Contested Identity and Foreign Policy: Interpreting Russia’s International Choices

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Contested Identity and Foreign Policy: Interpreting Russia’s International Choices

In International Studies Perspectives, Vol. 14, No. 1, March, 2013.


This paper develops a framework for interpreting state international policy by treating national identity as inherently contested. Building on insights from constructivist literature, it proposes a technique for establishing the meaning of foreign policy action on several inter-related levels: state-based, society-based, and international. The paper illustrates the benefits of the approach by selecting the example of Russia’s European diplomacy under President Dmitri Medvedev. By studying how officials themselves justify their policies and how these policies are then perceived in broader social and international settings, we have an opportunity to develop a rich understanding of a particular state action, as well as tentatively assess the chances of this action’s success or failure.

Contested Identity and Foreign Policy:

Interpreting Russia’s International Choices
Identity is “the name of what we desire but can never fully attain”

Jacques Lacan (as cited in Nabers 2007, 195)


Studying foreign policy remains a challenge for international relations scholars. Sometimes it seems as though the more we research and teach the subject, the more we discover the limitations of existing tools and approaches. One enduring dilemma in foreign policy studies is how one can understand state actions during periods of rapid change and domestic uncertainty. Here, some analytic tools prove less appropriate than others. For instance, focusing on the belief systems of the ruling elites may prove less reliable than analyzing the whole spectrum of existing foreign policy views and examining the international discourse extant in the society. Yet, the fact that every state is influenced by ideas coming from across the social spectrum may present not only a dilemma, but also an opportunity for those seeking to understand a particular state policy.

This paper develops a framework for interpreting state international policy by treating national identity as inherently contested. Foreign policy is subject to constant discussion by politicians, scholars, and the general public. As an interplay of ideas developed within a nation, foreign policy may be interpreted from both a state and society perspective. It may also be either supported or rejected by other nations. Building on insights from constructivist literature, I propose a technique for establishing the meaning of foreign policy action on several inter-related levels: state-based, society-based, and international. By studying how officials themselves justify their policies and how these policies are then perceived in broader social and international settings, we have an opportunity to develop a rich understanding of a particular state action, as well as tentatively assess the chances of this action’s success or failure.

The paper is organized in three sections. The next section explains the importance of studying the social contexts of state actions, as well as the choices available to foreign policy actors. Such a context-specific and actor-sensitive approach provides the necessary balance for understanding the role that identity contestation plays in foreign policy formulation. The following section proposes five necessary steps for developing a compelling interpretation of state policy. These steps include recording state policy, establishing its official explanation, locating policy and its level of support within the national context, tracking policy’s international recognition, and comparing policy to other relevant cases. The final section illustrates the benefits of the approach by selecting the example of Russia’s European diplomacy under President Dmitri Medvedev.

Foreign Policy and Identity Contestation

Foreign Policy: the Challenge of Interpretation

A practically relevant theory of foreign policy must begin by establishing a meaningful context in which a policymaker acts and seeks to achieve his/her goals. In the world of human interactions, beliefs and emotions are often behind what ostensibly are rationally-calculated decisions. Rather than assuming what an action means to those initiating it, scholarly responsibility demands that we are to establish it by studying the relevant social and political contexts. This paper proceeds on the assumption that any foreign policy action is a social phenomenon and cannot be adequately understood without fully exploring the context in which it is formed.1 Studying such context is indispensable to recovering the meaning of action.

The approach advocated in this paper seeks to avoid the extremes of positivism and relativism. I do not treat interpretivist and explanatory/positivist perspectives on foreign policy as incompatible.2 While each perspective has its own ontological and epistemological assumptions, some room should be granted for juxtaposing and comparing various questions about state international behavior generated by diverse perspectives. Although positivists typically privilege the “why” question, it is not the only important question about state foreign policy, and it should not be explored at the expense of questions, such as “how” and “in which context” state action takes place and what it may mean for future international interactions. On the other hand, the position that takes any interpretation as relative and sensible only to the interpreter is also limited in terms of theory development. If no two scholars can agree on how a particular action may be interpreted, then the chosen approach has failed to specify its validity criteria (Pouliot 2007, 363; Howard 2010, 398).

