Abraham accords
Treaties that opened diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Israel and Bahrain in 2020. Morocco and Sudan later signed the accords. They marked the first normalisation of relations between Israel and an Arab state since 1994.
Acquis communautaire
See European acquis
African Union
The AU, which replaced its discredited predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, in 2002, is supposed to resolve the continent’s wars, ease the flow of trade and help Africa speak with one voice. Thabo Mbeki, a former president of South Africa and one of the AU’s architects, promised a “continent of democracy” in which “the people participate and the rule of law is upheld”. The AU also has a project for an African Monetary Union. Its record is mixed. Read our article marking its 20th birthday.
Alliances, system of
In international relations, alliances are agreements between countries (and sometimes international organisations) to pursue shared interests. The interests are usually military. Alliances can be open and indefinite, such as NATO, or be entered into for specific purposes, such as the coalitions of the willing which fought the Iraq war in 2003. Most alliances are formal and open, though there are also informal, secret ones. A system of alliances refers to a network of alliances of different kinds with the same or overlapping memberships, such as NATO, APEC and AUKUS. The United States is said to have alliances whereas China has clients. Read our article on how the war in Ukraine helped to reshape America’s alliances and one on Russia’s alliances.
International relations is sometimes said to take place under conditions of anarchy, ie in the absence of a world government. Without one, and because countries band together only in voluntary international organisations, such as the UN, the enforcement of international law and norms can only be partial and imperfect. This makes relations between states different from what happens within countries.
Under international law, annexation is when one country forcibly asserts control and sovereignty over another country’s territory. This usually follows military occupation. Annexation is unilateral. Territorial control is declared by the occupying power; the other party gets no say. (If a territory gives up control to another, that is called cession). Russia, in 2022, attempted to annex territory in Ukraine. Read our explainer on annexation.
Antarctica (Antarctic Treaty)
Unlike the Arctic, Antarctica is a continent surrounded by an ocean and has no indigenous population. Seven countries make territorial claims there but they are muted. In 1961 they ratified the Antarctic treaty system which says the southernmost continent “shall be used for peaceful purposes only”. The treaties ban military activity, freeze any assertion of territorial claims or new claims, and set aside the continent for scientific research.
Racial-segregation laws, especially those in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. Apartheid is defined in the founding statute of the International Criminal Court, adopted in 2002, as a crime against humanity.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation, a late-20th-century initiative of 21 states, is intended to promote free trade among countries of the Pacific Rim, including especially East Asia. See also the Indo-Pacific.
Usually, an insult referring to the perceived weakness of a foreign policy. When Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich agreement to appease Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill remarked “you were given a choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war.” In more neutral terms, appeasement is the agreement to some demands of an aggressive power with the aim of preventing war.
Arab League
An association set up in 1945 to promote the common interests of Arab states and to encourage co-operation among them. In 2015 the league proposed to establish a joint military force, though by 2023 it was not operational. A byword for fractious incompetence.
Arab spring
In December 2010 a Tunisian street peddler called Muhammad Bouazizi set himself ablaze to protest against corrupt police. He set off a wave of revolutionary protest across the region and dictators fell in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Early exhilaration gave way to misery. Egypt’s brief experiment with democracy failed. Libya, Syria and Yemen plunged into civil war. Wealthy Gulf states spent heavily to placate their own people and bolster anti-democratic forces elsewhere. Read our article (from 2020) marking ten years after the Arab spring.
The North Pole and surrounding area of the Arctic Ocean do not belong to any country under international law. But whereas Antarctica is a continent surrounded by ocean, the Arctic is the opposite, and most of the region includes parts of eight sovereign states: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. Their exclusive economic zones overlap in the Arctic ocean. Territorial and maritime disputes are regulated by UNCLOS. Environmental concerns (especially severe in the region) and resource competition are dealt with by the Arctic Council, a body composed of the eight coastal countries, which operates by consensus. Read our explainer on how tension over Ukraine has scuppered co-operation in the Arctic.
Arms control
Efforts to limit the proliferation of weapons, especially nuclear ones, through negotiated settlements. Arms-control agreements may limit the number or kinds of weapons; may ban or slow the development of technologies for military purposes; or reduce the size of permitted arsenals. Unlike disarmament, which seeks to establish a more peaceful system of international relations by abolishing weapons, arms-control agreements seek to manage the existing system by regulating the amount of weaponry. Arms-control agreements played an important role in reducing tensions during the cold war. They include: the Antarctic treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty; the Biological Weapons Convention; the Strategic Arms Limitation treaties; the Strategic Arms Reduction treaties and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Read our article on Russia withdrawing from the New START treaty.
Arms race
A competition between two or more countries to create military superiority by building or buying more and more lethal weapons. The term refers variously to competition between rival European powers before the first world war, then to the nuclear-arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the cold war, and to more recent competition between states.
Arms trade
The sale or transfer of arms, ammunition and military support from one country to another. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States was by far the biggest arms exporter by value in 2022, with sales greater than the next eight put together. It is followed by France, Russia and China. The biggest importers in 2022 were Qatar, India, Ukraine and Saudi Arabia. In 2013 the UN General Assembly adopted an Arms Trade treaty which regulates and registers the legal sales of conventional weapons. Read our article on the decline of Russia as an arms trader in Asia and earlier articles on growth in the arms trade globally and in the Middle East.
The Association of South-East Asian Nations began as a bulwark against Soviet influence in the region at the height of the Vietnam war. With an expanded ten-country membership, it now considers itself the first port of call for discussing any matter affecting South-East Asia. ASEAN works by consensus, which limits its ability to act in controversial areas, but it is one of few multilateral institutions in a fast-growing region. Members say there is an “ASEAN way”, stressing diplomacy, compromise and conflict avoidance.
A loose geographic term with many meanings. It can refer to all of Asia, except Central and West Asia, but including Oceania. APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation) includes countries on the western rim of the Pacific, such as the United States and Chile. Asia-Pacific is a common term in finance to refer to the fast-growing economies of the region. The term APEJ means Asia-Pacific excluding Japan. Not to be confused with Indo-Pacific.
The right of asylum allows those persecuted in their home countries to seek the protection of another state. The right is enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 but is not always honoured by national governments. Read our article, from 2021, marking 70 years of the Refugee Convention
Asymmetric warfare
Conflict between two sides using widely different forces and tactics, such as that between a large standing army and small bands of guerrillas or insurgents. The aim of the smaller force is to negate the advantages of the larger by using unconventional tactics such as suicide bombings or boobytraps. The Afghan and Vietnam wars were both, arguably, examples of asymmetric warfare.
The core of AUKUS (standing for Australia, United Kingdom and United States) is a pledge by America and Britain to help Australia build at least eight nuclear-powered—but not nuclear-armed—attack submarines. Nuclear-powered subs can stay underwater for far longer than conventional ones. They can carry conventional missiles, but equally important are their abilities to collect intelligence and to deploy special forces ashore. Read our explainer on AUKUS and an article praising AUKUS as a model for others to follow.
Self-sufficiency in economics. Much practised by authoritarian governments.
A system of government in which one person has absolute power, unconstrained by laws, elites, constitutional limitations or democratic institutions. Some autocrats achieve their positions by coup or inheritance (such as absolute monarchs); many by election (such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin). Dictators are autocrats, often with added personality cults.
Axis of evil
A term used by George W. Bush in 2002 to single out three countries, Iran, Iraq and North Korea, which the American president said sponsored global terrorism and sought weapons of mass destruction. The phrase, originally “axis of hatred”, is attributed to Mr Bush’s speechwriter, David Frum. Cuba, Libya and Syria are sometimes added to the axis. Iran later formed an “axis of resistance” with Syria and Hizbullah, a Lebanese political party. Read about that in our explainer.

Balance of power
The condition in which no country predominates over the others. Usually, this much-contested term implies an unequal distribution of power among the states that comprise the international system. In such a system, balance is maintained by alliances which prevent a hegemon emerging. Some countries (such as Britain in the 19th century) play a self-consciously balancing role, changing sides to maintain equilibrium. There are also regional and local balances of power.
Term used to describe the division of a country into a series of smaller ones, almost always hostile to each other.
Beijing consensus
The economic policies adopted by China after the death of Mao Zedong, called by the Chinese themselves “reform and opening up”. The term was intended to mark a contrast with the Washington consensus and suggest developing countries do not have to follow that orthodoxy blindly. Also called the China model.
Belt and road initiative
The centrepiece of China’s foreign policy under Xi Jinping. Since 2013, China has given or promised hundreds of billions of dollars in loans and grants for power plants, ports, railways, roads and other infrastructure in Africa, Latin America, South-East Asia, Central Asia and Europe. In 2017 he gave the policy hallowed political status by having it written into the Communist Party’s constitution. Lauding it became obligatory. Read our article, from 2020, on the sputtering progress of the BRI.
Involving two states. Bilateral relations are those between two countries. See also multilateral and unilateral.
Biodiversity refers to all forms of life in an area. Like other aspects of the global environment, it is a matter for international negotiation and concern. The multilateral Convention on Biological Diversity, which began in 1993, commits countries to conserve diversity and to share the benefits of genetic resources equitably. All UN member states but the United States have approved it.
Biological weapons
The use of living organisms, or the toxins they produce, to harm an enemy. The Ancient Greeks are thought to have put animal corpses in enemies’ wells, poisoning the water. In the first world war, German forces tried to infect Allied livestock with anthrax. In the second world war, Japan bombed China with fleas carrying the bubonic plague. Both America and the Soviet Union experimented with anthrax. Models suggest a kilogram of anthrax, dropped on a city, could kill 100,000 people. Agricultural weapons could wipe out a country’s food supply. See Biological Weapons Convention. Read our explainer on biological weapons.
Biological Weapons Convention
Weak international oversight exacerbates the danger from biological weapons. Although the UN’s Biological Weapons Convention bans their development or use, there is no way to verify if countries are complying. Only three people work on the convention full-time, with a budget of just $1.5m a year. And it does not have a built-in mechanism for investigating the weapons’ use: only the UN secretary-general has the authority to investigate. Read our explainer on biological weapons.
Bipolar world
A world in which two rival countries or blocks of countries are roughly equal in power and influence, such as during the cold war. See also unipolar and multipolar.
Bretton Woods
A town in New Hampshire which gave its name to the rules and institutions that have governed the trade and monetary relations of free-market economies since 1945. The three institutions that eventually emerged were (and are): the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which later became the World Trade Organisation.
Britain’s departure from the European Union in 2020, following a referendum in 2016. Various forms of “soft” Brexit would have kept close ties with the EU, but Britain opted to leave the single market, causing complications in Northern Ireland, while making cross-border trade more bureaucratic and costly. The economic pain endured by Britain, post Brexit, all but ended talk of Grexit (in Greece) or Frexit (in France).
Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Originally, an asset class invented by a bank to publicise investment opportunities in large developing countries. Since 2009, the BRICS (which did not at first include South Africa) have endeavoured to create a more formal and influential international organisation, with annual summits, a secretariat and a New Development Bank to provide project finance. Bangladesh, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates joined the bank in 2021.
Buffer state
A weak country sandwiched between two stronger ones. Lebanon, for example, is wedged between Syria and Israel and suffers as a result. The classic examples, after the first world war, were Poland and Czechoslovakia, sandwiched between the great powers of Germany and the Soviet Union. Read our article (from 2019) on the Kurds, caught between Iraq and Turkey.

