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Book Report of “The Foreign Policy of Russia: Changing Systems, Enduring Interests”

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    I – Summary of the Book

    Taken in its overall context, the foreign policy of Russia is indeed under the consideration of the “geopolitical realities” with bias towards Russia’s becoming a world superior power. The evolution or the emergence of different foreign policies adopted by different regimes is observably leaned towards Russia’s political superiority with inclusion of different factors such as the economic gains and the acceptability of such policy by the Russians and the people living in other controlled territories of Russia.

    This kind of foreign policy framework is observably true throughout the Russia’s history of politics: from the Tsars anarchical period to modern-day democratic Russia. Though there have some variations of strategies and approaches used, it is quite obvious in the book[1] that a trace to Russia’s foreign policy is ultimately towards expansion of its territorial reach and advancement of political power. Russia was not alone in this campaign, though, as other powerful states during that period had pursued the same framework in its effort to showcased superior power over the rest of the world. Take for example the individual policies adopted by the Unites States (US), France and even Russia’s long-time rival-turned-ally-turned-rival, the Germany.

    I.A. Tsarist Period

    During the Tsarist period, different tsars have employed varied foreign policies and approaches; but again the aim was obviously to establish “expansionism[2]” for Russia. This was very evident in the works of the tsars during the early Russian politics. Peter the Great strengthened the naval forces and established ports in different key areas and expanded Russia’s territory; the ambitious “Multinational Empire” was the plan of Alexander I; Nicholas I pushed for national liberation of Christians under Muslim rule; and the railway expansion of Alexander II.

    As early as this period, too, Russians had been employing a diplomatic approach by making several peace agreements and treaties with other states. In either way, Russia ultimately benefited from those means – giving itself a strategic position to further advance its ambition of becoming a multinational empire. Alexander I pushed for the Holy Alliance, Nicholas I signed “Peace of Adrianople”, and the move of Alexander II to sell Alaska to US, are some of the instances where Russians utilized every possible means to maintain and protect its position. In those treaties and peace agreements, surely Russia had gained additional power – in terms of territorial occupation, military support, or economic and trade exchanges.

    I.B. Revolution to Cold War Period

    From the period of Revolution to Cold War, there was a huge policy shift in Russia: from the anarchical Tsarist approach to a socialist approach following the philosophy introduced by Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. Coined as Marxism-Leninism, this concept has became popular not only in Russia but throughout the world as it gained support from the proletariat or the grassroots in different oppressed countries. This has also signaled the birth of different communist party around the world when Lenin “organized alliance with the people of the oppressed countries.”[3] Russia has been proclaiming Marxism-Leninism as its official state ideology. The core of this concept is the shift from capitalism to socialism.

    After the death of Lenin, Joseph Stalin took the leadership of the Soviet Union. He launched Russia’s economic policy of “command economy,” holding to the concept of socialist approach. The outcome of this campaign was also obvious in other countries through the emergence of stronger communist parties under the umbrella of Communist International led, of course, by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (by the Bolsheviks).

    Considered another successful approach in foreign policy employed by the Bolsheviks under the Marxism-Leninism ideology is its “demonstrative diplomacy.” In this approach, the Bolsheviks used “negotiations as a propaganda forum, to appeal over the heads of the diplomats and directly to their people.”[4] Employing this approach as a form of foreign policy had widened the reach of Soviet Union and in turn gained them more influence. Under this policy, too, Russia was able to negotiate with the Nazis in Germany. Russia was also able to establish a friendly relation with the US and France for its advantage; and this was realized through a three-way meeting in Tehran in 1943.

    I.C. The Cold War Period

    At the early stage of the Cold war, among the successful effort of the USSR in diplomatic works was the conference among state premiers in Geneva in 1954. In this meeting, several resolutions were reached. Among others, the conference was a landmark victory for the Asian communism, namely those in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam as they were freed from French occupation.  During this period, too, Russia strengthened its foreign engagements in Eastern Europe to include the signing of the Warsaw Pact. This pact was USSR’s response to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance with Germany. Russia was also successful in its negotiation in Central Europe, resulting to the Austrian State Treaty in 1955.

    During this period, Russia also became a strong economic player particularly as major exporter of warfare supplies to the East. Russia has also projected itself as a superpower in the space race when it launched its “sputnik” space rocket in 1957. Shortly after that, it also announced about its missile emplacements, though the authors claimed that it was a superstitious.[5]

    When Nikita Khrushchev took the leadership of the USSR, this time Russia issued a friendlier foreign policy. Among others, it specifically enumerated five policies[6], but all is anchored towards the first, which is “pursuing a policy of peaceful coexistence.” It was also through this new set of friendlier policies that the heightened military and economic competition during the Cold War ended. Russia was by that time more considerate and accommodating to other foreign powers. It also took a friendlier stand with other countries. As a result, it was able to enter into a détente with 35 states. The same period also signaled the start of “US-Soviet cooperation in other social aspects such medicine, public health, the environment, space, and the prevention of naval incidents.”[7] Agreement on the Prevention of the Nuclear War was also signed.

