Perspectives on International Relations and World History


The context and nature of IR have undergone major changes after the Second World War.  Traditionally, world politics was centered on Europe and relations among nations were largely conducted by officials of foreign offices in secrecy.  The common man was hardly ever involved, and treaties were often kept secret.  Today public opinion has begun to play an important role in the decision-making process in foreign offices, thus, changing completely the nature of international relations.  Ambassadors, once briefed by their governments, were largely free to conduct relations according to the ground realities of the countries of their posting.  Today, not only have nuclear weapons changed the nature of war and replaced erstwhile the balance of power by the balance of terror, but also the nature of diplomacy changed as well.  We live in the jet age where the heads of state and government and their foreign ministers travel across the globe and personally establish contacts and conduct international relations.  Before the First World War a traveler from India to Britain spent about 20 days in the sea voyage. Today, it takes less than 9 hours for a jet aircraft to fly from Delhi to London, telephones, fax machines, teleprinters and other electronic devices have brought all government leaders in direct contact.  Hotline communications between Washington and Moscow, for example, keeps the top world leaders in constant touch.  This has reduced the freedom of ambassadors who receive daily instructions from their governments.

Decolonisation has resulted in the emergence of a large number of sovereign states.  The former colonies of the European Powers, including India, have become important actors on the stage of international relations.  They were once silent spectators.  Today, they participate in the conduct of world politics.  The disintegration of the Soviet Union has created 15 members of the United Nations, instead of the previous three.  Some of the very small countries like Nauru may have no power but they also have an equal voice in the General Assembly. Four very small countries viz Liechtenstein, San Marino, Monaco and Andorra were admitted to the U.N. during 1990-1993.  The total number of U.N. members has gone up from 51 in 1945 to 185 in 1997.  Thus, international relations are now conducted by such a large number of new nation-states.  Besides, many non-state actors such as multinational corporations and transnational bodies like terrorist groups have been influencing international relations in a big way.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union as a Super Power, the United States has emerged as the supreme monolithic power and can now dominate the international scene almost without any challenge.  The Non-Alignment Movement [(NAM) still exists but with the dismemberment of one of its founders (i.e.: Yugoslavia) and the disappearance of rival power blocs, the role of the ‘Third World’ has changed along with that of NAM.


International Relations (IR) is closely related with several disciplines.  These include History, Political Science, Law, Economics, and Geography.  What is the utility of the study of IR as a separate subject?  You know that no country in the World can live in isolation.  Even when means of transportation and communication were primitive or much less developed than today, sovereign states did interact with each other.  They cooperated at times, and had frequent conflicts which often led to wars.  Relations among those states were generally studied by Historians and Political Scientists.  Diplomatic History was usually studied for understanding relations among sovereign states.

During the second half of the twentieth century, revolution in the means of travel and communication has only changed the nature of international relations, but made its study essential for every enlightened person.


The Peace of Westphalia Peace of Westphalia, European settlements of 1648, which brought to an end the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and the Dutch and the German phase of the Thirty Years’ War. The peace was negotiated, from 1644, in the Westphalian towns of Münster and Osnabrück. The Spanish-Dutch treaty was signed on January 30, 1648. The treaty of October 24, 1648, comprehended the Holy Roman emperor Ferdinand III, the other German princes, France, and Sweden. England, Poland, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire were the only European powers that were not represented at the two assemblies. Some scholars of international relations credit the treaties with providing the foundation of the modern state system and articulating the concept of territorial sovereignty.

Established the precedent of peace reached by diplomatic congress and a new system of political order in Europe based upon the concept of co-existing sovereign states. Inter-state aggression was to be held in check by a balance of power. A norm was established against interference in another state’s domestic affairs, known as the principle of Westphalian sovereignty. This principle of international law presumes that each state has sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs, to the exclusion of all external powers, on the principle of non-interference in another country’s domestic affairs, and that each state (no matter how large or small) is equal in international law. As European influence spread across the globe, these Westphalian principles, especially the concept of sovereign states, became central to international law and to the prevailing world order. However, the European colonization of Asia and Africa in the 19th century and two global wars in the 20th century dramatically undermined the principles established in Westphalia.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, power was seen as unipolar with the United States in absolute control, though nuclear proliferation and the rise of Japan, the European Union, the Middle East, China, and a resurgent Russia have begun to recreate a multipolar political environment. Instead of a traditional balance of power, inter-state aggression may now be checked by the preponderance of power, a sharp contrast to the Westphalian principle.


In the discipline of International Relations (IR), realism is a school of thought that emphasises the competitive and conflictual side of international relations. Realism’s roots are often said to be found in some of humankind’s earliest historical writings, particularly Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War, which raged between 431 and 404 BCE. Thucydides, writing over two thousand years ago, was not a ‘realist’ because IR theory did not exist in named form until the twentieth century. However, when looking back from a contemporary vantage point, theorists detected many similarities in the thought patterns and behaviours of the ancient world and the modern world. They then drew on his writings, and that of others, to lend weight to the idea that there was a timeless theory spanning all recorded human history. That theory was named ‘realism’.

Realism is an approach to the study and practice of international politics. It emphasizes the role of the nation-state and makes a broad assumption that all nation-states are motivated by national interests, or, at best, national interests disguised as moral concerns.

At its most fundamental level, the national interest is generic and easy to define: all states seek to preserve their political autonomy and their territorial integrity. Once these two interests have been secured, however, national interests may take different forms. Some states may have an interest in securing more resources or land; other states may wish to expand their own political or economic systems into other areas; some states may merely wish to be left alone.

Generally speaking, however, the national interest must be defined in terms of power. National power has an absolute meaning since it can be defined in terms of military, economic, political, diplomatic, or even cultural resources. But, for a realist, power is primarily a relative term: does a state have the ability to defend itself against the power of another state? Does a state have the ability to coerce another state to change that state's policies?

This emphasis on relative, and not absolute power, derives from the realist conception of the international system which is, for the realist, an anarchical environment. All states have to rely upon their own resources to secure their interests, enforce whatever agreements they may have entered into with other states, or to maintain a desirable domestic and international order. There is no authority over the nation-state, nor, for the realist, should there be.

The implications of this refusal to recognize greater authority are important to recognize. The political realist fears centralized authority, unless that authority is derived from the power of his or her own state. The decentralization of the international system permits greater diversity than would be the case with, say, an empire. Since, however, the natural tendency of states is to increase their power, the preservation of a decentralized system must be purchased with force.

The use of force to preserve the decentralized system is regulated by a system called the balance of power. Such a system works only if the major powers agree, at least tacitly, that they agree that the preservation of state autonomy is an important objective. If the major powers do agree, wars will still occur within the system, but those wars will be constrained by the limited objectives of each major state. If one major power does not agree with the limited objectives, then wars will be much larger and more open-ended.

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