An ideology and an economic system based upon it, in which trade and industry are controlled by private owners. In international relations, significant because members of the West and NATO are capitalist and because global economic competition influences the global competition for power. Many other economies, such as China’s, are considered to be forms of state-run capitalism.
Central Asia
A fissiparous region of five mostly Muslim countries–Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan–with many languages and ethnicities, all jumbled up in a whorl of arbitrary Soviet boundaries. The countries, former Soviet republics and long considered to be in Russia’s sphere of influence, started to distance themselves from Russia after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Central Europe
Obviously, the bit in the middle. But Central Europe is more than a geographical term. After 1989, countries that had been on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain and hence dubbed Eastern Europe wanted to reassert an identity separate from Russia. They reclaimed the 19th-century term “Central Europe”, setting up regional bodies such as the Central European Initiative and the Central European Defence Co-operation. Historically, Central Europe referred to the territory of the Holy Roman Empire (centred on what is now Germany) and the Kingdoms of Poland and Hungary.
When a state gives up, or cedes, territory to another. Compare annexation and secession.
Chemical weapons
Although these substances, including nerve agents such as sarin, or chlorine, are banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, some states continue to use them. In 2018 America, Britain and France launched air strikes on Syria in response to its use of sarin gas and chlorine against its own civilians. Russia has used chemical weapons for the targeted killing of opponents. In 2018 Unit 29155, a branch of Russia’s military intelligence service, used Novichok, an especially potent family of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union, to poison Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer who spied for Britain. Chemical weapons are not considered particularly effective on the battlefield—they are relatively costly and their results are hard to predict. Read our article on Russia’s use of chemical weapons.
Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)
An arms-control treaty banning the production or deployment of chemical weapons (with exceptions for pharmaceutical uses). The CWC entered into force in 1997; all countries except Egypt, Israel, North Korea and South Sudan have ratified it; Syria ratified it, but has used chemical weapons. Under the CWC, 99% of declared chemical-weapons stockpiles have been destroyed.
Child soldiers
Warlords and other parties in civil war, especially, may deploy civilians, including children, as fighters. The underaged are cheap, obedient, expendable, fearless when drugged and may put opponents at a moral disadvantage. As of 2017, child soldiers were active in at least 17 conflicts, including in Mali, Iraq and the Philippines. The UN, at the time, estimated that more than 115,000 young combatants had been demobilised since 2000. With fewer civil wars, the numbers of child soldiers decline. Read an article about Canada’s policy for peacekeepers confronting, and shooting, child soldiers.
Civil war
A war, usually between the government and a rebel force, inside the borders of a territory. The rebels may seek secession, or to overthrow the government, or some other goal. Outsiders are often involved, backing one or other faction, trading weapons, or as peacekeepers, mercenaries, or NGOs. Civil wars usually have international consequences, as when refugees or fighting spills over borders. Civil wars may also be proxy wars. Read our article (from 2023) on forgotten, worsening conflicts.
Margaret Mead, an anthropologist, said the earliest sign of civilisation was an ancient skeleton with a broken and healed femur; only thanks to the care of a civilised society, she said, would the victim not have been left to die. Civilisations also provide material for disputes and boasting in international relations. China and India claim they are ancient civilisations within modern borders and worthy of extra respect. The values that underpin Western and Islamic civilisations, which cross borders, fuel competing claims either that these should be recognised as universal values, or that universal values do not exist.
Civilisations, Clash of
Samuel Huntington, of Harvard University, argued in “The Clash of Civilisations?” that old ideological divisions of the cold war would be replaced not by universal harmony (see End of History) but by older cultural divisions. The world, he argued, was divided between civilisations and these were being drawn into conflict. Because most conflicts take place between near neighbours, few clashes could count as between civilisations. Huntington’s original 1993 article, in Foreign Affairs, was translated into 26 languages and expanded into a best-selling book. Read our column marking Huntington’s death in 2008.
Climate change
The long-term rise in global temperatures, with its attendant environmental consequences, resulting from the industrial burning of fossil fuels. A growing issue in international relations as efforts must be made to end it. The international negotiating process classifies countries into Annex I (historic polluters) and Annex II (mostly developing countries). Problems with reconciling such interests explains the slow negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement, and the continued rise in greenhouse-gas emissions. Climate change is increasingly seen, too, as a cause of conflict (as in Sudan in 2023). See also COP.
CNN effect
The idea that 24-hour televised news coverage influences the domestic audience of democracies and, hence, international relations. By focusing on a conflict, the news cycle is said to require immediate action from policymakers, rather than thoughtfulness or subtlety.
Cold war
A period of rivalry between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies which lasted between 1945 and 1991. Both sides had nuclear weapons; ideologically their contest was profound; both fought proxy wars. But, despite near misses such as the Berlin airlift of 1948-9 and the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, they never came directly to blows. Also used for other long-term conflicts that fall short of war. See also war and frozen conflicts. Read our article (from 2022) on lessons for today from the cold war.
Collective security
A form of alliance in which countries agree to provide security to others collectively. Typically, every member promises to respond to a threat against another member as if it were a threat against itself. Such agreements are rare but NATO’s article 5 is an example. Sometimes referred to as collective defence.
Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO)
On paper Russia has five formal allies in this grouping: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In reality, their support for Russia may be waning. Read our article (from 2023) on Russia’s motley allies and an explainer on the CSTO.
The practice by which one country rules and exploits a foreign territory and the people in it. Imperialism describes the ideology and actions of the conquering power from the point of view of the centre; colonialism refers to actions and ideology in the occupied or conquered territories. Both were characteristic of the extension of European power in the 18th and 19th centuries. The term colony can refer either to the subjugated countries themselves (“a British colony”) or to small groups of settlers who go out to occupy territory (“a colony on the Moon”). In 2001 at a UN conference, colonialism was discussed as a crime against humanity.
Commonwealth of independent states
A regional organisation signed by most of the successor states to the Soviet Union in 1991. They are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan. Ukraine and Georgia withdrew following Russian wars against them. The CIS is a free-trade area; Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia have a customs union. It also has a defence component, though this overlaps with the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, which also contains military elements and to which several CIS members and China belong.
Commonwealth, The
A club of more than 50 countries, mostly English-speaking. Created in 1949 as a post-imperial alternative under Britain’s cosy patronage. Most members have systems of law and government inherited from Britain. It still attracts new members such as Mozambique (joined in 1995), Rwanda (2009), Gabon and Togo (both 2022). Still, the Commonwealth struggles to prove its relevance. See La Francophonie and Taalunie. Read our article on King Charles III and the Commonwealth.
An ideology and the political-economic system based upon it, in which trade and industry are owned collectively. Unlike its rival capitalism, communism did not survive as a way of organising and managing the world.
Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership
A free-trade agreement among many of the market economies of the Pacific rim, but not the United States. The CPTPP emerged from the wreckage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade agreement signed in 2016 which collapsed when the US pulled out. Mainly thanks to Japanese leadership, the remaining countries went ahead on their own, creating one of the largest free-trade areas by economic size. China and South Korea are not members but, oddly, Britain is set to join. Read our article on the CPTPP, and an explainer (from 2018) on it.
Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty
A treaty, adopted by the UN general assembly in 1996, which would ban all nuclear-weapons test explosions. The treaty has not entered into force because China, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United States, among nuclear-weapons states, have not ratified it.
Conflict diamonds and minerals
Diamonds and other precious metals mined in war zones and illegally sold to finance fighting there. Conflict diamonds (also known as blood diamonds) helped fund insurgencies and civil wars in Angola, Ivory Coast, Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The UN security council condemned the sale of conflict diamonds in 1998 and in 2001 a new body called the World Diamond Congress started the so-called Kimberley Process, which set up an international certification scheme to crack down on illegal sales.
The acquisition of territory by force. Explore our interactive article (from 2022) on Vladimir Putin’s attempt to use conquest as a tool of international relations, as Russia tries to drag the world back to a bloodier time. A chart-based article makes a similar point.
A strategy to limit or prevent an opponent’s ability to project power internationally. Increasingly the term is used by China to describe American efforts to block its rise. The term was used especially to describe the policies of the United States during the Cold War to limit the spread of communism and, eventually, to undermine it. Read our article (from 2022) on America’s new efforts to contain China and Russia.
In International law, the term has a specific meaning distinct from its general one of custom or unwritten rule. It refers to a set of rules or principles on a particular subject adopted by a body with a wider remit (such as the UN). These rules usually have the force of a treaty among the countries that ratify them, but are not held to apply to all members of the organisation that adopts the convention. The best known are the Geneva conventions. Others include the Refugee Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. See also UNCLOS. Read our article, from 2021, marking 70 years of the Refugee Convention.
Convention on the Law of the Sea
A set of international rules governing maritime activities, including setting boundaries, controlling resources and protecting the environment of the world’s oceans and seas. UNCLOS, signed in 1982, allows states to establish territorial waters up to 12 nautical miles from their coastline, where national laws apply; states may also claim exclusive economic zones up to 200 nautical miles from shore, in which they control exploration rights to natural resources. Read our explainer on maritime boundaries.
COP (Conference of the Parties)
COP, which stands for Conference of the Parties, is the most important global meeting about climate change. The conference is technically the main decision-making body of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the institution which negotiated the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. COP meets every year to assess whether countries are meeting their national climate targets and international obligations, and whether these obligations are adequate to rein in global warming. Read our article on COP 27 (from 2022).
Council of Europe
An organisation founded in 1949 to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe. It has nothing to do with the European Union, though the two are often confused, perhaps because one of the EU’s top institutions is called the European Council. The European Court of Human Rights is part of the Council of Europe and any citizen of the council’s 46 member states may appeal to it. Russia was expelled in 2022 because its government does not abide by the council’s principles.
Coup d’etat
The violent overthrow of a government. Coups often have international consequences, for example as foreign powers have to decide whether to recognise the new regime. In Africa, where coups were long prevalent, they have been growing rarer. (A charticle from 2020 shows the trend.) Sometimes coups are orchestrated by outside powers or even mercenaries.
Crimes against humanity
One of the categories of criminal action that count as “grave breaches” of the Geneva conventions and may be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. The Rome statute, on which the ICC is based, describes 11 acts which, if committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack on a civilian population, may be considered crimes against humanity. They include murder, rape, enslavement, torture and forced disappearance. Russia is accused of all of them in Ukraine.
The targeting of computer networks, computer information systems and other electronic infrastructure in order to cause harm to another country. Experts often distinguish computer network exploitation (essentially, hacking) from computer network attack (such as the deletion of data). But cyberwarfare is often intended to have a psychological effect. We considered the rules for responsible cyber warfare (in 2023).

