout major conflicts in Europe, including two World Wars and the Cold War. “The decision not to join NATO for Sweden, more so than Finland, was rooted in the neutral, nonaligned identity,” Elgin said.
The Social Democrats, who run Sweden’s minority government, have traditionally been opposed to NATO membership; it’s a position they reiterated in November. In March, Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson rejected the opposition’s calls to join NATO, saying it would destabilize Europe even more. She only proposed reviewing the security situation in April, leading up to an about-face a month later. The Green and Left parties were opposed. Sweden’s right-leaning opposition parties have tended to be more supportive of NATO membership, and are backing the current bid. Adding to the tensions were national elections in September. “The question about NATO membership has been deeply polarized between the parties,” Wieslander said, adding that has slowed the debate, even if Sweden ultimately ended up in the same place as Finland.
Finland and Sweden’s strong bilateral partnership almost guarantees neither would make a move if they thought the other would balk. “I would stress that we are doing this together,“ said Erkki Tuomioja, a Social Democrat in the Finnish Parliament, who previously served as a foreign affairs minister.
Finland’s push for NATO membership was also a process. Könttä, who is on the defense committee, said that when he ran for Parliament he stated Finland had no need to join the alliance. In December, he began privately reassessing his views. In March, he announced his change of position.
Tuomioja, meanwhile, said in May that he would support Finland’s NATO path, but was still somewhat skeptical. He said he would have liked to consider other options, but in the public, and in parliament, NATO is seen as the strongest security guarantee.
“Whether or not you think this is the best idea to join NATO,” he said, “it’s always better that Sweden and Finland do things together.”
What does this mean for NATO? And everyone else?
There’s another benefit of Finland and Sweden going in together: It reduces some of the risk of announcing you’re going to be in NATO.
The risks lie largely in how Russia reacts. Moscow has already threatened Sweden and Finland over NATO membership. In May, the Kremlin’s press service said Putin had told Niinistö, the Finnish president, that abandoning its nonalignment would be an “an error since there are no threats to Finland’s security.” But days later, Putin seemed to accept the inevitable by saying Russia had no problems with Finland and Sweden. Still, Putin warned that the expansion of military infrastructure there “would certainly provoke our response,” according to Reuters.
Putin has blamed the West for the war in Ukraine, and NATO’s likely expansion — along those 800 miles at Russia’s border — certainly plays into that narrative. “If Finland and Sweden actually also joined NATO, then that will just be a detail that somehow proves that the Russians were right,” said Martin Hurt, a research fellow at the International Centre for Defense and Security and a former Estonian defense official. “But the rest will still be made up of lies and disinformation.”
Even so, Finland’s or Sweden’s NATO membership likely would not resonate for Putin the same way as, say, an ascension of a former Soviet republic. Finland may sting a bit more, but as an EU member and NATO partner, Moscow likely already sees them as tied to the West. “Russia will see Finland’s NATO membership as some sort of defeat and betrayal, but it is or should be much easier to accept than what was, for example, the membership of the Baltic states in the alliance,” Tuomas Forsberg, an international relations expert and the director of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, wrote in an email.
It seems like if you’re going to join a military alliance the Kremlin sees as an existential threat, you should do it while Russia’s military is bogged down in a protracted war in Ukraine. Still, there is no doubt that Finland and Sweden are at their most vulnerable right after they have announced their NATO intentions but lack its formal protections. “There is a general feeling that this kind of gray period should be kept as short as possible,” Saari said.
NATO also wanted to keep that window as short as possible, but Turkey initially foiled those plans. Turkey objected to what it saw as both countries’, but especially Sweden’s, support for the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, and other groups that Turkey has deemed terrorist organizations. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that; while the PKK has staged terrorist attacks in Turkey (it is designated as a terrorist organization by the US), Erdogan has cracked down on Kurdish groups and other opposition members of civil society, all under this rather shaky definition of terrorism. Erdogan also objected to the countries’ arms embargoes on Turkey, which were put in place after Turkey invaded Syria in 2019.
Erdogan also wanted some other concessions, including getting the United States to let Turkey back into its F-35 program, so it could either buy new F-16 fighter jets or upgrade its old fleet, something Turkey was kicked out of after buying a weapons system from Moscow, of all places. (The White House told Vox that is not part of this latest deal.) All of this, though, largely amounted to grandstanding more than actual opposition, as Erdogan, facing a cratering economy, was keen to do any and everything to play to a domestic audience.
The memorandum, at least on paper, does address many of Turkey’s concerns, with Sweden and Finland lifting their arms blockades, and agreeing to a series of steps to cooperate with Turkey on terrorism-related issues, the full scope of which are still a little unclear. “Our joint memorandum underscores the commitment of Finland, Sweden and Türkiye to extend their full support against threats to each other’s security,” Niinistö said in a statement, referring to Turkey by its Turkish-language name, something Erdogan has formally requested.
Barring any other objections from NATO members, both Finland and Sweden meet the political criteria to join NATO, as strong, established democracies, and the close cooperation with NATO means they already have a high level of interoperability — military speak for their systems and tactics being in sync. “In that sense, there’s very little of a delta that they have to step up to achieve,” said Steven Horrell, a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. Finland already spends close to the 2 percent on its military that NATO targets for its members, and Sweden already planned to increase its military spending over the next decade.
NATO members, even before Russia’s war, made it pretty clear that if Finland and Sweden wanted in, NATO would eagerly have them. Even when Turkey was making a fuss, US and NATO officials had indicated that all members were ultimately expected to back their ascension
In the meantime, NATO and its members are offering some assurances during the application period. A White House spokesperson told Vox in May the US is “confident that we could find ways to address any concerns either country may have about the period of time between a NATO membership application and their formal accession to the Alliance.” The United Kingdom offered more formalized security guarantees in May.
Finland and Sweden’s ascension to NATO will also likely reshape the alliance, even in subtle ways. Inclusion of Finland and Sweden will transform how it does its military planning in the Nordic, Arctic, and Baltic regions. NATO will expand its boundary with Russia, accessing a new front from which to pressure Russia, but also one it is now obligated to protect.
NATO still faces some very real strategic challenges, with or without new members. But Finnish and Swedish membership is politically symbolic for the alliance. “Putin talked before this third invasion of Ukraine about redrawing the global security architecture,” Horrell said. “And, well, that’s one thing he’s achieved, but I think not quite the way he wanted to.”
Update, June 28, 5:40 pm: This story has been updated with developments from the NATO summit, including Turkey withdrawing its opposition to Finland and Sweden’s accession.