However, it is undeniable that there is a large qualitative difference between the theories of abelian groups and commutative monoids. Observe that an abelian group is just a commutative monoid which is a module over $\mathbb{Z}$ (more precisely a commutative monoid has either a unique structure of $\mathbb{Z}$-module, if it has additive inverses, and no structure of $\mathbb{Z}$-module otherwise). The situation is analogous to the (smaller) difference between abelian groups and $\mathbb{Q}$-vector spaces. I do not know of a characterization of $\mathbb{Z}$ as a commutative monoid that can be transported to other settings. It seems that there is something deep about the fact that $\mathbb{Z}$-modules are so much nicer than commutative monoids, which often is taken for granted.