Debt diplomacy (debt-trap diplomacy)
This refers to the practice by a creditor country of offering unsustainable loans to a small, poor country with the purpose of increasing the lender’s political influence when the borrower can no longer repay its debt. China is said to practise debt diplomacy through its Belt and Road Initiative, though it denies this. See also dependency.
Debt relief
The cancellation of debt, in whole or in part. Relief can be applied to the debts of individuals, companies or countries. Poor counties are eligible for debt relief under a programme for Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) administered by the World Bank and IMF. After the financial crisis of 2007-09, governments in rich countries stepped in to help reduce the debt of individuals and companies on a large scale. We wrote (in 2023) of how it is getting harder to do.
“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” (H.L.Mencken). From the Greek demos (people) and kratos (power).
Democracy index
An annual ranking of countries, published by our sister organisation, Economist Intelligence Unit, assessing five measures of democracy per country (167 were assessed in 2022). The edition in 2022 suggested that almost half (45.3%) of the world’s population live in a democracy of some sort, while more than a third (36.9%) live under authoritarian rule. Explore the index.
The process by which a country moves towards democracy. Democratisation can be slow and steady, abrupt and changeable and everything in between. The United States has long had an official policy of democracy-promotion around the world, though its consistency and efficacy have varied.
The idea that recipients of foreign aid become dependent upon it, undermining their ability to act for themselves. Dependency theory posits that the global order itself is a system by which rich countries extract resources from poor ones.
The relaxation of tense relations between states. The term refers especially to the gradual easing of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union in the second half of the cold war, symbolised by the SALT talks. But it dates back to the rather less successful attempt by Germany and France to improve their relations in 1912.
A concept from crime fighting that, in international relations, refers to a policy of discouraging another country from taking actions you do not want by instilling in it doubt and fear about your reactions. Deterrence theory became widespread during the Cold War, especially as applied to nuclear weapons. See mutually assured destruction. Read our article (from 2022) on three-way nuclear deterrence.
Developed countries
Rich countries, or those whose incomes per person are higher than the global average. Most such countries began the process of industrialisation before 1960, a few before 1860; many are in Europe, North America and Australasia. Some Asian countries including Japan and South Korea are also developed. The World Bank classifies all such countries as “high income”.
Developing countries
Poorer countries where incomes per person are lower than in developed nations. These countries usually began to industrialise after 1960. There is no official designation of what counts as a developing country. The World Bank does not use the term; it classifies such countries as “upper-middle”, “lower-middle” and “low-income”, based on gross national income per head.
Yet another word for a process that is also called modernisation, industrialisation, even Westernisation. Economists tend to refer to development in terms of economic growth, higher incomes and greater economic capabilities. Sociologists and psychologists use the term to refer to a quality of life more broadly or to the process by which a child becomes an adult. See Human Development Index, or explore our article on the index (from 2022).
A group of people living outside of their place of origin, but still sharing a culture, language or religion. Diaspora networks—of Huguenots, Scots, Jews and many others—have always been a potent economic force, but the cheapness and ease of modern travel has made them larger and more numerous. By one estimate, at least 3% of the world's population are migrants. Read our article on the magic of diasporas.
The practice and profession of managing international relations, usually by representatives abroad. An English diplomat, Sir Henry Wootton, wrote in 1604 that “an ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to tell lies abroad for the good of his country.” See also sports diplomacy.
Diplomatic immunity
Under the Vienna Convention, diplomats must be given safe passage, freedom of travel and legal immunity from the laws of the host country. Diplomats may be expelled but can only be prosecuted if their home country waives their immunity. See also extra-territoriality.
A movement to reduce or eliminate weapons in order to change the behaviour of states and encourage a new, more peaceful system of international relations. This is distinct from arms control, which seeks to manage the existing system. Disarmament often refers specifically to the banning of weapons of mass destruction.

East African Community (EAC)
The most successful of Africa’s various regional blocs (see also ECOWAS, SADC). Since its revival in 2000, it has established a customs union and the rudiments of a common market. But success is relative, as deepening rifts have put the project in jeopardy. Four of its six members (Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and South Sudan) are led by ex-rebels, some with competing interests in the Congolese borderlands to the west. Read our article (from 2019) on the EAC.
Eastern Europe
A region that exists in the eye of the beholder. Once, Eastern Europe meant members of the Warsaw Pact. The former pact members that have joined NATO are now referred to (and refer to themselves) as Central European states. Eastern Europe means Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and possibly Moldova.
ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States)
A 15-country regional bloc, dominated by Nigeria, founded in 1975. As with other such groupings, it is designed to encourage economic co-operation in the region. When Nigeria takes the lead, it has also been moderately effective in deploying peacekeeping troops to smaller countries beset by civil war. Other African blocs include EAC, SADC. See also the African Union.
See sanctions.
Emerging markets
See developing countries
Enclave / exclave
An enclave is, metaphorically, an island of territory of one country inside another. The territory may be an independent state, such as Lesotho, or populated by people of a different ethnicity from the surrounding area, such as Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan. An exclave is part of the territory of one state that is wholly or partially surrounded by another. The exclave of Kaliningrad is part of Russia but lies between Lithuania and Poland.
Escalation ladder
To the people who wrote rules of strategy for the nuclear age, escalation was the process which moved a limited war towards an unlimited one. The key was a conceptual ladder in which each rung both increased the level of the conflict and sent a signal to the other side. One such 44-rung escalation ladder, devised to analyse the phenomenon, saw the step from rung nine (“Dramatic military confrontations”) to ten (“Provocative Breaking Off of Diplomatic Relations”) as the one which marked the point at which nuclear war ceased to be unthinkable. Read our article on nuclear escalation.
Ethnic cleansing
The systematic expulsion or killing of one ethnic group by another in order to make the killing grounds ethnically homogenous. The term is also used of campaigns by one religious group against another. Among examples in the 20th century are the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide and the Rwandan genocide, though the phrase itself dates from the Yugoslav wars of 1991-2001. Ethnic cleansing has no legal definition and is not a crime under International law, though almost all campaigns of ethnic cleansing involve genocide and crimes against humanity.
The official currency in 20 of the European Union’s member states. The currency was first adopted in 1999, and is now the world’s second most traded currency and second largest reserve currency, in both cases trailing the American dollar.
European acquis
The body of European Union law and European court decisions that is incorporated into the laws of member states. The acquis covers all matters that are in the jurisdiction of the EU, such as free movement of goods and people. Also called the acquis communautaire.
European Common Foreign and Security Policy
The part of the European Union’s foreign policy that deals mainly with external trade and aid. To a lesser extent it concerns EU peacekeeping, monitoring and humanitarian missions in troubled places. NATO is responsible for collective defence in most of Europe.
European Free-Trade Association (EFTA)
A free-trade area originally set up by countries which wanted free trade but did not want to join the European Economic Community, a precursor of the European Union. It now comprises only Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, the rest having joined the EU. The four EFTA countries are in the European single market and Schengen area, but not the EU customs union.
European Neighbourhood Policy
The part of the European Union’s foreign policy that deals with its eastern and southern neighbours in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Caucasus.
European Union
A 27-member economic union with political ambitions which does so much good that many British politicians could not stomach it.
Exclusive economic zone (EEZ)
A band up to 200 nautical miles from shore, in which a coastal nation may claim exclusive exploration rights over natural resources, including offshore oil and fishing. See Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The extension of one nation’s laws beyond its domestic jurisdiction in ways that affect foreigners. The United States imposes sanctions on third parties in pursuit of foreign-policy goals by, for example, punishing companies that do business in Iran or Cuba in defiance of American sanctions. China issues arrest warrants against American citizens of Chinese descent for activities undertaken within the United States that are legal there. The principle also encompasses the idea of diplomatic immunity.

Failed state
A state that can no longer perform the basic functions of government, such as providing security and law enforcement, raising taxes, controlling its territory and borders. A Fragile States Index published by the Fund for Peace, a think-tank, listed ten countries in its most vulnerable categories in 2022. Read our article (from 2021) on Myanmar being at risk of becoming a failed state.
Financial crisis of 2007-09
The most severe economic downturn since the Depression of the 1930s. A financial crisis that began in the American mortgage market spread to the international banking sector. In the aftermath, countries worldwide imposed stricter controls over financial markets but problems re-emerged in 2023. Also known as the Great Recession and the Global Financial Crisis.
In which a powerful country coerces a weaker one into friendliness, though the weaker state nominally remains independent and not an ally. A treaty that Finland signed with the Soviet Union in 1948 became the basis for Finlandisation in the cold war. Finland retained its Sovereignty and remained neutral in the Superpower rivalry, joining neither NATO nor the Warsaw Pact. In practice, the price of Finnish independence was that the Soviet Union would exert significant influence on the country’s politics. Finland was kept within Russia’s sphere of influence. Some proposed, at the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this as a model for Ukraine. Read our explainer on Finlandisation. Finland has since joined the EU and NATO.
First world
Historically, countries which sided with America during the cold war. These days, another way of saying rich and democratic countries. See Second world, Third world.
Foreign aid
A voluntary transfer of resources–economic, humanitarian or military–often for anti-poverty programmes or infrastructure projects. Foreign aid can be given by governments, individuals or charities. The UN wants to raise official development assistance to 0.7% of donors’ national income. Only a handful of countries achieve this target. Britain, for example, is no longer a leader in such giving.
Foreign Direct Investment (FDI)
When a foreign investor sets up a new company or buys an existing one in a foreign country, rather than merely investing in stocks or bonds (known as portfolio investment). FDI is a popular way to introduce new technology, boost skills and create jobs in the receiving country. But it is controversial when companies in nationally important sectors (such as defence or health) fall into foreign hands.
Francophonie, La (Organisation internationale de la Francophonie)
A grouping of more than 50 countries, mostly French speaking, founded in 1970. See also the Commonwealth and the Taalunie. Read our article (from 2018) on Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to redefine French culture and renovate La Francophonie.
Free trade
An economic policy which aims to encourage trade by abolishing or limiting restrictions on exports and imports. A surge of international trade, along with greater foreign direct investment and more travel and tourism helped to spur globalisation and closer economic interdependence in the 1990s. Free trade often goes hand in hand with liberalism in international affairs and with democracy promotion.
Frozen conflict
A conflict in which open and large-scale fighting has stopped but no political settlement or peace treaty exists to resolve the dispute. Kashmir and several territories of the former Soviet Union are examples of frozen conflicts.

Groups of countries banding together, with varying degrees of formality, are sometimes known by the letter G followed by the number of members. In ascending order of size, they are:
Not a group but a phrase by Ian Bremmer, a political scientist, to express a supposed shift away from a rules-based world order overseen by one, two, seven or 20 countries, towards a disorderly system without rules and overseen by none.
A hope rather than a group, the G2 referred to the United States and China at a time when it was thought they might co-operate to manage a bipolar world order.
Just kidding. The Gang of Four was arrested in China in 1976.
An informal group of the five largest countries within the European Union which worked together on immigration and terrorism in the late 1990s. Poland later joined the group making it:
Then Britain left the EU after a referendum in 2016, making it G5 again.
G7 (Group of Seven)
A forum for the Western world’s seven largest economies: Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States. They hold annual summits which are also attended by leaders of the European Union. The G7 has no institutional set up and is not based on a treaty. Instead it is organised by each country in turn; members’ finance and foreign ministers and central-bank governors also meet annually. As of 2023, the members accounted for 40% of world GDP. The G7 has played a role co-ordinating the rich world's response to the HIV/AIDS crisis and climate change. For a short time, Russia was also a member, so the G7 became:
But Russia was shunted out in 2014, so the eight went back to seven.
G20 (Group of Twenty)
A larger version of the G7 and one not made up entirely of the rich. It includes Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, India, China—and Russia. Like the G7, it has no permanent headquarters and holds summits for heads of government and various ministers. Though more inclusive than the G7, the G20 is still criticised for its exclusivity and for its lack of coherence.
Confusingly, a group with 134 members, though 77 originally. This is more like a voting bloc than an international organisation. It was set up by countries in the non-aligned movement in 1964 to promote their economic interests and has since evolved into a forum where developing countries co-ordinate their negotiating positions at the UN and in climate talks.
Game theory
The study of choice in which the outcome for one player depends on actions taken by others. In international relations, game theory has been important in the formulation of strategy governing the use of nuclear weapons. See also MAD.
General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade
Traces its origins to the Bretton Woods agreement, later morphed into the World Trade Organisation.
Geneva Conventions
The cornerstone of international humanitarian law. There are four Geneva conventions, plus three protocols which lay down basic legal standards for the treatment of prisoners, civilians and soldiers in war. The first Geneva convention was in 1864 but the term usually refers to the treaties ratified after the second world war, in 1949. They contain a category of “grave breaches” of the convention; this category forms the legal basis for prosecuting genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression at the International Criminal Court.
The crime, in International law, of acting with the intent to destroy a nation, religious group, race or ethnicity, either whole or in part. The term was coined by a Polish lawyer in 1944. In this legal sense, it is not synonymous with indiscriminate slaughter.
Sometimes taken to be just another term for international relations or world affairs, geopolitics more properly refers to the links between such relations and geography (from the Greek geo, earth). In this sense, geopolitics is the study of the influence upon politics of natural resources, demography and climate change.
Global civil society
A heterogeneous assembly of groups, networks,social movements, activists and, especially, NGOs who operate across borders and, in most cases, outside the control of governments and companies. Some participants think global civil society is a new and distinctive phenomenon while others that it is an extension to the rest of the world of western liberal values.
Global Civilisation Initiative
Xi Jinping’s own term for China’s approach to foreign policy under his leadership. It includes a Global Security Initiative, China’s alternative to an American-backed rules-based order and a Global Development Initiative promoting China’s economic-growth model. Read our editorial (from 2023) on the world according to Xi.
Global commons
Places that lie outside the jurisdiction of any one country and to which all might have access, in theory. They include the earth’s atmosphere, the high seas, Antarctica and space.
Global South
Poor and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania. The term derives from the notion that countries in the northern hemisphere are rich, those in the south poor. See development and developing countries. Australia, New Zealand and Singapore are not in the Global South.
Global warming
See climate change
Global Zero
A campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons, backed by hundreds of serving and former politicians, military figures and diplomats.
The process by which national economies become more connected and more closely integrated with each other. Globalisation works through the trading of goods and services, and the movement of capital and people. The process has often come in waves, most recently after 1990 as China and former Communist states in Europe and Asia joined the world trading system. See also slowbalisation, the halting or reversal of globalisation.
Golden Arches
A theory of conflict prevention which holds that no two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever gone to war with each other. Unfortunately, this is untrue, see Russia/Ukraine, Israel/Lebanon and many others.
Great power
A powerful country, usually defined as one which can exert influence globally. A superpower outranks a merely great one.
Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC)
A regional body of the six main Gulf states: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The council has a common market and joint military operations (called the Peninsula Shield Force); it plans to create a single currency. But Saudi Arabia and Qatar are diplomatic rivals, undermining the GCC’s coherence.

Hague, The
The home, in the Netherlands, of both the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), hence the name is sometimes used to refer to the processes of International law.
The dominance of one country over other countries, from the Greek hegemon (leader). Hegemonic power implies that no other state or states can seriously compete with the hegemon. The United States had hegemonic power after the collapse of the Soviet Union (see unipolarity) but may no longer do so, following the rise of China.
History, End of
A philosophical concept defined by its inventor Antoine Cournot “to refer to the end of the historical dynamic with the perfection of civil society.” Its best known manifestation was a book of 1992 by Francis Fukuyama, an American philosopher, called “The End of History and the Last Man”. This argued not that liberalism would triumph everywhere but that the dynamic of history was coming to an end and that Western liberal democracy would be the final form of government.
An idea of how international politics functions, based on the description by a 17th-century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, of what life would be like without the protection of a Leviathan who ruled over society: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Human Development Index (HDI)
An index that the economists Amartya Sen and Mahbub ul Haq helped devise in 1990, and which is published each year by the UN. It considers income, life expectancy and schooling, as elements of development. Read our recent article (from 2022) on the HDI. See development, and sustainable development.
Human rights
Rights to which everyone is entitled by virtue of being human. The UN’s Universal declaration of human rights of 1948 provides a definition. “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration,” it says, “without distinction of any kind.” In 28 further articles it enumerates “the right to life, liberty and the security of person…[that] no one shall be held in slavery… [that] no one shall be subjected to torture [and that] all are equal before the law.” Since its adoption the declaration has been translated into 500 languages. Whether it has been so comprehensively upheld is another matter.
Humanitarian intervention
The idea that states may intervene, including with military force, in others’ sovereign territory for the sake of upholding a cause, such as protecting human rights, stopping genocide or to save civilians. At times, also described as a “responsibility to protect”. Proponents pointed to successful interventions by Western powers at the turn of the millennium in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Timor Leste. It fell out of favour after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the rise of China, which opposes ideas of universal values. See Responsibility to Protect, Liberal intervention.
Humanitarian pause
A “temporary cessation of hostilities purely for humanitarian purposes”, according to the UN. Such pauses are usually limited to a defined period and to a specific area. A ceasefire goes further—read our full explainer from November 2023 on the differences in the context of the Israel-Gaza war.

A school of thought that holds that a country's foreign policy should reflect its ethical and political values, such as promoting democracy and human rights. Idealism is usually contrasted with realism. Idealists believe in actively seeking to shape global politics, encouraging other countries to adopt their values in the hope that this will eventually lead to a more peaceful, stable world.
According to Lenin, the last stage of capitalism. More usually seen as an ideology justifying the extension of state power abroad by grabbing territory and imposing unequal economic conditions on the conquered. Practised especially by white Europeans in Latin America, Africa and Asia. See also colonialism.
A region, originally maritime and referring to the biodiverse tropical waters of the Indian and western Pacific oceans. The term has taken on political and security connotations thanks to its adoption by the governments of the United States, other members of the Quad and others. It differs from plain “Asia” in focusing on the economic powerhouses of East Asia and South Asia and in not including China, whose growing power is feared by many smaller countries. Not to be confused with Asia-Pacific. Read our article on reinventing the Indo-Pacific.
A school of thought that holds that variation in trust and information can usefully explain phenomena in international relations. Rather than seeing international relations as inherently adversarial and zero-sum, scholars in this tradition often identify circumstances in which countries can co-operate. Also sometimes called liberal institutionalism. See also: realism, liberalism and neo-liberalism.
The mutual dependence of states upon each other. This is different from inter-connectivity; interdependence implies a greater degree of reciprocity. Trade is an example of interdependence.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
An international organisation, within the UN, that promotes the peaceful use of nuclear energy in its member states. Under the NPT, non-nuclear-weapons must have safeguarding agreements with the IAEA to verify that nuclear-energy programmes are not for military purposes. The agency has power to monitor such programmes and inspect nuclear sites.
International Court of Justice (ICJ)
The principal judicial organ of the United Nations. The ICJ settles disputes between states according to International law (in contrast, the ICC prosecutes individuals, see below). Its inaugural sitting took place in 1947 and by April 2023 it had held 187 cases. All UN members are parties to the ICJ and the General Assembly (with the Security Council) appoints its 15 judges. If a state ignores its ruling, the matter may be taken up by the UN Security Council.
International Criminal Court (ICC)
A tribunal set up under the Rome Statute in 2002 to prosecute individuals for “grave breaches” of the Geneva Conventions, among other crimes. These include genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression. By March 2023, the court had held 31 cases, with ten convictions. ICC rules require all parties to a dispute to recognise the court’s jurisdiction. America, China and India are not signatories to the Rome Statute and do not do so. Russia signed the statue but withdrew in 2016. Both the ICC and the International Court of Justice are based in The Hague. Read our explainer on the ICC.
International law
The norms and standards that define the legal responsibilities of states in their conduct with each other, especially in war, diplomacy and human rights. International law is rather different from domestic law, since it applies mainly to states, not individuals (so far), and because it relies more on consent, lacking the policing and enforcement mechanisms that domestic law enjoys. The statute of the International Court of Justice outlines three sources of international law: conventions “establishing rules expressly recognised by... states”; “international custom as evidence of a general practice accepted as law” and “the general principles of law recognised by civilised nations”.
International Monetary Fund (IMF)
An international financial institution and an independent agency within the UN. The IMF defines its role as “furthering international monetary co-operation, encouraging the expansion of trade and economic growth, and discouraging policies that would harm prosperity”. It does this by providing policy advice and balance-of-payments support. The institution that countries turn to for help in financial difficulties. See also Bretton Woods and Washington Consensus.
Iran nuclear deal
Islam is a monotheistic religion with roughly 2bn adherents. Islamism is the belief that Islam should guide political systems. Jihad is an Arabic word meaning struggling or striving and can refer either to the public fight against non-believers in Islam or the private struggle of the believer against sin.
See Islam.
A policy of avoiding involvement in the affairs of other countries, especially in their wars. This goes further than non-interference in that it usually implies neutrality, an unwillingness to join mutual defence agreements and, at the extreme, avoiding international trade. The US pursued a policy of isolationism for much of the 19th century. Japan cut itself off from the rest of the world between 1639 and 1853. British politicians described their policy of eschewing permanent alliances in the 19th century as “splendid isolation”.

JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action)
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal. A deal to ease sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear programme. It was meant to enforce a break-out time—the period Iran needed to produce a bomb’s-worth of weapons-grade uranium—of roughly a year. In his presidency Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement and restored American sanctions in a fruitless quest for a “better deal”. Read our article on the never-ending nuclear talks.
See Islam.
Just war
Just-war theory is based on criteria that are supposed to be met if a war is to be considered morally justified. Such criteria include (for example) that all other means of settling a dispute have been exhausted. The theory distinguishes between justice in going to war (jus ad bellum) and just conduct in war (jus in bello). In the fourth century St Augustine advocated the doctrine of a just war based on civilian protection, proportionality and restraint. The same principles were enshrined in the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Read our article on civilian protection in war.

A government of thieves; rule by people who corruptly use power to embezzle, syphon off and otherwise steal public assets. Kleptocracies are associated with dictatorships and oligarchies in which there is little or no government oversight or public probity. Notable kleptocrats include Suharto of Indonesia, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Narco-kleptocracy is a subset in which politicians traffic drugs or in which drug traffickers have undue influence.
Kyoto Protocol
The first internationally binding treaty to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. The protocol was a United Nations agreement, signed in 1997, committing 36 mostly rich countries and the EU to cut or slow the production of harmful gases. It specified target reductions over two periods, 2008-12 (when all the targets were hit) and 2013-20 (when a handful of countries refused to accept targets). Though many of the reductions were achieved, global greenhouse gas emissions rose throughout the periods because the protocol did not apply to most countries. In 2015 it was superseded by the Paris Agreement.

Law of the Sea
See Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Liberal intervention
A belief that international bodies and institutions may intervene in other countries to pursue liberal aims. Examples since 1990 include NATO’s military intervention in Bosnia; NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia; and Britain’s military intervention in Sierra Leone. Especially associated with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.
A school of thought which holds that variation in what states want explains most of the variation in what states do. Liberals hold that states do not only seek to maximise national security narrowly defined or just their economic interests; rather, countries pursue a variety of aims, as a result of complex domestic politics. Liberals see international relations in terms of interdependence, human rights and pluralism and, unlike realists, see global politics as an arena in which everyone’s security and living standards can be improved. Liberals accord much importance to the role of international organisations, to the benefits of free trade and to democratisation. They focus on promoting stability among states, rather than on competition between them.
Low-income countries
This is the World Bank’s official term for what are also called poor or developing countries and the Global South. They are countries whose gross national income per head was $1,085 or less in 2023.

Melian Dialogue
An episode of the Peloponnesian war, as told by Thucydides, often seen as emblematic of the anarchic nature of international relations. The small neutral state of Melos was confronted by powerful Athens, who wanted it to join in the war against Sparta. The Melians appealed to the Athenians to do the right thing, to which the Athenians replied: “... you know as well as we do that the right, as the world goes, is only in question between equal powers, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."
An economic theory which holds that exports benefit a country but imports harm it because they involve spending national wealth. Mercantilism was the prevailing theory of international trade during the 18th century. Contrast with free trade.
Soldiers not part of any country’s army who offer their services for pay. In the second half of the 20th century unstable parts of Africa and the Middle East, for example, were plagued by fighters—and private military companies—willing to be hired by the highest bidder. Some mercenaries are closely linked to states. For example, the Wagner Group, from Russia, fights in Ukraine and elsewhere. Read our explainer on the Wagner Group and a profile of its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
South America’s free-trade area and customs union, established in 1991. Its full members are Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. There are seven associate members and Venezuela, a founder, has been suspended. The group has a common external tariff but internal barriers to trade remain rife and economic integration only modest.
Middle East
As with similar formulations, a much contested term (see also Central Europe and middle income). Now, it usually refers to the 15 countries that speak Arabic, Turkish or Persian, plus Israel. Other terms include Near East, West Asia and the Middle East and North Africa.
Middle-income countries
To no one’s surprise, the class of countries between rich and poor. As defined by the World Bank, this means those with an income per head of more than $1,086 in 2023 and less than $13,205. They include 75% of the world’s population (both India and China are middle-income) so the Bank sub-divides them into lower middle-income and higher middle-income countries, with the dividing line at $4,045 per head.
Middle-ranking power / middle power
No precise criteria exist to define countries that lack the autonomy of great powers but have more power to influence their neighbourhoods than do minnows. Middle powers, however, can be recognised either by the size of their economies and related capabilities or by their behaviour: they tend to band together with similar-sized or smaller states in international bodies as a way to influence global politics.
Montreal Protocol
Dubbed by the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, in 2003 as “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date”, the protocol succeeded in repairing much of the hole in the ozone layer by banning or phasing out ozone-damaging chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The protocol entered into force in 1989 and has been signed by every UN member, a first.
Involving three or more states. See also bilateral
Co-operation between three or more states in pursuit of a common goal. As opposed to unilateralism and bilateralism. China uses the term as its alternative to a “unilateral” (American dominated) world, though it would more accurate to say:
Multipolarity / multipolar world
A world in which three or more great powers compete. In such a world no one country can dominate, because weaker states can unite against it. Europe exhibited multi-polarity for most of the 18th and 19th centuries. See also unipolar and bipolar.
Mutually assured destruction (MAD)
The idea that a nuclear attack by one nuclear power against another will be answered with massive retaliation, which is assumed to result in their mutual destruction. MAD, if followed to the letter by states with the capability to retaliate after being attacked, implies that neither side has an incentive to attack the other or to disarm.

NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement)
A free-trade zone between the United States, Canada and Mexico. Entered into force in 1994. Replaced in 2020 by the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which was little more than an updating of the original. Read our article on whether the region can make the most of its countries’ links.
Nation state
A state with borders corresponding roughly to those of its “nation” (typically, a dominant ethnic group). In many cases, such nations formed or were made to conform to borders, rather than the other way around.
At a minimum, the belief in the inherent political sovereignty of a particular group of people. Often, the belief that a particular such group should be considered superior to others, especially its neighbours.
NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation)
A military alliance between America, Canada and 29 European states. It provides collective security to its members and during the cold war was the main bulwark of the West against the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Article 5 of the NATO treaty, signed in 1949, says an attack on one member will be regarded as an attack on all. It was invoked for the first and only time after the September 11th, 2001 attacks. Finland joined in April 2023. Sweden has applied to join. One day, Ukraine may join, too.
In international relations, a mostly American mixture of hawkishness about projecting American power abroad and idealism in applying that power. In domestic politics, especially in America, it has other meanings.
Not the world’s most useful term, since it can refer either to “neo-liberal” economists who espouse market-oriented reform (see Washington Consensus) or to “liberal internationalists” (also called institutionalists) who argue that a rules-based international order would be stable if states were to co-operate more through international institutions.
NGO (Non-governmental organisation)
A blanket term that covers a multitude of things. Non-Governmental Organisations carry out charitable work, lobby on behalf of companies, provide health care and perform many other activities such as delivering humanitarian . In some countries, trade unions are considered NGOs. Their separation from government is far from complete: many get much of their money from official assistance; there are even GONGOs, government-organised non-governmental organisations, which are often fronts for authoritarian regimes. Because many NGOs work on behalf of human rights, the environment and marginal populations, they are frequently targeted by repressive regimes.
Nine-dash line
A line delineating Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea. It is so called because the U-shaped line on the map is literally composed of nine dashes (there are also versions called the ten-dash and eleven-dash lines). The area within the U includes islands and waters also claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. In a case brought by the Philippines under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the UNCLOS court ruled in 2016 that the nine-dash line provides no basis for China’s claims in International law. Read our explainer on the nine-dash line.
Non-aligned movement
A 120-member, but mostly moribund, outfit. In its heyday, a talking shop for countries unwilling to display overt allegiance to any superpower—although some, such as Cuba, were in the Soviet camp. Governments in India occasionally profess enthusiasm for rekindling the movement. Read our articles marking its 50th anniversary, in 2011, and a look, in 2023, at a grouping of many of the same countries.
Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT)
Properly, the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. By far the most extensive nuclear agreement, which almost all UN members have signed. It attempts to control the spread of nuclear weapons by defining the recognised nuclear-weapons states and then offering all other countries the prospect of assistance to develop peaceful uses of nuclear power. Nuclear-weapons states are also supposed to seek nuclear disarmament. Read our article (from 2022) on the Ukraine war and damage to nuclear-arms control.
NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command)
A combined air-defence command of Canada and the United States, tasked with maintaining control over the airspace of most of North America and the Arctic. Separate from NATO.
Nordic region
The five wealthy and highly developed countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Not the same as Scandinavia.
North Africa
The countries in Africa north of the Sahara, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and others. The precise number depends on whether (like the UN, but not the African Union) you include Sudan, and what you make of the status of Western Sahara.
Nuclear deterrence
The idea that having nuclear weapons deters others from launching nuclear strikes. During the Cold War, the game of deterrence was played largely by the United States and the Soviet Union. Now there are three dominant participants, with China. (Read our article on three-way nuclear deterrence.) In addition regional powers with nuclear arsenals, such as India and Pakistan, are engaged in it.
Nuclear disarmament
The process of states reducing (or eliminating) their stocks of nuclear weapons. The opposite of:
Nuclear proliferation
The spread of nuclear weapons to states which previously did not have them. Read our articles (from 2022) on the growing risk of nuclear proliferation. See Non-proliferation Treaty.
Nuclear-weapons states
Five countries declared they have nuclear weapons under the terms of the Non-proliferation Treaty: the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China. Three others have announced they possess nuclear weapons but are not NPT signatories: India, Pakistan and North Korea (it had been a signatory but then withdrew, in 2003). Israel is widely thought to possess such weapons but has not announced it. South Africa had nuclear weapons but dismantled them. The Soviet nuclear weapons stored in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine during the cold war were transferred to Russia, until March 2023 when Russia said it would again station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development)
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a club of 38 mostly rich countries. Founded in 1961 to encourage world trade and growth, it now sets rules governing international taxation, establishes guidelines for conduct by multinational companies and carries out policy research.
One-China policy
A deliberately ambiguous formula to try to keep the peace across the Taiwan Strait. The People’s Republic of China has what it calls a “one-China principle”: there is one China, which includes the island of Taiwan. Taiwan agrees that there is one China but in 1992 said it and the People’s Republic disagree about what that means in practice (this is called the 1992 consensus). The party in power on the island since 2016 does not endorse the 1992 consensus. The United States does not accept the one-China principle but has a one-China policy. This does not recognise Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan; does not recognise Taiwan as an independent state; but does commit the US to help Taiwan defend itself, if attacked. See also Taiwan Relations Act.
OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries)
As the name suggests, the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries is a club of oil-exporting states, which banded together in 1960 to try to control the supply and price of the commodity. Members are Algeria, Angola, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela, but not the United States or Russia, the world’s largest and third largest oil producers. Russia, however, is a member of OPEC+, an alliance set up in 2016 between Opec members and other oil producers, including Mexico and Azerbaijan.
Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe
An organisation created during the cold war as a forum for eastern and western countries to meet. It focuses on crisis prevention and management, but also plays a role in promoting human rights, arms control and free and fair elections. The OSCE is unusual in being based upon political commitments by governments, rather than upon legal treaty obligations ratified by parliaments.
Organisation of American States
A body set up in 1948 to boost co-operation in the Americas and to which all countries in the region belong except Cuba (suspended), Nicaragua (withdrawn) and Venezuela (contested). The OAS has no military or economic authority, works by consensus and is widely regarded as a talking shop. Its judicial watchdogs, however, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have been effective enough to become controversial.
Organisation of Islamic Cooperation
Formerly the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the OIC calls itself the collective voice of the Muslim world. Bernard Lewis, a scholar, said Westerners think the world is divided into nations with different religions, whereas Muslims see the world divided into religions with different nations. The OIC, which is based in Saudi Arabia, embodies Lewis’s understanding. It has had little discernible impact upon the many international-relations matters that concern Muslim-majority countries.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council. They are the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France. All have a power of veto over security-council resolutions. All are declared nuclear-weapons states. The Security Council has ten other members elected by the general assembly for two-year terms who do not have powers of veto.
The rapid spread of an infectious disease across many countries or several continents. HIV/AIDS and covid-19 were pandemics. An epidemic refers to the rapid spread of an infectious disease within a stable population, such as seasonal influenza.
Paris Agreement
An international treaty on climate change that entered into force in 2016. It includes a set of national environmental policies which aim to limit the increase in global temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. See also COP and Kyoto Protocol.
Peace dividend
The idea that, in periods of international calm, spending on defence can be cut in order that governments can either cut taxes or increase spending on public services, such as schools or hospitals.
Peace of Westphalia
See Westphalia, peace of
Forces that interpose themselves between warring sides. Peacekeepers may simply observe ceasefires and troop withdrawals; serve as buffers separating belligerents; or supervise elections and/or help build or reform institutions. Peacekeepers are lightly armed, are treated in International law as non-combatants and are usually sent by international organisations, such as the United Nations. They require the consent of both sides. There is also a category of operation that does not require such consent, in which troops are heavily armed and mandated to use force more extensively. This is better called peace enforcement.
Peak China
The idea that China, despite gathering immense economic, military and other power, may soon reach (or even have reached) the apogee of its strength. Those who make this case tend to emphasise the demographic problems that China already faces, with a shrinking workforce and declining overall population, along with arguments about the brittleness of authoritarian rule. Read our leader on how China’s ascent has slowed.
Peak oil
The notion that global crude oil production may be at or near its limit, with profound implications for oil exporters and importers, and for the world economy. In the 1950s M. King Hubbert, a geologist working for Shell, said oil output in the lower 48 states of America would peak around 1970, which did not happen. Shale-oil extraction has greatly increased potential oil supplies.
Ping-pong diplomacy
See Sports diplomacy
Pivot to Asia
A buzzword for the shift in the focus of American foreign policy during the Obama administration away from Europe and the Middle East towards China and the Pacific. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shifted the focus back a bit.
The ability to get someone (or something) to do something they would not otherwise do. While often conceived of as a resource (“the United States has more power”), power can also be thought of in terms of relationships, with a defined target (“Mexico”) and scope (“extradition policy”). See also soft power.
Prisoner’s dilemma
An example from game theory in which players fail to co-operate, even though it would be in their interest to do so. In international relations, a theory used to explain why co-operation often fails.
Proxy war
A war between two or more countries fought through military actions undertaken by other countries or armed groups, whose interests are advanced by the conflict. The war in Yemen is a proxy for the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

