UPSC International Relations: Basic Concepts and Definitions

To develop effective understanding of International Relations for UPSC Civil Services Examination, the candidates must clearly understand certain basic concepts and definitions. There are certain terms in diplomacy that you will often encounter while studying various books, article, news during your UPSC preparation. Usage of these terms in the UPSC Mains answers will also improve the score. It will also help in grasping newspaper articles quickly.


When there is a multi-nation agreement in already in force, the process of another nation joining that agreement is called accession to that agreement.Track 1 Diplomacy


When a political refugee is allowed to live by another country to protect him from the reach of government authorities of his/her host country, it is called giving asylum. The asylum can be given even in embassy building. Remember how Julian Assange was given asylum in Embassy of Ecuador in London.

Balance of Power

In a region, all the states should have powers comparable to each other so that the peace ensured. If any state acquires disproportionate power (by Nuclear Bomb or military tech or  stronger economy), the other nations must form alliances to counter it and restore balance of power.


The parties to an armed conflict are called belligerents. This term is also used for a country like Pakistan which always provokes India for a war.

Casus Belli

It literally means ‘Cause of War’. If any country does something that it is considered justified to declare war on it by another country, it is called Casus Belli. For example the attack on Indian Parliament in 2001 was Casus Belli to declare war on Pakistan.

Cold War era

This was the period between World War II and 1990 when there were two distinct ideological blocs in the world: Capitalist bloc led by the USA and Communist bloc led by the USSR. They had different political and economic ideologies. It ended with the fall of USSR in 1990.

Cultural Imperialism

The culture of a politically and economically powerful country is perceived as more superior. As a result, the local culture of another country is threatened, neglected or even wiped out. For example, McDonalds is changing the food culture in many countries.

Democratic Deficit

This term is used to indicate the lack of democracy or true democracy in a country. For example, many of the South Asian countries have severe democratic deficit.


A country builds military capabilities to discourage other aggressor nations from taking any action against it. This is called deterrence. For example, India built nuclear capabilities as a deterrence to China’s aggression.

Diplomatic Immunity

It is the exemption provided to diplomats of another country from jurisdiction of local courts or authorities. It is an international law that was established in Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, 1961.It guarantees that diplomats or members of their immediate family:

  • May not be arrested or detained
  • May not have their residences entered and searched
  • May not be subpoenaed as witnesses
  • May not be prosecuted

Embassy, High Commission and Consulate

Embassies are the diplomatic missions stationed in non-Commonwealth countries. The diplomatic missions of a Commonwealth country which are stationed in other Commonwealth countries are called High Commissions. So India has embassy in Chile but High Commission in Pakistan.

One of the primary missions of the diplomatic missions abroad is to look after the Indian citizens abroad. The services provided to them are called ‘Consular Services’. Such a station is called Consulate. The consulates are located in capital city and other major cities of the host nations.


It means a close understanding between nations to act in cooperation for achieving common goals. It is less binding that a treaty and can be oral or in writing.


It is the process of sending a fugitive who is fleeing justice system back to his home country. It does not apply to political refugees.


It is the influence of geography on the international politics and international relations. For example, Russia’s east coast gets frozen in winter. For year-round trade Russia wants access to warm waters in the Black Sea. This is prime reason for Crimean crisis.


It is the dominance of one state over the other or the dominance in regional or global context. The ‘hegemon’ country generally dictates international laws and the terms of relations.

NATO and Warsaw Pact

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is a political-cum-military alliance of some of the Western European countries and the USA. It was formed in 1948 under the shadows of Cold War to counter communist alliance led by USSR.

USSR and other Eastern European countries who were under Communist rule formed Warsaw pact to defend each other from the NATO. It was formed in 1955 in response to rearmament of West Germany and its entry into NATO.

Non-State Actors

These are groups or individuals who have significant political influence but are not part of the state machinery. Terrorist groups are major example of ono-state actors.

