Ronald Schneider was born in Minneapolis and attended school in Valley City, North Dakota. He graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in 1954 at the head of his class and continued his studies in political science at Princeton University, receiving an MA in 1956 and a PhD in 1958. His first book was Communism in Guatemala: 1944–1954, published at the end of 1959. By that time he was working as a political analyst in the State Department, a learning experience enlivened by a temporary assignment to the Embassy in Rio de Janeiro at the behest of then Ambassador Lincoln Gordon.
From 1963 to 1970 he taught at Columbia as an associate professor of public law and government and was active in the Institute of Latin American Studies, then headed by the late Charles Wagley. Becoming a professor of political science at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, he produced four books on Brazil while serving as general editor of a series of studies on individual Latin American nations. After 2000 he devoted his efforts to a comprehensive volume, Latin American Political History: Patterns and Personalities. Having worked extensively on Central and South America, in 2007 he undertook a study of the Dominican Republic that resulted in Caribbean Crusader: Leonel Fernández and the Transformation of the Dominican Republic.