Rather than adopting either of these views, this paper’s approach combines insights from both interpretivism and positivism. I retain the interpretivist commitment to viewing the world as a social interaction, not a natural necessity, and I view the establishment of action’s context as ultimately the most important scholarly task. I take it for granted that even the so-called “objective” factors that provide foreign policy agents with choices cannot be fully separated from the context in which they act. Capabilities of material power, for example, serve as such only when they are socially processed and socially embedded (Mattern 2001; Barnett and Duvall 2005; Guzzini 2005). Conversely, states and other agents have options regarding the international system. The social context is therefore thick enough to shape the inter-subjective meanings of all involved actors, but not enough to deprive them of meaningful choices. As Michael Barnett (2002, 61) writes, while “cultural foundations make possible and desirable certain actions”, these actions also depend on institutional and ideational environment, and actors’ strategies of shifting the cultural landscape. The logic of the approach requires that we treat the social context as layered, heterogeneous, and one with multiple possibilities for all participants.

Such context-specific and actor-sensitive of an approach places limitations on employing grand theories for interpreting action or policy, especially if such theories are generated outside a meaningful context. IR scholarship is grounded in certain social conditions and reflects ideological and cultural premises of a certain community. For example, Western international relations research often reflects political, ideological, and epistemological biases of Western, particularly American, culture (Hoffmann 1977; Crawford and Jarvis 2001; Inayatullah and Blaney 2004; Jones 2006; Tsygankov and Tsygankov 2010). If adequate interpretation of a locally-meaningful action or policy is to be constructed, existing IR knowledge ought to be tested in the indigenous context. For instance, the three Rs of international relations thinking introduced by the British scholar Martin Wight3 may only serve as a starting point for researching the foreign policy of a non-Western country, but this classification will not be able to capture what is culturally specific or unique to that country’s context. Local intellectual currents and local types of political, historical and moral reasoning regarding the country’s international behavior should be explored on their own terms. Those seeking to escape intellectual dependence on socially-external knowledge should therefore try to address the threat of subverting indigenous theoretical impulses explicitly (Tsygankov and Tsygankov 2007; Tickner and Waever 2009; Pellerin 2010; Hamati-Ataya 2011).Russia is a case in point. Its foreign policy has been explored from variety of analytical angles, and its actions have elicited a number of disagreements among scholars and policy makers. While some interpret contemporary Russia as largely accommodationist and non-threatening to the West, others perceive the Kremlin’s objectives as expansionist and disrespectful of existing international rules. Whatever aspects of Russia’s foreign policy they research – relations with its neighbors, Western countries, or Asia and the Middle East – scholars frequently find themselves arguing over what Russia is trying to achieve in international politics and how it perceives its contemporary national interests.4 In each of these areas, the debate on Russia’s international objectives and their meaning remains central. The arrival of Barak Obama to power and his attempts to “reset” relations with Russia is yet to clarify the question of the motives of the Kremlin’s international behavior.5 The question remains which policy the Western nations should advance toward Russia. If its interests and ambitions are legitimate, the West is better off trying to engage Russia as an equal contributor to shaping the global system. If, however, Moscow harbors revisionist plans, it may represent a threat to Western interests and must be either contained or fundamentally transformed. This debate may not be resolved without studying how Russians themselves reason about their international options.
Identity Contestation

The debate on Russia’s foreign policy orientation and its historical salience6 suggests the importance of exploring an identity-based interpretation of state international behavior. Not just Russia but all national governments are, to a certain extent, open to the influence of ideas across the political and intellectual spectrum. Ideas are markers of identity, and examining their historical and contemporary salience is essential in revealing a country’s foreign policy alternatives. American culture, for example, has developed not one but many ways of making sense of the world, and scholars have identified several influential schools in the country’s international thinking. Different schools among the American elite have reacted to the world differently, and their reactions have evolved over time (Callahan 2004). According to Walter Russell Mead (2002), American traditions of thinking about international politics included Alexander Hamilton’s promotion of American enterprise abroad, Woodrow Wilson’s commitment to spreading the United States values, William Jefferson’s belief in the preservation of American democracy in a dangerous world, and Andrew Jackson’s pride in honor, independence and military power. To the extent they have endured, these traditions of thinking continue to shape the country’s foreign policy. For example, this competition within American identity has been vital in determining the country’s direction after 9/11. If Al Gore had defeated George W. Bush in 2000, the United States post-9/11 policy might have been very different, and probably would have not included the decision to intervene in Iraq militarily.

