The Social Construction of Russia’s Resurgence: Aspirations, Identity, and Security Interests

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The Social Construction of Russia’s Resurgence: Aspirations, Identity, and Security Interests by Anne L. Clunan. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009, 336 pp.

How do states know what they want? Are they pursuing some unchanging national interests or are these interests actively influenced by the country’s historical and political experience, its identity? These are the main questions guiding the inquiry by Anne Clunan, associate professor in the Naval Postgraduate School, on the sources of modern Russia’s national identity and interests. The book comes at a very opportune moment as Russia’s foreign policy is becoming more and more assertive and Western leaders are struggling to find the right diplomatic approach to deal with it.

Theoretically, the book is a successful attempt to improve the constructivist approach in international relations by advancing the new so-called aspirational constructivism. In her friendly critique of mainstream constructivists, the author correctly points to the insufficiency of the structuralist interpretations of state’s identity formation and—building on the work of social psychologists, particularly the insights from the social identity theory—tries to augment the systemic sources of identity with the domestic ones. In doing so, she emphasizes the importance of a state’s own history, a seemingly obvious point previously unaccounted for by major constructivist scholarship. Political elites, seeking positive self-esteem for their nation, as the social identity theory expects, naturally look into the nation’s past when deriving aspirations for its future. Using three different identity management strategies identified in the book (a certain representation of the self against the significant others who can be treated as an in-group or out-group), they seek to promote their preferred national self-image which is rooted in the ideas about the country’s international status and political purpose. They then test the legitimacy of various rival images in terms of their historical appropriateness and goodness of fit with a real life situation. The image that passes the legitimacy test becomes dominant and defines the contours of national identity driving the national interests.

Bringing the agency back into the picture—pointing at the purposive elites selecting amongst rival national images—the theory proffered by Clunan manages to overcome the much criticized determinism of the structuralist approaches to the state’s identity formation. Unfortunately, in doing so the argument becomes somewhat circular—different national images are advanced by certain elites and are then chosen by the same elites.

Theoretical subtleties of the argument aside, the empirical parts of the book help a great deal in clarifying perhaps the most intriguing puzzle of the contemporary Russian politics—the demise of the liberal democratic or, in the author’s words, “liberal internationalist,” ideas that were briefly on the rise after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the advent of the new ideology of “statism,” popularly expressed in the narratives of “managed democracy” or, more recently, “sovereign democracy” which flourished under the Pres. Vladimir Putin. Contrary to the conventional wisdom found in a lot of the current media that Russia simply wants to regain her lost superpower status and in doing so is ready for direct confrontation with the West, the author develops a more nuanced account of this quick ideational shift. She argues that the liberal ideas did not resonate well with Russia’s historical aspirations influenced by her former great power status which resulted in their growing unpopularity among the dominant political elites. Other national self-images identified in the book—“national restorationist,” “neocommunist,” and “slavophile”—also could not pass the legitimacy test giving way to the moderate “statist” image predicated on the idea of Russia being partly western but also a distinct great power which explains interests in both competition and cooperation with the West.

Empirically, the book relies on the public statements of politicians and various opinion surveys of Russian political elite, offering a comprehensive account of foreign policy debates by the different segments of the elite and elucidating how one national self-image gradually came to dominate over its rivals. Although methodologically rigorous in terms of mapping these debates through the detailed content analysis, the empirical part could gain more from the data transparency, not simply describing but revealing the step-by-step account of the coding process and explaining the rationale behind the use of concrete sources.

Although the book is mainly a theory-building exercise, the empirical chapters are interesting not only in terms of probing the plausibility of the theoretical claims but also in illuminating two very important issues in Russian foreign and security policy—the Russian views on the nature of European security and nuclear arms control. Thus, the empirical chapters will be also useful to the audience who wants to comprehend Russia’s foreign policy conduct in these issue areas. By explicating the importance of status considerations for new Russia’s identity, the author helps to understand the seemingly puzzling dynamic of the Russian foreign policy behavior—the simultaneous cooperation and confrontation with NATO which is termed in the book “competitive engagement” with the West. It is important that, despite the rhetoric of Russia’s uniqueness, the latter remains the in-group which the modernizing Russian state aspires to emulate. Similarly, when delineating the Russian position on the issue of strategic arms control the elites were pre-occupied with the status qualities of the nuclear weapons which resulted in the inferior arrangement with the United States. Thus, the common fears of the new revanchist and aggressive Russia are not necessarily warranted.

In advancing her elegant argument, Anne Clunan makes yet another persuasive case for the relevance of constructivism in understanding the nature of states’ interests, adding to the rationalism-constructivism debate and bringing a much needed sophistication to sometimes one-dimensional images of today’s Russia propagated by the media and policymakers alike. Therefore, the book can be recommended to all those who are interested in contemporary international relations theory, as well as those who want to better understand the conundrums of Russia’s behavior on the world stage.

Evgeny Postnikov

University of Pittsburgh

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."