Nicolai N. Petro, Alvin Z. Rubinstein. Russian Foreign Policy: From Empire to Nation-State. New York: Longman, 1997. xvi + 347 pp. $36.56 (paper), ISBN 978-0-673-99636-7.
Reviewed by Rikke Haue (Odense University, Denmark)
Published on H-Russia (August, 1998)
From Empire--To Where?
When describing the Russia of today the problem always is how much of the past you need in order to understand the present. Russian Foreign Policy solves this problem in a well-balanced way. The declared purpose of the book is to "synthesize past behavior and speculate about what the Russians are most likely to be up to in the future" (p. 11). Through a chronological overview of the foreign policy of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation, the authors give a thorough introduction to past Soviet and Russian foreign policy behaviour in the first part of the book. Chapter Two covers the interwar period, Chapter Three highlights the most important Cold War-crises, and Chapter Four is devoted to the post-Stalin period.
One of the advantages of this book is that it gives brief introductions to present and past discussions in the field. Along with the selected bibliography at the end of each chapter, this provides the reader with a short-cut to explore specific questions in greater detail. Among other things, this book offers an introduction to the discussion on the importance of ideology in shaping Soviet policy (pp. 91-92). If ideology indeed did determine Soviet foreign policy, the behaviour of the Russian successor state is likely to change. On the other hand, if Marxist-Leninist ideology was merely a disguise for pursuing the "Russian national interest," the power of tradition is likely to be more pronounced. In this connection one should, of course, note, that "Russian national interest," let alone for the changed geostrategic situation following the break-up of the Soviet Union, differs from the "Russian national interest," which is said to have been the guiding line in the Soviet era. The authors do not explicitly choose sides in this debate, but the somewhat blurred distinction between Soviet and Russian in the book suggests, that they are closer to the second view. Indeed, the focus tends to be on common traits in foreign policy before and after 1991.
The concept of "national interest" deserves a little comment. The authors acknowledge that the use of this concept can be problematic, since it is both "imprecise and infinitely malleable." To the authors, an advantage of this concept is that it will highlight "the continuity of concerns and aims" (p. 8). Thus, the choice of this concept on the author's part, reinforces the book's tendency towards tradition and continuity, rather than change. Despite the common traits of Soviet and Russian foreign policy, "national interest" is not predetermined, but open to political interpretation and bargaining.
The second part of the book is devoted to changing domestic determinants: political, economic, and security issues. "Domestic" is here used to cover developments in all of the former Soviet republics; again, an example of the authors' focus on continuity rather than change. Whereas the first part of the book moves step-by-step through the historical background, the second part is a bit more demanding on the reader's background knowledge. The selected bibliography however offsets this minor problem, although it is limited almost only to English-language literature.
Part Three deals with the geopolitical interests of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. As mentioned above, the former Soviet republics are dealt with under the heading of "domestic," which might cause some raised eyebrows in the capitals of the new states. The authors use the picture of concentric areas of interest. The first circle is made up by the former Soviet Union. The next ring consists of "areas of political, economic, and strategic importance," meaning the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The third ring is Western Europe, North America, and Japan (p. 109). The rest of the world is literally on the rim of Russian attention. This concentric universe does not, however, express itself in the structure of the book. Other than the CIS, the authors proceed to describe Soviet and Russian involvement in Europe, Asia and the Third World, or rather Africa. The Middle East attracts special attention due to the political potential in the Muslim CIS-states South of Russia. Finally, Russia's role in international organizations and Russian-American relations are dealt with.
The main conclusion reached in the book, is that Russia will try to stay a great power, though we will see a scaling down of engagement abroad in areas of little importance for the Russian national interest. This is due to the absence of super-power rivalry, and economic as well as political restraints. Top priority is given to the "Near Abroad," including regional stability and thus also the security of the ethnic Russian populations living outside the Russian Federation. Second to that, economic interests will determine the degree of attention from Russia. These two objectives pull in the direction of Russian efforts to increase the re-integration in the area of the former Soviet Union. Thus, the global scene will be downgraded to a symbolic level, whereas neighboring regions in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East will remain important. The prospects for U.S.-Russian relations are estimated as a return to "cordial indifference" (pp. 307-308). Russia will try to compensate for the loss of super-power status through an increased participation in international organizations.
At times, the book reads like a catalogue of treaties, which is good from the point of completeness. On the other hand, one does risk being rather lost in the abundance of details. The weight attributed to the various initiatives of international cooperation is also worth discussing. It is rather unfortunate that a peripheral topic like the Law of the Sea is given almost two pages of attention, while OSCE is only mentioned briefly. Even more so, since OSCE is one of the international fora, to which Russia itself has attached great significance.
Russian Foreign Policy gives insightful description of bureaucratic infighting between different interest groups. Special attention is paid to the organisational restructuring of the foreign policy apparatus under both Gorbachev and Yeltsin. An example is the well-written description of the transfer of power to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from the International Department of the Central Committee, through which Gorbachev undercut the existing pattern of decision-making and ensured personal control over international affairs (pp. 95-98).
As the title indicates, Petro and Rubinstein suggest that the most important development in the new Russia is the transition from empire to nation-state. Even if Russia has abandoned the empire, it today describes itself as a multinational federation. Mette Skak, a scholar also dealing with this topic, has chosen the subtitle From Empire to Anarchy to her latest book. At times it seems that anarchy might be a better description of the post-Soviet order. It is my impression that the question, whether Russia is a classical nation-state or not, is still under debate in Russian kitchens as well as in diplomatic and academic circles. In connection with Russia's emergence as a nation-state, Petro and Rubinstein state that the proportion of ethnic Russians has gone from less than half in the Soviet Union, to seventy-five percent in the Russian Federation. Goskomstat's Statistical Yearbook of 1996 claims eighty-two percent, which only adds further validity to the idea of the Russian nation-state.
Another possible point for discussion, is the great significance attached by the authors to the CIS, as an instrument to re-integrate the former Soviet republics to meet Russia's economic and security interests. The initial high expectations in the usefulness of the CIS for this purpose have been disappointed in the years following its establishment. According to one senior diplomat, the importance of the CIS as an instrument to pursue re-integration and ensure a Russian hegemonic position in the area has decreased to an all-time low.
The bonds between Russia and the former Soviet republics are, usually, on a bilateral basis and the CIS serves mainly as a nice cover. Despite this, the CIS-states are likely to undergo some sort of re-integration, though not necessarily within the institutional framework of CIS. Another source for overestimating the importance of the CIS is the focus on conclusion of resolutions, agreements, and treaties rather than the ratification and implementation of such. These are by now more than one thousand, but only about ten percent are supported by all twelve member states and a modest six agreements have been implemented.
Despite these minor remarks, Russian Foreign Policy is a useful book. The review of various discussions and the thorough recollection of diplomatic initiatives makes it a useful introduction to the foreign policy of both the Soviet Union and Russia. The geographical and chronological structure enables the reader to go straight to the parts of most individual interest. The audience of the book is probably undergraduate, and rather within political science than history.
It is not easy task to determine which parts of the past are relevant in the present and, especially, in the future. To quote the Danish poet Piet Hein: "It is difficult to foretell events, especially in the future." Even more so for Russia that is in a period of flux, undergoing a transition from empire to something else.
. Mette Skak: Post-Soviet Foreign Policy - From Empire to Anarchy. London: Hurst, 1996.
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