The identity contestation cautions us against overestimating the thickness of cultural norms and the restraints it places on a nation’s behavioral choices. Identity should be viewed as a variable and ever-evolving product of interacting ideas and practices, rather than something constant. As scholars of identity (Abdelal et al. 2006, 700) argue “[t]he content – the collective meaning – of identities is neither fixed nor predetermined. Rather … [i]ndividuals are constantly proposing and shaping the meanings of the groups to which they belong.”7 Even if “shared” in some important sense, cultures are not homogeneous and resemble more an “open-ended text,” than a “closed book” (Inayatullah and Blaney 1999, 320). They can be usefully viewed as existing among multiple levels and attitudes. First, they exist among three distinct and mutually interrelated groups—leadership, the political elite, and larger society—each with their own attitude and internal structure or institutions. These groups can be relatively independent; they move, adapt to changes, and react to external ideas with various speeds and intensities. Second, even when ideas cut across the elites’ and society’s levels, and represent some larger patterns of discursive agreement, the discourse incorporates both hegemonic and recessive trends, rather than being able to form an ultimate unity.8 For example, national discourse can be viewed as competition of globally and nationally oriented visions, in which Globalists support cooperation in world politics, whereas Nationalists emphasize national interests and the struggle for power.

Russia, again, suggests itself as a testing ground for the thick/thin identity controversy. The thick constructivist believes that identity is a given social reality, not a choice to be made, and individuals do not have the luxury of thinking outside their identity boundaries. Alternatively, the thin constructivist allows for an identity to be fundamentally contested and reinterpreted, even as s/he grants that identity cannot be chosen. Examples of thick constructivism may be drawn from scholarship on international norms that, once established, travel across the world and teach nations how to think about their interests (e.x. Finnemore 1996; Barnett and Finnemore 2004). Another relevant body of research is that on the emergence of security communities (Adler and Barnett 1998; Acharya 2001; Adler 2005). For example, building on the latter research, Vincent Pouliot’s (2010) study of NATO-Russia interaction seeks to document the emergence of a security community between the two after the Cold War. The study argues that in process of intense interactions within the framework of the NATO-Russia Council, the two sides learned to normalize disputes and cooperate on the ground. The security norm has proven strong enough to exclude possible violent confrontation between Russia and NATO. As a result, crises in their relations with each other – Kosovo, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, and the Georgia War – did not lead to a military standoff. Other scholars documented the importance of interactions with the West for Russia’s identity construction (Wendt 1987; Neumann 1996; Ringman 2002). In this perspective, Russia develops its self-understanding through relationships with Western nations and in response to European norms of human rights, networks of experts, and respect for great power status (Herman 1996; Evangelista 1999; English 2000; Larson and Shevchenko 2010).

What is less appreciated by the thick constructivists is Russia’s intense debate over identity construction and the domestic contestation of the benefits of adopting Western norms (Hopf 2002; Clunan 2009; Tsygankov 2010). For interpreters of foreign policy, ignoring the politics of identity may come at the cost of misunderstanding the policy’s sources and future direction. Although the external “other” exerts the decisive influence on the self, the self and the other are not uniform in transmitting or receiving the identity message. In the case of Russia, it is one thing if the West demonstrates accomplishments in institutions-building, economic prosperity and human rights protection, yet it is an entirely different matter if Western nations use force and rely on their great power abilities. While the former actions prompt Russia to liberalize, the latter encourage it to maintain its strength and beat Western nations at their own power game. Not only will the conflicting external message be interpreted differently at home, but the local historical practices too may provide independent filters through which Russia will weigh its international options. In the post-Cold War world, Russia has already demonstrated its divergence from the West in assessments of foreign policy interests and, despite severe criticism from the Western other, the Kremlin has used energy coercion and military force to affirm the identity of a great power.
Interpreting Foreign Policy: Five Necessary Steps

Interpreting foreign policy involves at least five steps. It makes logical sense to begin with monitoring state actions and then proceed to interpreting their meaning in various national and international contexts. A successful foreign policy is never fundamentally disruptive to the existing system of cultural values. Such policy is successful to the extent it is able to gain recognition in various local and global settings, thereby objectivizing the initially subjective interpretation. The final step involves a comparison of policy to other similar cases.

Recording State Actions

Recording state actions is equivalent to the establishment of social facts for their subsequent holistic understanding. Any policy involves a series of state actions that, taken together, constitute a social reality open to interpretations.9 Here, the analyst constructs a chronology of actions and asks descriptive questions, such as: what were the key statements issued by state officials? When and where were these statements made? What practical steps did accompany these statements? What results did they produce? The overall objective is to establish whether these actions constitute a coherent policy that separates it from policies undertaken in the past.