A school of thought that believes a country’s foreign policy should give priority to national interests narrowly defined (especially security), as contrasted with idealists or liberals. Realists focus on competition between states and are generally uninterested in what goes on within them. In 1975, referring to Cambodia’s communist leaders, Henry Kissinger remarked “Of course these people are murderous thugs but this should not affect our good relations.”
Policies aiming to further a country’s perceived interest rather than uphold moral principles. Also often the guise under which politicians without scruples further their own.
Recognition, diplomatic
The formal acknowledgement by a sovereign state that another entity also fulfils the conditions of statehood and is in control of its territory. Usually such recognition is made by unilateral declaration, though it may also be made by, for example, voting for another state at the United Nations.
The UN definition is: “Someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” Many refugees flee from war: over 4m left Ukraine in the first months after the Russian invasion in 2022. See our article on refugees from Ukraine. Some refugees may make the places they go to more peaceful, not less. People forced to flee within a country are called “internally displaced”. The most general term for people who move, often for economic reasons, is migrant. Those compelled to move, including refugees, may also be called forced migrants.
In international relations, the encouragement of activities within a region that contains several states. Most organisations called international are regional, including the African Union, European Union and Mercosur. In domestic politics the term refers to attempts to enhance the influence and identity of sub-national areas.
Reparations are paid by one (usually wealthy) state to compensate another state (or a group of people, such as descendants of slaves) for historic wrongs that it, or its nationals, committed. They may be compulsory or voluntary. German reparations after World War One were required by the peace treaty. “Loss and damage” climate reparations, agreed at a COP meeting in 2022, are voluntary; some historically large emitters of carbon offered to pay reparations to poorer countries vulnerable to a changing climate. See our explainer on loss and damage.
Resource curse
The idea that an abundance of natural resources (especially minerals and energy) is more of a curse than a blessing, because the winner-takes-all struggle for control leads to corruption, authoritarianism and instability. Consider Russia, Nigeria and Venezuela.
Responsibility to protect (R2P)
The idea that states can and should act to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. As codified by the UN general assembly in 2005, this means outsiders can legally intervene in the internal affairs of a state if it is “manifestly failing” to protect parts of its population. Intensely controversial since it clashes with the principle of sovereignty, the idea has fallen out of favour. See Humanitarian intervention, Liberal intervention.
Revisionist state
A state dissatisfied with the existing global order and which wants to revise it. Russia is a revisionist state. China used not to be but is becoming one. Contrast with status-quo state.
The popular overthrow of a government takes place inside a state, but revolutions often reshape regional or international affairs, too, as after the French, Russian and Iranian revolutions. States’ efforts to export their revolutions, or rival states’ efforts to crush them, may also cause instability. See Arab Spring.
Rogue state
An authoritarian state that flouts international norms and threatens global security by sponsoring terrorism and seeking nuclear weapons. The term is no longer used officially, though American politicians often apply it to countries including Afghanistan, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela. See also Axis of evil. Not to be confused with failed state.
Rules-based international order
The rejection of the idea that international affairs must be the preserve of anarchy. Supporters of such an order argue that norms, rules of behaviour and International law, covering the conduct of war, diplomacy, economic and other interactions, can be agreed upon between states and through international organisations.

SADC (Southern African Development Community)
A regional bloc of 16 countries, dominated by South Africa. It is supposed to encourage economic co-operation and democracy but has not been hugely successful at either. It has deployed peacekeeping troops, for example to Mozambique, but is too reluctant to condemn rigged elections in countries such as Zimbabwe. Other African regional blocs include EAC and ECOWAS.
A semi-arid strip running south of the Sahara desert that spans some 6,400km (4,000 miles). Its hinterlands are far from any city and mainly populated by nomads. Countries at the centre and western end, including Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, have been particularly vulnerable to jihadists. The entire region is exposed to climate change. See our article (from 2020) on the forced displacement of people in the Sahel.
San Francisco system
The network of American alliances in East Asia after the second world war. Named for a security conference taking place in the city in 1951, it was dubbed the “hub and spokes” system, with America as the “hub” and partner countries—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand—as "spokes" connected through bilateral treaties. See also NATO, where all countries are allied to all.
International trade restrictions imposed in pursuit of a foreign-policy aim, usually in an attempt to enforce global order. Sanctions may include trade embargoes, travel bans and asset freezes; the commonest sanction is an arms embargo. They have become a more widely used instrument of policy, in part because they are so much cheaper than war. Since 1966, the UN has imposed 31 sanctions regimes, 15 of which were, in May 2023, still operating. Most Western countries imposed sanctions on Russia after it invaded Ukraine.
Just three countries count as Scandinavian: Denmark, Norway and Sweden. If you want to include Finland or Iceland in the region, say Nordic.
When parts of the territory of an existing state unilaterally forms an independent new state. See also annexation, cession and conquest
Second World
Historically and occasionally, countries siding with the Soviet Union during the cold war. Infrequently used to refer to middle-income countries. See also First World, Third World
Security Council
One of six principal organs of the United Nations, responsible for trying to maintain international peace and security. The Security Council has five permanent members (P5) and ten others elected by the General Assembly. The Security Council recommends the admission of new UN members, approves changes to the UN charter and authorises military action and/or peacekeeping operations.
Security Dilemma
A situation in which actions by a state to increase its security, say, by spending more on defence, are perceived by other states as threatening. That may cause them to respond by increasing their spending, too—leading to a spiral of insecurity. An example is Germany before the first world war, whose investments in land and naval forces were seen as a threat by France and Britain. Also known as the spiral of insecurity.
The idea that any community has the right to its own political system. In particular, a nation should be allowed to form its own state and decide how it wants to be governed.
September 11th, 2001 attacks
The day on which al-Qaeda, an Islamist terrorist network, hijacked four commercial airliners and crashed them into American public buildings, killing nearly 3,000 people and precipitating the war on terror. Read our cover leader (from 2021) marking two decades after 9/11.
Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO)
The SCO was founded in 2001, by China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, to discuss security and economic matters in Central Asia. Although its members have conducted joint military exercises, the group is neither a formal defence alliance, like NATO, nor an official economic union like the EU. India and Pakistan were granted full membership in 2017. The SCO’s expansion highlights the often conflicting priorities of its membership. Read our explainer on the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation.
Shuttle diplomacy
When one state acts as an intermediary in talks between two others, which do not talk directly to one another. Originally used to describe Henry Kissinger’s shuttling back and forth between Israeli and Arab leaders to bring about the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur war.
Six-party talks
Negotiations, which took place in 2003-09, to settle the security alarms raised by North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programme. The parties were the two Koreas, Russia, China, Japan and the United States.
A term referring to the slowing (or reversal) of trends that once drove globalisation. Read our article on slowbalisation.
Soft power
“Hard” power refers to one state's capacity to coerce another, often using military might or sometimes the economic, diplomatic, technological or demographic advantages which underpin it. Soft power is the capacity to win over country by attract and persuasion. This may be thanks to a country's cultural or education exports, sporting prowess, moral authority, or general attractiveness as a model for others. How much it matters is hard to pin down. In 1986 Régis Debray, a French philosopher, wrote that “there is more power in rock music, videos, blue jeans… than in the entire Red Army”. Read our article (from 2019) on China’s sputtering efforts to obtain more soft power.
South Asia
The region made up of India and its neighbours: Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Largely because of intense rivalry between India and Pakistan, it is poorly integrated. Not the same as South East Asia.
South China Sea
Part of the western Pacific ocean bounded roughly by Vietnam in the west, the Philippines in the east, Borneo in the south and Taiwan in the north. One third of world trade passes through the area. For the multiple maritime disputes, see Nine-dash line.
South East Asia
South of China and east of India. As with every other regional geographical term, the constituent parts have varied over time. Now, it refers to the ten members of ASEAN, plus East Timor, Myanmar and Papua New Guinea. Economically one of the fastest-growing regions of the world. Not the same as South Asia.
South, the
Yet another term for poor countries. See Global South.
Supreme authority within a territory. The basis for the modern international system, established by the Treaty of Westphalia, is that countries—monarchs then, governments now—control what happens within their borders. However, in practice, this has never been fully the case. See: Sphere of influence, Responsibility to protect, Humanitarian intervention, Liberal intervention.
Space law
A body of laws governing activities in space, such as exploration, militarisation, environmental protection and rescue. Such laws are both domestic and international (the latter is on the basis of the so-called Outer Space Treaty of 1967). There is a United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, as if the UN did not have enough on its plate.
Sphere of influence
A region, either geographical or metaphorical, over which a state exerts a measure of control. Usually a much less formal matter than that enshrined in a treaty.
Sports diplomacy
The use of sports, especially international sporting events, as a tool for influencing other countries. The association of sports and diplomacy goes back to the ancient Olympic games, when fighting between states was suspended during the competition. Nixon’s recognition of China was presaged by an invitation to the American table tennis team to visit China (known as “ping-pong diplomacy”). Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup was part of an effort to expand its regional diplomatic influence.
Status-quo state
A state that wants to maintain the existing global order. The United States under Joe Biden is a status-quo state. Contrast with revisionist state.
Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT treaties)
Two rounds of bilateral talks between the United States and Soviet Union on arms control. They led to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty of 1972.
Strategic Arms Reduction treaties (START treaties)
Three bilateral treaties signed by the United States and the Soviet Union or Russia limiting strategic (long-range) nuclear warheads and missiles. START I was signed in 1991 and expired in 2009. START II was signed in 1993, but never came into effect. New START was signed in 2010 and expires in 2026. It is the last significant nuclear-weapons accord between the superpowers after America withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 (to pursue missile defences), the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019 (citing cheating by Russia) and the Open Skies treaty in 2020 (ending mutual reconnaissance overflights). Read our article (from 2022) on three-way deterrence.
Strategic nuclear weapons
Strategic nuclear weapons are much more powerful than tactical nuclear weapons (or non-strategic ones). Typically these have yields measured in the hundreds of kilotons: their blasts are equivalent to letting off hundreds of thousands of tonnes of high explosive, enough to destroy whole cities. Read our article on the risk of nuclear escalation.
Sub-Saharan Africa
All the countries in Africa, including island ones, excluding those north of the Sahara, in North Africa.
A state that wields so much power it is considered to be pre-eminent over others, including a Great power or regional power. During the cold war only America and the Soviet Union ranked as such, courtesy of their respective nuclear and other military might, as well as their economic, diplomatic, cultural or ideological influence, or their soft power. Since the end of the cold war, America alone has counted as one, though China aspires to the status.
Sustainable development
The Sustainable Development Goals are a mission statement by all 193 members of the UN to improve conditions of life. There are 17 goals, subdivided into 169 targets. They include ending poverty and hunger by 2030, providing clean water and inclusive and equitable education for all; and combating climate change.

