The study of relations among nations has fascinated scholars for several centuries.  However, the term international was first used by Jeremy Bantham in the latter part of the eighteenth century, although its Latin equivalent intergentes was used a century earlier by Rijchare Zouche.  Both of them had used this term in respect of that branch of law which was called law of nations, which later became ‘International Law’.  During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, international relations have grown rapidly.  Today nation-states have become too interdependent; and relations among them whether political or those related to trade and commerce, have developed into an essential area of knowledge.  In this unit, we are mainly concerned with the political relations among sovereign societies called nations, or nation-states.

After the Second World War, the interdependence of sovereign States has grown immensely.  Meanwhile, in the present jet age travel has become so fast that distances have been considerably reduced; and with the revolution in the field of communication, today’s satellite era has brought peoples so close to each other that international relations have assumed unprecedented importance both as a ‘condition’ and as a ‘discipline’.


The term International Relations (IR) may be used for both a ‘condition’ and a ‘discipline’.  Quincy Wright, for example, makes such a distinction.  The official relations between sovereign countries are described as international relations, though according to him,”… the word interstate would have been more accurate because in political science the state came to be the terms applied to such societies.  Viewed thus, international relations as ‘condition’ refers to the facts of international life, that is to say, the actual conduct of relations among nations through diplomacy based on foreign policy.  It also includes actual areas of cooperation, conflict and war.  According to Wright, IR should tell the “truth about the subject” i.e., how such relations are conducted and as discipline IR should treat them in a systematic and scientific manner.

In other words, IR should focus on the study of all relations – political, diplomatic trade, academic among sovereign states which constitute the subject matter on international relations. The scope of IR should include study of “varied types of groups – nations, states, governments, peoples, regions, alliances, confederations, international organisations, even industrial organisations, cultural organisations, religious organization” etc. which are involved in the conduct of these relations.

While Quincy Wright distinguished between international relations as a ‘condition’ and a ‘discipline’, there are other scholars like Palmer and Perkins who doubted its status as a discipline.  They argued that History and Political Science are the disciplines from which international relations has emerged.  Writing about 40 years ago Palmer and Perkins had opined: “Although international relations has emerged from its earlier status as a poor relation of political science, and history, it is still far from being a well-organised discipline.”

One of the earlier scholars of international relations, Professor Alfred Zimmern had written before the Second World War that: “International Relations… is clearly not a subject in the ordinary sense of the word.  It does not provide a single coherent body of teaching material…  It is not a single subject but a bundle of subjects…. of law, economics, political science, geography, and so on….”  International Relations, according to Palmer and Perkins, were too subjective in character and content.  In its early stages even E.H. Carr had described it as “markedly and frankly utopian.”  But the failure of the League of Nations and its collective security system led Carr to remark that it had become possible to embark on serious and critical analytical thought about international problems.”  This has been vigorously pursued by a number of scholars after the Second World War.  Today, it will not be proper to describe International Relations as ‘Utopian or deny’ it the status of an independent subject of study.  National interest is an important concern of every state.  Planners and makers of foreign policy – cannot ignore correct perception of their country’s national interest which must be protected at all costs. Hartman defines International Relations as a field of study which focuses upon the “processes by which states adjust their national interest to those of other states.”  Since national interests of different states are often in conflict, Morgenthau concludes that international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power.  Therefore, power is the means through which nations promote their national interest.


The first Chair in International Relations was established at the University of Wales (U.K.) in 1919.  The first two occupants of the chair were eminent historians, Professors Alfred Zimmern and C.K. Webster.  At that time, International Relations as a subject was little more than diplomatic history.  During the next seven decades this subject has changed in nature and content.  Today the analytical study of politics has replaced descriptive diplomatic history.  The term International politics is now used for the new discipline that has been emerging since the Second World War.  It is more scientific, yet narrow, as compared to International Relations.

The two terms are even now sometimes used as synonyms.  But, they have two distinct areas, or content, of study.  Hans Morgenthau believes that “the core of international relations is international politics”, but a clear distinction between the two is to be made.  International Relations, according to him, are much wider in scope than International Politics.  Whereas politics among nations is, as Morgenthau says, struggle for power, international relations include political, economic and cultural relations.  Harold and Margaret Sprout opine that international relations include all human behavior on one side of a national boundary affecting the human behavior on the other side of the boundary.  International politics, on the other hand, deals with conflicts and cooperation among nations essentially at political level.  As Padelford and Lincoln define it, international politics is the interaction of state policies within the changing pattern of power relationship.  Palmer and Perkins express similar views when they say that international politics is essentially concerned with the state system.

Since international relations include all types of relationships between sovereign states, it is wider, and international politics is narrower in scope.  As students of IR, we shall indeed examine political conflicts and cooperation among states.  But, we shall also study other aspect of relations among nations as well including economic inter-action and role of the non-state actor.


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.

We are today living in an interdependent state – system.  It is essential for all of us to have a clear idea of what is happening in the world.  Political events are important, but even economic developments, trade, commerce and activities of actors like multinational corporations are no less significant.  We live in an age of growing international cooperation.  Therefore, not only do the activities of the United Nations and its numerous agencies affect all the nations and their peoples, but regional organisations like the European Union, South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) also play important roles in our lives.  International terrorism has been a concern for the humankind and economic institutions like the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) affect international relations. The study of International Relations has therefore become highly useful and enlightening for students and others alike.


Beginning with the study of law and diplomatic history, the scope of international relations has steadily expanded.  With growing complexity of contacts between nations, the study of international organisations and institutions attracted the attention of scholars.  The outbreak of the Second World War gave a strong stimulus to area studies and strategic aspect of foreign policy.  This led to efforts to understand better the dynamics of national liberation struggles and anti-colonial movements.  The foundation of the United Nations during the war encouraged thinking about post-war restructuring of the relations among nations.  The study of cooperation became important even as the study of conflict remained central.  The immediate aftermath was marked by a constructive outlook.  This is reflected in titles of books like Swords and Ploughshares written by Inis Claude.  New topics like ideology and disarmament assumed unprecedented importance in the ear of cold war.  So did the system of alliances and regionalism.  Contemporary international relations embrace the whole gamut of diplomatic history, international politics, international organization, international law and area studies.  Writing about the contents of international relations, a few decades back, Palmer Perkins had said that the then international relations were a study of “the world community in transition.”  This conclusion is largely true even today.  The transition has not reached a terminal point.  While the underlying factors of international relations have not changed, the international environment has changed and is still changing.  The state system is undergoing modifications; a technological revolution has taken place in a very big way; new states of Asia and Africa are playing increasingly important roles.  India, in particular, is in a position of assert and take a rigid stand, as in 1996 on the question of signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).  There is also a “revolution of rising expectations.”  Thus, as Palmer and Perkins wrote, “old and new elements must be interwoven” in the contemporary international relations.  “The focus is still the nation-state system and inter-state relations; but the actions and interactions of many organisations and groups have also to be considered.”

The scope of international relations at the end of the twentieth century has become very vast indeed.  The world has virtually become a “global village”, as interdependence of states has increased manifold.  Economic relations between states, the role of international institutions like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation today influences economic activity all over the world.  The United Nations and its various agencies are engaged in numerous socio-economic and political activities.  International terrorism is a cause of serious concern for the human existence.  Multinational Corporations (MNCs), who are giant companies operating the world over, are important non-state actors of international relations.  Thus, the scope of international relations has become vast, and, besides international politics, it embraces various other inter-State activities as well.