Abstaining allows a resolution to be adopted (assuming it enjoys at least nine affirmative votes) without explicit support from, in this case, the U.S.
All five of the permanent members of the Security Council abstain for various political reasons. The abstainer may conclude that threatening a veto carries too high a political price on the international stage, while a "yes" vote will haunt it later on.
But abstaining comes with its own costs. A permanent member's abstention invariably reflects that it failed to achieve its objectives. It also signals timidity.
Britain and France avoid vetoes for fear that if they are seen to be too hard-edged, they will be harried off of the Security Council and replaced by one European Union seat. Russia and China are motivated by other pressures. Russia is cautious because its influence is waning. China's influence is increasing, but it feels the need to tread lightly.
This is all the more reason why the U.S. can't afford to abdicate its international leadership role. For the U.S., abstentions have larger costs than for any other permanent member.
When the U.S. abstains, it cedes the field to others on the Security Council. And our global interests make losing the initiative unacceptably risky, especially on critical issues such as the Middle East.
Ms. Rice's abstention last Thursday, for example, neither mitigated the council's pressure on Israel, nor increased the likelihood of a cease-fire. As a display of weakness, it simply invites a diplomatic feeding frenzy. That will almost certainly happen now in regards to Gaza, where Resolution 1860 is having no effect.
Finally, abstaining encourages careless decision-making in Washington, especially for an administration seeking to avoid hard foreign-policy choices in order to focus on domestic issues. In short, abstaining passes the buck to those who do not have the U.S.'s interests at heart, while allowing those in Washington to feel like they are actively managing our interests.
Monday, January 12, 2009
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, John Bolton says the US made a mistake to abstain from a recent Security Council vote: