An IAS Aspirant’s guide to cracking International Relations

IR forms quite an important portion of the GS Paper 2 syllabus – UPSC Syllabus | GS Paper 2 | IAS Prep. In this post, we are going to analyse this portion, answer some basic doubts and help you get started with IR.


After this introductory post, jump onto the compiled collection on International Organisations – Click here

#1. Why do IAS aspirants tend to neglect IR?

  1. Because it is so overwhelmingly dynamic
  2. Not much of an importance in prelims

For a beginner, the pain point with IR is a general lack of familiarity with the subject matter. It is very less likely that one could/would Modi Ji’s entourage in real time. The deals and negotiations, the untimely withdrawal from strategic talks and the bold diplomatic parley etc. seem so overwhelming that we look skywards! Without a proper backstory, these developments look disconnected.

Besides, when would we be mugging the articles for polity or read about those eloping monkeys for environment & biodiversity, haan?

Add to that, prelims is not really bullish about the complexities of inter country relations, hence aspirants tend to leave IR for the end of time.

Confronted by these practical issues, we are going to relook the IR portion of IAS Mains (GS Paper 2) and World Affairs (Prelims) to try and help you get familar with them.

#2. Official UPSC Syllabus of International Relations (IR) for GS Paper II

  1. India and its neighborhood – relations
  2. Bilateral, regional and global groupings and agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests
  3. Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries on India’s interests, Indian diaspora.
  4. Important International institutions, agencies and fora, their structure, mandate

#3. Deconstructing IR – What are you exactly supposed to prepare for?

You are not supposed to do a PHD in IR. That’s for sure. Why this red flag? The flipside of preparing sincerely for UPSC is that sometime the subject matter becomes so appealing that you start to get drawn into it. You tend to lose a sense of space and time and inadvertently step into the shoes of a hardcore foreign policy analyst (which is not what UPSC wants you to be!)

Reading about the genesis of ASEAN and taking note of its evolution trajectory is great but getting into the thick of each meeting with micro-analysis on the terms of agreements may leave you with a lot lesser time to prepare for other subjects.

Focus on two things – Get the context and remember the facts correct!

[Get the context] India and the world: Catch up with the backstory and look out for conflicts

As an aspirant, you are expected to think through the changing scenario, understand the evolution and weigh the pros and cons of a treaty/ diplomatic move which disrupts the status quo. Easier said than done, right?

Understand India’s backstory first

To get upto speed with the backstory, you may try to get your hands on Pax Indica by Shashi Tharoor. This will do good to bring you upto speed with our past with most of the important nations. Doing this increases your odds of understanding the current affairs with some context. Alternatively, we will also try to come up with short anecdotal pieces wrt our evolution with our neighbours and the world.

Once you are comfortable with that, look out for latest conflicts and controversies which shape our negotiations with various bilateral, regional and global groupings. UPSC is going to pick up one of these and grill you on that!

Other useful resources:

  1. Ministry of external affairs for bilateral relations – The holy grail of all official communications
  2. Distinguished lecture series (MEA)
  3. C. Raja Mohan @Indian Express – He often comments on our bilateral developments and many of the pieces are wonderful to read
  4. India’s world @RSTV
  5. Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) – engages in advanced research in international relations, especially strategic and security issues
  6. Ask and expect @IDSA – aimed at promoting awareness and discussion on contemporary security issues. A very active forum on IR
  7. Latitude @Time Now – It’s not all about Arnab!

[Remember the facts] Important institutions, International groupings: Find out why they exist and you will be comfortable with them

The problem with these venerated organisations and groupings is that there are so many of them and they are ever so evolving! Don’t believe us? Here’s an example –

  • 1975: Group of 6 – FMs and central bank governors from France, West Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States
  • 1976: Group of 7 – G6 + Canada
  • 1997: Group of 8 – G7 + Russia (in 1997) + European Union (considered an implicit part)
  • 2014: Group of 7 – Russia suspended after Crimean crisis

There is a Group 20 (G20) as well but we will come to that. Point being that to understand this jugglery well, you need to know each organisation and its evolution in full and then connect the dots as they intersect with each other.

This part of the IR makes up for a lot of prelims related questions – Remember a question on Mekong Ganga Cooperation in Pre 2015?

We plan to cover each of these organisations, starting ASIA first so that you get a sense of their origins, members, evolution and conflicts and most of all, their reason of existence!

#4. Tackle the low hanging fruits first!

All pumped up? Let’s get you familiar with some of the questions from IR @Mains (2013 – 2015) in the next post.

Post that, we will be tackling the journey of important regional and international organisations which affect India’s interest in some way or the other. These are important both wrt prelims and mains. UPSC has an uncanny habit of asking for member countries or important reports and you have got to prepare well for that!

More in this series – 

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By Root

Caretaker @civilsdaily

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