North and South

The global North refers to the developed countries which mostly lie in the Northern part of the world, including USA, Europe and Japan. The global South refers to the developing countries which mostly lie in the southern half of the globe, including South Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Persona Non Grata

A foreigner who is declared unwanted or unwelcome by the host country. If a certain  foreigner is found to be acting against interest of the host nation, he may be declared persona non grata. He has to leave the country within given time limit or if he is already in another country, he is not allowed to enter. India declared Pakistani diplomat Mehmood Akhtar as persona non grata in 2016 for espionage.


This is a principle of political engagement on the basis of practical and pragmatic considerations rather than idealism and moral principles.


It is a critical principle in international relations. It means treating other nations in the same manner as they treat you.

Soft Power and Hard Power

It is the ability of a nation to get desired outcomes from others by means of attraction, appeal and economic or cultural influence. In contrast, hard power means coercion by use of military power or economic embargo etc.

Track 1 Diplomacy 

Track 1 diplomacy is the official engagement between the government officials of two or more nations or with multilateral organisations, international bodies etc. This is the most common form of diplomacy. You see Track 1 diplomacy all the time when our UN Representatives or Ambassadors or Ministers and even Prime Minister carry out diplomatic dealings.

Track 2 Diplomacy (Backchannel Diplomacy)

In this case, diplomatic dealings are pursued through non-officials, e.g. NGOs, Businessmen, sportspersons etc. Sometimes you see the business leaders, religious gurus, Nobel laureates or other prominent personalities entering into discussion with another country’s unofficial representatives. Since it is unofficial, there are many advantages of holding such talks.

Track 1.5 Diplomacy

This term is used when both officials and non-officials are engaged in a diplomatic negotiation. Often foreign leaders travel with businessmen. You may have seen American business tycoons travel with USA President or POSCO owner travel with South Korean President to foreign nations for diplomatic dealings.

Track 3 Diplomacy

This relates to people-to-people contact. It is one of the most important confidence building measures. This generally happens at the low level and involves cultural programmes, border trades, etc. It is important to note that in Track 3 diplomacy there is no official intervention or guidance. You may remember ‘Aman Ki Asha’ initiative to increase people-to-people contact between India and Pakistan in this regard.

Track 4 Diplomacy (Multitrack Diplomacy)

It is a holistic approach to diplomacy. It involves multiple channels and multiple stakeholders to pursue the diplomatic goal. This approach is particularly useful in long pending conflicts and unresolved issues between two countries.


A treaty is a formal agreement that is binding on all the parties.

Trade Deficit and Trade Volume

Trade deficit is the difference in the values of export and import by a country with respect to another country. The sum of export and import by any of the two countries is called the trade volume between those two countries. India-China bilateral trade volume was $92.7 billion in 2019. India’s import from China was worth $74.7 billion while India’s export to China was worth $18 billion. Thus India has a huge trade deficit of ($74.7-18 billion) = $56.7 billion.

Zero Sum Game

Zero Sum Game is a theory that says that for one party to gain something, another party has to lose equivalent amount.

Tools Used in Diplomacy

There are various tools that are used in international diplomacy while pursuing goal of the foreign policy and to promote national interests. These tools are:

  • Political Tools: It includesinteraction with the embassies and the high commissionerates of other countries, meetings and summits between different political and executive heads, etc
  • Security Tools: It includescooperation in defence sector, counter-terrorism operations, intelligence sharing, nuclear energy technology and space technology etc. Co-operation in the field of security indicates that the two countries share high level confidence.
  • Commercial Tools: It includes trade deals, investment, economic relations, free trade agreements, line of credit, soft loans, etc.
  • Cultural Tools: Cultural tools in diplomacy involve cultural exchanges and cooperation in the fields of art, literature, education, films, etc., setting up of international awards, film festivals etc.
  • Negotiations, Consultations, Sanctions, Military tools etc are the other prominent tools that can be used to achieve desirable outcomes in diplomacy. 

These basic concepts or key concepts in UPSC International Relations syllabus are to be understood thoroughly and used in the answers in UPSC Mains Examination

Read Next Article: Principles of Indian Foreign Policy | UPSC Notes

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