Theorizing Russian Decline (Reviewing an IR paper for a Journal)


A lot of what we do in IR is peer review of others work. This is a useful exercise and displaying an anonymous one on a blog is a good glimpse into what we do. This paper was written about Russian foreign policy toward Korea. For my collected thoughts on Russia, try here.

“1. The English is excellent. Most of the suggestions I made are stylistic not grammatical. Well done. I recommend however, that you follow my edits before you submit. They will make it easier for anglophone reviewers to read. Also, I think the paper is far too long for most journals. Finally, it is unclear to what kind of journal you want to submit this. It feels like you are aiming for a policy journal like the Far East Economic Review, but it is too long for that.

2. I think the paper lacks a concrete thesis to tie it together. It seemed more like a history of Russian SK foreign policy from Gorby to Putin. You introduced realism and IR theory early in the paper, but they never came back. I didn’t find much theoretical connective tissue between the sections, especially between the presidencies, nor any theoretical wrap-up at the end of the paper. I think you need to tell me a theoretical story that all this data about Russian-Korean interaction can explain. For example, the shift in Russian foreign policy toward SK from ideological opposition to pragmatic realism could illustrate the ‘normalization’ of Russian foreign policy. Most states pursue an interest-based foreign policy, but the USSR allowed ideology to dictate alliance picks. By the mid-80s that was no longer sustainable; the percent of global GDP of the Soviet alliance network was half that of the US network. The USSR was losing the Cold War. So a good IR theory story here is the corrosive effects of great power politics on foreign policy ideology. Or you could tell a story about post-imperial foreign policy. How do former empires or superpowers try to restore their influence , respect, or likeability, especially among wary neighbors? Yeltsin tried to be nice to the neighbors after 75 years of belligerence. Putin decided Yeltsin was a wimp, so he has bullied in Eastern Europe (gas-shut offs, Georgia) and spoiled in East Asia (trouble-making in the 6-party process through an informal tilt toward the North).

3. I think you are far too generous and political in your interpretation of Putin’s behavior. Putin has claimed the collapse of the USSR was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th C and that Russia needs to be a respected ‘player’ again, complete with a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and its ‘near abroad.’ This is why EE and former Soviet republics all want to join NATO. I recommend you look at the mainstream western foreign policy literature, like Foreign Affairs, the Economist, Foreign Policy, International Security, or Security Studies. I think you dramatically underrate the strategic value of Russia’s energy diplomacy, the importance of Kremlin control of Russian energy firms, the wariness of states to become Russian energy clients after Georgia, and NK’s extremely erratic behavior (and so the low likelihood of energy or rail projects involving the DPRK). Finally, you didn’t even mention the Georgian invasion. This was the first move the Russian army outside its established borders since the Afghan invasion in 1979. Then as now, the invasion has shifted western attitudes (which means SK and Japan will reconsider too). Putin looks a lot more like a revisionist with semi-hegemonic Russian nationalist aspirations in EE and Central Asia, than a pragmatist looking for investment. How much has the Russian stock market dropped since Georgia?

4. I think your evidence of Putin’s SK diplomacy is weak. Most of the projects in energy and rail you discuss are speculative, not actual, nor do you calculate the impact of the Georgian war on SK’s likelihood to proceed, nor do you account for NK’s behavior on any trans-Korean projects. Also, you don’t provide SK FDI data for the Far East region, which is purportedly the reason that Russia is reaching out to SK. Is there a huge boom of SK investment in Vladivostok or Sakhalin? I don’t believe so. SK-Russian air traffic does not reflect a huge investment boom. My understanding is that most of the investment in Russia’s maritime provinces has been under western oil company and World Bank auspices. The Russian-SK space cooperation is nice, but hardly crucial. Worse, Russian visits to NK have propped up the regime’s international profile, probably making it harder to push for a final status deal with the North. This is not mediating tension, but enabling bad behavior. Russia helped block further UN sanction after the recent missile launch. That is not mediating either, but spoiling. Informal tolerance of NK by Russia (and China) helps NK wriggle free from the punishment of UNSC sanctions, cheat on agreements like the Kaesong deal (now NK wants to change the land rents), etc. Unless the other 5 parties to the 6 party talks close ranks, NK will continue to play one off the other for a better deal. Putin is doing this for the obvious reason that he wants to make life hard for the US, which he sees as a hegemon intent on blocking Russian aspirations. So clouding the issue in Korea is useful way to needle the US and keep it off balance. I don’t believe Putin cares one bit about K unification. The DPRK is a wedge against the US, and SK is a hoped-for investor.”

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