Taalunie—union for the Dutch language
A grouping of three countries (the Netherlands, Belgium and Suriname). See also the Commonwealth and La Francophonie.
Tactical nuclear weapons
Tactical nuclear weapons (experts prefer the term “non-strategic”) have relatively small yields. That of a B61-12, an American weapon with a variable yield, can be “dialled down” as low as 0.3 kilotons—around one-fiftieth of the yield of the bomb which destroyed Hiroshima. Read our article on the 100 or so tactical nuclear weapons that America still has at air bases in Europe. Russia is thought to have thousands. Their military utility is fairly limited. Read our explainer on tactical nuclear weapons.
Taiwan Relations Act
An agreement between the United States and Taiwan committing the US to provide arms to defend the island, and to maintain the “capacity” to resist attacks or other coercion against the island considered to be of “grave concern” to the US.
The unlawful use of violence or threat thereof, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims. See also War on terror.
The Quad
A loose coalition of America, Australia, India and Japan with shared concerns over the rising strength of China. The group can trace its roots back to joint disaster relief after the Asian tsunami in 2004. Its communiqués talk of securing a “free, open, prosperous, rules-based and inclusive Indo-Pacific”. The Quad remains a work in progress and has not stopped China from threatening its members. Read our article on the point of the Quad.
Third World
Term, dating from the cold war, referring to poor countries. The United States, western Europe and their allies made up the First world. The Soviet Union, China and other communist states were the Second world. The Third World was everyone else. Many such countries were members of the Non-aligned movement. The term is now considered dated. See also developing countries and the Global South.
Thucydides Trap
The danger that war will break out between a declining power and a rising one, as both know that should there ever be conflict, any delay will favour the power in decline. Graham Allison, a Harvard scholar, thinks the world underestimates the risk of a catastrophic clash between China and the United States. When a rising power challenges an incumbent, carnage often ensues. Thucydides, an ancient historian, wrote of the Peloponnesian war of 431-404 BC that “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Mr Allison in a book in 2017 examined 16 similar cases since the 15th century. All but four ended in war. Read our full review of the book.
Trans Pacific Partnership
See Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership
A formal agreement between two or more parties, usually countries. Treaties are ratified by parliaments and therefore have the force of domestic law (in theory).

See Convention on the Law of the Sea
Acting without regard to, or in defiance of, others. As opposed to bilateral or multilateral actions. Most unilateral actions are aggressive, but not unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Unipolar world
A state of affairs in which one country has so great a dominance of power that it faces no real competition. In the 1990s and 2000s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States experienced its own unipolar moment. See also hegemon, bipolar and multipolar. Read our article (from 2021) discussing how America wasted its unipolar moment.
United Nations
An intergovernmental organisation, founded in 1945 to deter future wars. It calls itself “the one place on Earth where all the world’s nations can gather together, discuss common problems, and find shared solutions…” The UN has six principal organs: the General Assembly (the main deliberative body), the Security Council, the UN Secretariat (the administrative body), the Economic and Social Council, the International Court of Justice and the Trusteeship Council (which suspended operations in 1994). The UN also has 15 “specialised agencies” (such as the IMF and World Bank) and other programmes, such as the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme. The UN has flaws aplenty but as Jimmy Hoffa, an American crook (and union leader), once said, “I may have many faults but being wrong ain’t one.” Read our analysis (from 2020) of the new world disorder.
United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA)
Universal values
Values that have the same importance for everybody. See also civilisation and human rights. Read our article on the Chinese Communist party, which says that these do not exist and threaten the party’s power.

Veto power
In international relations, the ability of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5) to veto council statements and resolutions. In domestic politics, the ability of presidents or other executive authorities to veto legislative decisions, enshrined in a country’s constitution.

War crimes
One of four categories of the Geneva Conventions. War crimes are comprehensively enumerated in article 8 of the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court which contains 53 sub-sections, each devoted to a different crime. Unlike the other three categories, such as genocide, which are crimes in all circumstances, war crimes (“grave breaches”) refer only to actions committed during conflict. In Ukraine, Russia has committed almost every war crime in the book.
War of choice
A state that launches a war by invading another’s territory, usually decides whether and how to do so. They may claim they were obliged to do it, for some reason, but initiating a war is almost always a matter of choice. For those attacked, there is usually no alternative but to fight back or to sue for peace. Defensive wars are wars of necessity.
War on terror
A series of actions by the United States and its allies under the stated objective of combating terrorism in the wake of the September 11th, 2001 attacks. The largest of these were the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Also known as the Global War on Terrorism.
War, types of
Wars are large violent conflicts between groups capable of at least some resistance against the other (distinguishing them from massacres). How large is contested. Some modern scholars define wars as involving at least 1,000 deaths in battle in at least one year, and distinguish between civil wars (or intra-state wars) which take place between groups within a country, and war (or interstate war), which takes place between countries. Many involve elements of both. See also proxy war, war of choice.
Warsaw Pact
A military alliance between the Soviet Union and seven other east-European countries. Founded in 1955 as a counter-weight to NATO, it aimed to provide collective security to Communist countries during the cold war. Its largest military operation, however, was the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, a member. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the pact dissolved itself in 1991.
Washington Consensus
A set of economic-policy prescriptions for crisis-torn countries that stressed market reforms and neo-liberal policies. The original formulation in 1990 by John Williamson, a British economist, contained ten prescriptions, including low budget deficits, trade liberalisation and competitive exchange rates. Contrast with Beijing consensus.
Weapons of mass destruction (WMD)
Nuclear, chemical, biological or radiological weapons that are intended to kill or injure large numbers of people. Though widely used by officials and politicians, the term has no precise technical or legal meaning and its use has changed over time, having once referred mainly to nuclear weapons. Nuclear and biological devices are arguably in a different category from chemical and radiological ones (“dirty bombs”) in that their mass destructive potential is greater.
West, the
Shorthand for countries with democratic political systems, free market economies and shared values based on European culture. It is best not to examine the term too closely since Japan, often regarded as part of the West, is neither geographically nor culturally Western.
Western Europe
During the cold war, this meant countries on the western side of the iron curtain. Today it is a geographic expression. Western Europe is made up of democratic and wealthy countries. Despite Brexit, Britain still counts. The line between western and central Europe is fuzzy.
Westphalia, Peace of
The Peace of Westphalia brought an end to the ruinous Thirty Years War in Europe in 1648. It helped establish three basic principles of contemporary international relations: that states have exclusive sovereignty over their territories, that international borders should not be violated and that other countries should not interfere in the domestic affairs of states. All are enshrined in the United Nations charter.
Westphalia, Treaty of
Actually, two treaties, signed in the Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster in 1648, see above.
World Bank
The world’s largest multilateral development bank with over $100bn of commitments in 2022. The World Bank Group is part of the UN system and includes five institutions, of which the best known are the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and the International Development Association (IDA). Its main purpose is to reduce poverty and promote sustainable growth in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. The IBRD was established as part of the Bretton Woods agreement. For more about the bank, read this explainer.
World Trade Organisation (WTO)
A body set up under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to replace that regime and rule on trade disputes. China’s admission to the WTO in December 2001 was followed by a rapid expansion of its exports, but not by the political liberalisation that some hoped would occur. The WTO is disliked by some campaigners—and some governments—because its decisions impinge on national sovereignty.

Xylophone diplomacy
A made-up term, created in order to have an entry for the letter X in The Economist’s A-Z of international relations.

China would love its currency to become a favourite of central banks around the world. When it comes to sanctions and policing international crime, America wields more clout than other states because its own money is so central to the global financial system. Read our article (from 2020) explaining China’s ambitions.

Russian symbol for the invasion of Ukraine. The last letter of the Latin (not Cyrillic) alphabet has been painted on tanks and public buildings to signify support for the war. Read our explainer on why Z is for Putin.
Zero-sum game
In which a gain for one side involves a corresponding loss for the other. The relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is often given as an example.