Interpreting the Official Documents

The next step is to establish how state actions are viewed by those immediately responsible for them. Here, analyst seeks to understand a vision that informs state actions and motivations that inspire such vision. The analyst should avoid excessive pre-structuring of his interpretation by creating categories for understanding official documents from within, rather than outside, these documents. Metaphors, predicates, types of expressions, sentences structure, examples, and historical analogies used should serve as sufficient basis for developing a perspective on how a vision behind policy is different from past visions. Some questions to guide the scholar in reconstructing a policy vision may include the following: What language is used to characterize the country/region toward which policy is introduced? Is the country/region or the other viewed as partner, friend, ally or something else? What self-characterizations are employed? Are there any specific expressions used with regard to the self’s values, degree of confidence, and types of relations with other? Intrinsically related to understanding policy vision is the analysis of motivations behind it. Here some helpful questions might be: how does the state justify the need for policy? What characterizations are employed for viewing historical, political and ethical contexts in which policy is introduced? Is there a reflection on alternative courses of action and their consequences?

Such an inductive approach may save analyst from embracing inaccurate interpretations that may result from some strongly held ideological, theoretical, and ethical assumptions. One example of a flawed interpretation is the view of Mikhail Gorbachev’s New Thinking that presents him as an overseer of the Soviet retreat in the face of the growing institutional and military strength of West-centered world (Brooks and Wohlforth 2001). Not only does such an interpretation define Gorbachev’s emphasis on “mutual security” in the globally interdependent world in excessively narrow terms, but it also ignores New Thinking’s local roots (English 2001). While being prepared to learn from other nations and social systems, Gorbachev remained a committed socialist and a believer that the whole world would be influenced by the socialist experience. His thinking contained elements of moral messianism10 and meant to revive, not abandon, faith in socialism as a social system.
Locating Policy within National Schools of Thought

Having established how a state conceptualizes and justifies policy, we are ready to move to the next level of interpretation. It is not enough to understand what actions mean to those immediately responsible for them. One should also determine which social actors accept policy, what explains their acceptance and how that acceptance plays into an overall national perception of policy. By learning about the level of national support for policy, we learn to what extent a subjective meaning of policy is shared by broader social strata, thereby obtaining an inter-subjective quality.

An appropriate tool for learning about national acceptance of policy is the analysis of existing schools of foreign policy thinking. The schools-of-thought approach examines the discourse extant in the society and attitudes that it holds toward the self and the other at a given time, as well as historically (Mead 2002; Callahan 2004; Tsygankov 2004, 2010). Each school may be defined as an idea-based community that has been formed in response to various historical developments. Together, schools of thought reveal the country’s competing identities that constantly evolve, but also reproduce themselves across time and space. Employing schools-of-thought approach is invaluable for two reasons. First, it allows us to explore the inter-subjective meaning that is horizontally across national discourse at a given time. This may be particularly important during times of domestic and international uncertainty, when national identity is highly contested and foreign policy is especially open to the influence of ideas across the political spectrum. Second, the approach allows us to historicize the policy meaning by revealing whether it reflects the already established historical patterns in the system of national perception.

In order to determine to what extent a subjective meaning of policy is disseminated across its nationally defined space, some helpful questions may include the following: what are logical possibilities of the self’s relating to the other? How do such possibilities correlate with existing national schools of foreign policy thinking? What images of the self and the other do each of these schools hold? What metaphors and historical analogies do they most commonly rely on? Who are these schools’ social, political and institutional supporters? Is there a school that is closest to the supporting policy and its official meaning? If such a hegemonic school does not exist, are there segments within different schools that may be listed as supportive of policy? Do supporters of policy have ties to its initiators within the state? Who are the policy’s opponents? What are their resources to challenge policy?

Russian reactions to NATO’s air strikes on Yugoslavia in 1999 may help to illustrate the schools-of-thought approach. At the time, the official position of military neutrality was challenged by hard-line nationalists, who argued for Russia’s involvement on the Serbian side. According to nationalists, the efforts of NATO had nothing to do with human rights but sought to dismember Yugoslavia into several independent states and, by default, threatened the sovereignty of Russia as well. Nationalists relied on the Munich analogy by drawing a historical parallel between NATO’s actions and the beginning of the Second World War. To them, it was NATO’s actions that were equated with those of Hitler, not those of Serbia. Russia therefore had to demonstrate the readiness to go to war with an aggressor, and not to “appease” it. Although other schools of thought had no stomach for confrontation with the Western alliance, Russian nationalists helped to push the overall discourse in the direction of militant anti-Western rhetoric. The official position of sustaining cooperation with the West was severely undermined, paving the way for Russia’s future emphasis on the need to develop the capabilities of a great power. Such emphasis resonated across the national discourse partly because criticism of NATO helped to revive the historical memory of resisting the West during the Cold War (Tsygankov 2001).
Tracking International Recognition