    Afterwhich, Foreign Minister Gorvachev, a reformist himself, steered Russia’s foreign policy into what he termed a “new thinking.” Under this new framework, the Russia shifted from the power of too much bureaucracy. This move was consistent with its effort to gain economic reforms. This policy gained support from the US, which in turn benefited the USSR budget.  The ultimate result of this more accommodating policy is the end of the forty years old Cold War through signing of different peace agreements and treaties such as the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) and the Treaty of Friendship between Germany and the USSR (1990).

    I.D. Domestic Factors in the Making of the Russian Foreign Policy

    The shaping of Russian foreign policy had been also influenced by both the outside powers and the Russians themselves. For one, most of the Russian policies became successful only when backed by popular support of the people – take for example the Marxism-Leninism, the “new thinking” philosophy and few more others like the policy issued by Foreign minister Primakov in 1996.[8] Since the communist party took the approval of the majority consent of the proletariat in its decision, therefore the people has its voices spoken and heard in the processes. The emergence of the public opinions also greatly shaped the transformation of Russia from the Tsarist period to becoming democratic state as it is trying to project today.

    It is also evident that Russia had primary consideration on its survival, thus opening again its door to foreign cooperation; a turn-around decision from its previous stand on national dependency. The great pressures from other world’s superpowers like US and France has also shaped USSR foreign policy such as entering into agreements of lessening its arms and withdrawing its support for the development of nuclear program such as the case of Iran.

    As both factors had been vividly considered, the determining factor of the success of any policy was still through the popular support of the masses. The success of the Communist Party in Russia and Communist International was a clear evidence of how the masses can hugely shape the state’s foreign policy landscape.

    I.E. Russia, the Near Abroad, the West and the Non-West

    From the previous chapters, it was evident that Russia’s foreign policy was never uniform. Its approaches were varied depending on the interests it has on a certain country.  For the Near Abroad, or its former colony, the policy of Russia is not that clear as it has still the intention to control those states. But the road to fulfilling that goal is not that smooth since the states under Near Abroad are very unique and different from one another. The needs of each state – socially, culturally and economically – is more varied that Russia had a hard timer to regain those states to its fold or at least to convince them to support its policies.

    For the West, Russia is more cooperating than before. A big change in its policy is from being bipolar into a multi-polar. Acknowledging maybe its fall in economic and military power, Russia had adopted friendlier agreement with other foreign powers – such as arms reduction and arms sales and opening its door to foreign capitalist in exchange for some trade agreements and other assistance.  Through its consistent and persistent effort, Russia was accepted into the exclusive Group of 8 or G8 (formerly G7 and G6). Its policy toward the US and France had also been soft compared before when Russia was still USSR.

    For the Non-West, Russia is still a world power. It still serves as the main market for weapons and military supplies to countries in East and Southeast Asia, notably India. It has also maintained military-political alliance with China. Sino-Russian trade relationship has also brought big profits for both countries. But unlike before, Russia’s hand is not that free to interfere in other matters as it is closely watched by other super powers such as the US and other European states.

    II – About the Book

    “The Foreign Policy of Russia: Changing Systems, Enduring Interests” is a book written by known political scientist Robert H. Donaldson of University of Tulsa and famous author Joseph L. Nogee.  The book presents, in historical chronology and by geographic setting, the Foreign Policy of Russia since the Tsarist period to its modern-day government.  The book also presents the factors and influences that authors saw was evident in shaping the Russia’s diplomatic ties with other countries. The more than 300 pages book was published in 1998 by M. E. Sharpe, Inc. in New York.

    III – The Author’s Thesis

    There are some claims made by the authors as the book progressed, but two major theses were repeatedly mentioned in the stretch of their writing. And, those are: Russia’s foreign policy has been influenced by both the international system and domestic factors. The two factors had an overwhelming influence since the Marxist-Leninist period of USSR until the modern-day Russia.

    On the influence of international system, take for example how the Russia’s socialist policy had been sacrificed when demanded by other superpowers. It was evident when Russia agreed to open its market in exchange of its entry to the exclusive G8. Pressures from US and other countries including the resistance of its former colony – the Near Abroad and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) – have definitely shifted Russia’s foreign policy.

    Meanwhile, on domestic factors, the authors identified the influences in two ways.   First is the demand and need of the people for survival – economically, socially, and politically. This has to be properly addressed first or else no foreign policy will be accepted by them. And to suffice that demand, the state has to accommodate some policy shift including additional economic activities for the people.  Secondly, the existence of different influences among groups and individuals inside the government is yet another factor. The state definitely has to assure that the popular majority should be under its fold if it wanted its foreign policy or any policy for that matter to take off.

