The Abstainers: What Biden Left Out of His Warsaw Speech

“And the world has already voted multiple times, including in the United Nations General Assembly [UNGA], to condemn Russia’s aggression and support a just peace,” President Biden proudly declared in a speech in Warsaw just before the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “Each time in the U.N.,” he went on, “that vote has been overwhelming.” He boasted: “In October 143 nations in the United Nations condemned Russia’s illegal annexation. Only four – four in the entire U.N. – voted with Russia. Four,” he repeated for emphasis. (The four were Belarus, North Korea, Nicaragua, and Syria.)

It doesn’t take a statistician to be impressed by what Biden said. One hundred forty-three countries voted to condemn Russia’s aggression. Only four, plus Russia, voted against condemnation. According to Biden, the U.N. vote was 143-4 for the United States against Russia, 143 votes for freedom and democracy. In Biden’s world, “the vote was overwhelming.” The United States won; Russia lost.

What Biden didn’t say, however, was that in the October vote, 35 countries abstained. Moreover, in the UNGA vote on February 23 condemning Russia’s invasion and calling for Moscow’s troops withdrawal and an immediate end to the fighting, there was no significant change from October. In the latest vote, 141 voted for condemning Russia, seven voted against (Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Mali, Nicaragua, Russia, and Syria) with 32 abstentions. Four more months of war from October to February, hundreds of thousands of deaths and horrific destruction, did not change how most countries voted.

The world’s two most populous countries twice abstained. China and India together make up 36 percent of the world’s population. If the vote were truly democratic in some world people’s assembly – one person one vote – one/third of the world’s population chose not to take sides for or against Russia. In this sense, Biden’s comment that “the vote was overwhelming” was overstated.

The fact that so many African countries abstained, 19 or about 50 percent of the October abstentions and about 10 percent of the entire October vote, highlights that the conflict is not a global confrontation. Whereas the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union had global implications with proxy conflicts around the world, for many Africans the Russia/Ukraine conflict is limited to Europe.

The American president sees the war as a global, ideological confrontation, a clash of civilizations. In his speech, Biden speaks of a battle between freedom and autocracy. He uses the words free or freedom twenty-two times. Just before his conclusion, he says, in almost messianic tones: “And while decisions are ours to make now, the principles and the stakes are eternal.  A choice between chaos and stability.  Between building and destroying.  Between hope and fear.  Between democracy that lifts up the human spirit and the brutal hand of the dictator who crushes it.  Between nothing less than limitation and possibilities, the kind of possibilities that come when people who live not in captivity but in freedom.  Freedom. Freedom.  There is no sweeter word than freedom.  There is no nobler goal than freedom.  There is no higher aspiration than freedom.”

If, according to Biden, the war in Ukraine is between “chaos and stability,” “building and destroying,” “hope and fear,” “democracy and the brutal hand of a dictator,” “limitations and possibilities,” “captivity and freedom,” what can be said about the 35 countries who abstained in October and the 32 who abstained in February? Those who voted neither for nor against the resolution are outside the binary world described by Biden. They chose not to be part of his global, ideological struggle. Biden has not convinced thirty odd countries of his messianic, Manichaean message of good versus evil, democracy versus autocracy, captivity versus freedom.

So while the war continues to have European consequences, and dramatic implications for the international system and its values concretized in the United Nations Charter after World War II, a significant number of countries have not followed Biden’s message. Nor have they defended Russia, it should be added.

Who are the abstainers? They could be a reminder of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) formed during the Cold War by countries not willing to be part of the Western bloc and NATO or the Soviet bloc and the Warsaw Pact. Following the Bandung Conference of 1955, NAM was formally established in 1961 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Since the end of the Cold War bipolarity with the implosion of the Soviet Union, NAM has had less relevancy. In terms of the abstainers and NAM, their logic seems to be “A plague on both your houses,” according to Professor Georges Abi-Saab, an eminent Egyptian analyst of the Movement. “They don’t approve of the Russian invasion,” he told me, “but they have no sympathy for NATO and Western powers.” Today, some would rename NAM the Global South.

There are no certainties about when and how the war will end. Nor are there certainties about how the multilateral system will be effected in the long term. What is certain is that instead of just focusing on the 140 or so countries who voted to condemn Russia, or the five odd who voted not to condemn, more attention should be given to those who did not sign on to Biden’s message, the abstainers. If bipolarity and the Cold War are relics of the past, the future may belong to those who abstained in the UNGA votes, those outside a Manichaean world view, those who said: “We have no dog in this fight.”

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.