In addition to the national discourse, the state seeks to objectivize the meaning of its policy on an international level. International recognition constitutes yet another critical test of whether an initially subjective vision may be granted broader global support. All nations have their external others and seek to engage them through their policies. A foreign policy may generate hope for success when it is supported at home, yet it will not be successful until it is supported by its targeted outside audience. The reverse combination of external support and internal divide too is not likely to generate a definitive success. Table 1 summarizes the two hypothesized conditions of foreign policy success.


By providing moral, diplomatic, financial and institutional support for the state, the outside world legitimizes its behavior and encourages it to stay on the chosen path and not deviate to revisionist behavior. In this case, rather than following the reception by national schools of thought, the scholar monitors reactions from representative members of the international community. In particular she may ask: what reactions from other(s) did the policy generate? May these reactions be viewed as generally supportive, cautiously supportive, or critical? Which parts of policy are accepted and rejected? Is there a position that is especially close to supporting policy? Do this position’s supporters have connections to the policy’s initiators? Who are the policy’s opponents? What are their reasons to oppose the policy and what resources are there to challenge it? What explanations for such reactions are provided by governments and experts? Relative to the national reception, does the international reception run in the same or the opposite direction?

Russia has historically sought to be recognized by the West and achieve its objectives in cooperation with Western nations. With progressive leaders in the Kremlin, Russia has been responsive to the behavior of the West and prepared to pursue cooperation, rather than confrontation. However, each time Russia has begun its movement toward its significant other, Moscow has only continued so long as it felt a sufficiently progressive recognition of and reciprocation from Western capitals. Russia’s cultural lenses are different from those of Western nations, and such lenses are formed by locally distinct historical memory, ties with historic allies and contemporary challenges. In the absence of the external recognition of Russia’s actions, the reform-minded leadership in the Kremlin historically runs into opposition from advocates of anti-Western policy.

An example of the negative recognition dynamic is the role played by NATO’s expansion in Russia’s shift from cooperative to assertive policy toward the West. In the early 1990s, NATO leaders ignored Gorbachev’s proposal to build a pan-European security architecture by pursuing a strategy of preserving the alliance and keeping Russia out of it (Sarrotte 2010). The West then embarked on several waves of enlarging NATO by incorporating Russia’s neighbors and continuing to ignore Moscow’s increasingly vocal demands to recognize its security interests. While insisting that they did not view Russia as a threat, the Western nations concluded two rounds of NATO expansion. Since the second half of the 2000s they began pushing for Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance. In 2009, NATO even developed secret contingency plans to protect the Baltic States against Russia as a potential threat.11 Russia responded by shifting from a policy of partnership with the West to demonstrating independence and a determination to stop NATO's expansion. The Kremlin strengthened its ties with Georgia's separatist territories, went to war with Tbilisi and recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Outside the Caucasus, Russia’s foreign policy too became considerably less cooperative with the Western nations.

Comparing Policy to Other Relevant Cases

The final step in interpreting policy involves a comparison to other cases. State actions and the policy vision upon which they rest are rarely fully independent from actions pursued in other policy areas. A larger strategic vision usually guides several policies, and not only the one of direct interest to the scholar. Therefore, one can expect a reasonable degree of consistency across several types of the vision-inspired policies. In addition to studying a policy’s immediate social context, one can then expand the analysis by identifying a broader universe of policy-relevant cases and selecting one for a closer investigation. The latter may serve as approximation of an external validity test of the established meaning of policy. The objective of the test is to learn whether a subjective meaning and objectivization of an additional policy case is generally congruent with that of the original case. For example, if Russia’s European policy in the early 1990s sought to incorporate the country into existing international institutions, such as the European Union and NATO, then one may reasonably expect that Moscow’s policies in non-European directions – Asia, the Middle East, the United States, and the former Soviet world – would not be fundamentally disruptive to the European objectives. Alternatively, one should not expect Moscow to pursue pro-Western objectives in global settings, if Russia’s own relations with the West are not cooperative.

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