What Can Russia Teach Us about Change? Status-Seeking as a Catalyst for Transformation in International Politics
Although a general task of social science is to measure and predict change, international relations (IR) paradigms and theories have been unable to keep up with the rapid pace and destabilizing effects of change in international politics. When addressing Russia, IR’s “change problem” becomes clearer: the world’s largest country is treated as an object struggling to adjust to changes rather than a protagonist introducing them into the system. Yet, twice within the last quarter century, Russia has acted as a catalyst for changes in international politics that few saw coming and which confounded IR paradigms. The Soviet leadership’s decision to withdraw from the Cold War standoff and dismantle its empire in Eastern Europe was one of the most surprising events of the twentieth century. Russia’s interventions in Ukraine, Syria, and the 2016 US presidential elections have similarly caught most observers by surprise. IR theories have struggled to account for these actions and have not been able to integrate Soviet/Russian behavior into their larger understanding of change in international politics. Our underlying premise is to treat Russia (in both its Soviet and present-day incarnations) seriously as an agent of transformational change in international politics. Most theories that deal with transformational change focus on the effects of larger social and economic forces. However, change is seldom a smooth, linear process. Larger global forces may be operating, but individual agents catalyze changes produced by these deeper historical forces. What is needed to understand Russian foreign policy decision making is an evolutionary theory of change that is able to integrate historical (root) causes of change with proximate and contingent ones. In both cases examined in this paper, larger historical root causes push the international system toward change, but Russia’s status aspirations and status dissatisfaction have been the proximate causes catalyzing change.