    IV – Problems in the Authors’ Approach

    Overall, the approach used by the authors is satisfactorily, at least when one is looking it at the viewpoint of history. The interpretation of every decision or policy has been taken with elaborate understanding – taking into consideration both the internal and external influences as well as other factors such as survivability of the Russians and Russia in general, most specifically in terms of economic and political context. True to its title, the book was able to present The Foreign Policy of Russia in the context of Changing Systems and Enduring Interests.

    Just a point to add maybe, if the authors are considering revision of the book, it would be better if one chapter is dedicated to comparison of Russia’s foreign policy to the policies of other countries – especially those considered superpowers such as the US, France, Japan, and other European countries. By that presentation, a reader will somehow get a grasp of comparison to really see how the foreign policies are different or consistent with one another from one country to the other.

    Another thing is that I see redundancy in his presentation of information. His first three chapters tackled the Russia’s policy according to historical chronology while chapters’ five to seven presented the same topic but this time according to geographical division. I find it redundant because some of the Russia’s foreign policy presented in the second half of the book had already been mentioned in the first part. I think those are the only points that the author might consider when evaluating the book later. But overall, the presentation was clear. Some areas was presented briefly, nonetheless it was jam-packed with information.

    V – Implications to Author’s Conclusion

    Consistent to their theses, the authors in their conclusion still hold to their claim that influence of international system and domestic factors as the forces responsible in shaping the foreign policy of Russia. In the former thesis, the authors claimed that when the international community put pressures on a certain country, foreign policy can rarely be anchored “on the principle of national sovereignty (or anarchy) in absolute terms.[9]” It states that “international norms, economic interdependence, or the power of other states” still hold effects on individual foreign policy of every state. And since this is the reality, it concluded further that the state like Russia has to consider the “tools of statecraft – diplomacy, armaments, political and military alignment – for self-protection.”[10] These realities were very much evident as the authors of the book identified at least six general instances (the authors called it general variable[11]) of policy shift taken by Russia, and all those six were noticeably sacrificing the ideals of national sovereignty, or at least its part.

    Another thing, which the authors have considered another deciding factor in the foreign policy of Russia, is the emergence of “public opinion.”[12] Public opinion refers to the popular sentiments of the people on certain issues including foreign policies. As majority of the people are still embodying the spirit of nationalism, it is therefore a tough job for the government to proceed with policies that might undermine it. In Russia, this happened in the elections in 1993 and 1995 where the people favored those who are opposing foreign policies that have sacrificed national sovereignty.

    The conclusions of the authors were presented as a summary of the book though it contained some prescriptions that might have a heavier connotations or implications. Though it is true that every state has to invest in the tools of statecraft, the prescriptions of the actual activities to be taken such as taking armaments, political and military alignments might bring different (or violent) tone to others. On the other hand, the seven enumerated variables that have influenced Russia’s foreign policy is very good materials for students of history and politics.

    Furthermore, the prescription on the emergence of public opinion might also send a two-way message. One is that it connotes people- or citizenry-empowerment but others might took it as an assurance that protests and public demonstrations (sometimes it would turn excessive) should be the key to influence politicians to act for their welfare.

    VI – Weakness in the Authors’ Arguments

    Overall, the presentation of the information and arguments is consistent. It shows that the authors have conducted a lengthy research and reading regarding Russia’s foreign policy. From the first chapter to the last, there is a clear sequencing in the delivery of the information. The only shortcoming of this writing maybe is because it was presented in historical chronology therefore some of the points or policies fall short of elaboration for space constraint. Persistent to my claim earlier, I still believe that a presentation of foreign policies from other states will give a clearer comparison and understanding of every arguments presented. As noted, the presentation tackled Russia’s policy single-handedly. It would have give a reader a wider understanding if another foreign policies of one state or two were simultaneously tackled. In this way, a clearer view on why Russia has to resort to its decision has a comparative flavor.



    Donaldson, R. H., & Nogee, J. L. (1998).  The Foreign Policy of Russia: Changing Systems, Enduring Interests. New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.

    [1] Robert H. Donaldson and Joseph L. Nogee, The Foreign Policy of Russia: Changing Systems, Enduring Interests (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1998)
    [2] Ibid., see p. 19
    [3] Ibid., 29
    [4] Ibid., 38
    [5] Ibid., 72-73
    [6] Ibid., 70
    [7] Ibid., 84
    [8] Ibid., see pages 119-120
    [9] Ibid., 284
    [10] Ibid., 285
    [11] Ibid., see 285
    [12] Ibid., 291

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