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The elephant in the NATO room: America's Roe reversal

MADRID — When foreign ministers from 30 NATO nations met for dinner this week on the sidelines of the military alliance’s annual summit here, their discussions took an unexpected turn to the U.S. Supreme Court.

At least four diplomats in the room aired concerns with the Court’s decision last week overturning Roe v. Wade and striking down the constitutional right to abortion, according to one of the only two Americans in attendance.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who leads NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly, joined Secretary of State Antony Blinken and 29 other foreign ministers at the dinner. Both men have expressed their own opposition with the Court decision, but Connolly said in an interview that he was taken aback by the outward criticism from officials of allied nations.

“Normally in diplomatic circles, people are going to be a little circumspect in criticizing your internal domestic policies,” Connolly said, adding that in each of the four separate encounters, foreign ministers “initiated the conversation” and “made a point of sharing with me their sense of outrage.”

The episode harkened back to Donald Trump‘s presidency, when lawmakers and diplomats routinely fielded questions from foreign counterparts expressing concern, anxiety and even outrage at the then-president’s statements and behavior. While other lawmakers attending the NATO summit downplayed the abortion ruling’s impact on the gathering, the chatter was a sign that President Joe Biden may get sharp questions on Roe at his finale press conference on Thursday.

After defeating Trump on a promise to show the rest of the world a more stable America, Biden is now contending with a high court that could make that job even harder. Connolly warned that the Roe reversal risks damaging U.S. credibility and entrenching a view among many NATO partners that the U.S. can’t be trusted with its commitment to the 21st-century values that its leaders routinely tout elsewhere.

“All the reassurances of ‘we’re back’ and ‘don’t look under the curtain of those last four years’ are eroded to some extent with this,” Connolly said. “It erodes confidence in our system. And that’s pretty important when you’re supposed to be helping to lead a military alliance to take on the big bad Russians.”

Connolly declined to name the foreign ministers who spoke up at the dinner. Eleven of the 30 NATO foreign ministers are women, and several NATO heads of state and government released statements affirming the right to an abortion immediately after Friday’s court decision. French officials even said they would move to codify abortion rights in their constitution.

A senior Biden administration official said that the abortion issue had not come up among leaders at the NATO summit, at least as of Wednesday.

Members of a separate bipartisan delegation of U.S. lawmakers, led by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), said they had heard little from their counterparts about the abortion issue since arriving in Spain. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), another member on the trip, said the senators themselves haven’t even talked about the Roe decision during their travels in part due to its political radioactivity back home.

“I have fairly strong views on it, and so do a lot of members on the delegation … That subject [of abortion] probably divides us more than any other,” Coons said, adding: “If your goal is to represent our country well in a critical moment for the future of NATO, focus on the things that bring us together. We will have plenty of time immediately when we return to disagree sharply.”

Shaheen was asked at a NATO public forum event on Wednesday whether the U.S. has lost credibility on global women’s issues as a result of the Supreme Court decision. While she reaffirmed that she disagrees with the Court’s ruling and supports abortion rights, Shaheen countered that the U.S. has led in promoting the roles of women in foreign policy decision-making at the State Department and the Defense Department.

Tillis, meanwhile, appeared to defend the Court’s decision, as have the vast majority of Republicans in Washington. He dismissed its impact on America’s role in the world.

“The issue the Supreme Court settled is whether or not it was a constitutional right or something that was a legal decision, a legislative decision that the states can make,” Tillis said. “And we’ll see how that plays out over time.”

Some Democratic lawmakers, though, have leaned into the fallout from the abortion ruling on the global stage, emphasizing what they believe it says about American democracy that a group of unelected justices can reverse policies that are popular with the general public.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), another member of the delegation, was in Lithuania earlier this week to accept an award from its parliament, which is currently considering legislation to legalize same-sex civil unions.

Durbin recalled telling members of Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda’s staff that “these are values that are important to America, that even the Supreme Court, nine people in the United States, shouldn’t suggest otherwise … They don’t reflect public opinion.”

“It is not just an American decision. We have led the world in many respects, not exclusively, in expansion of the rights of women,” Durbin added. “And I think this [ruling] really raises a question as to our commitment in the future.”

Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.