International studies continues to innovate

By CAO DEJUN / 07-04-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

The international community Photo: TUCHONG

The establishment of the first chair of international relations at the University of Wales in 1919 marked the emergence of international studies as an independent academic discipline. Over the following century, international studies has evolved from a single discipline towards an interdisciplinary field, fostering paradigm innovation through dialogue and integration with other disciplines.


The knowledge accumulation and disciplinary construction of international studies is significantly influenced by international circumstances, with research focus often shifting alongside transitions in global political power. The development of the discipline has experienced three key milestones.

The first milestone occurred with the outbreak of the two World Wars, during which the focus of international studies was on Europe. The complex interactions and disputes among European powers served as abundant material for studying international relations history, international law, and international strategy, giving rise to a general consensus on the principle of balance of power. In the aftermath of the devastating First World War, Europe began to reflect on the limitations of balance of power. Driven by globalization, idealism came to prominence in international studies. As idealism was sharply criticized by Edward Carr, however, realism began to prevail. 

The second milestone occurred with the end of the Cold War, which fundamentally transformed the structure of the international system. The Cold War marked the first major ideological confrontation in human history, with the distribution of power becoming a key variable in the international system. The Cold War structure began to fragment and disintegrate in the 1980s with the rise of theories such as neoliberal institutionalism, international political economy, neo-Marxism, critical theory, and constructivism, reflecting the diversity and non-structural processes of the realities of international relations. The Cold War ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, highlighting the importance of peaceful evolution and value revolutions. 

The third milestone is represented by the rise of China and the emergence of non-Western international studies. Since the 2008 financial crisis and the Beijing Olympics, the Western community of international studies has called for the introduction of non-Western experience.  International relations today have extended beyond the scope of sovereignty, with numerous new phenomena emerging at the subnational and supranational levels and constituting new research topics, such as the long-term desecuritization of Japan and Germany, the multi-layered governance of the European Union, transboundary ethnic identity recognition, global climate governance networks, and the localization of international norms.

New perspectives

Future-oriented international studies aims to address major real-world issues and contribute new perspectives to the structure of human knowledge.

First, international studies is an independent discipline. Although it is enriched by borrowing intellectual frameworks from economics, military science, sociology, and many other disciplines, its interdisciplinary nature does not necessarily undermine its independence. While disciplines such as psychology and history are increasingly integrated into the research agenda of international studies, clear boundaries exist between them: there is no unified political or ideological market among nations. For instance, although history can offer coherent explanations of the records of political processes within the scope of sovereignty, it must consider the special significance of anarchy in the history of international relations.

Second, international studies has become less focused on statehood. In recent years, the field has advocated for understanding the microscopic foundations of human nature and psychology as well as examining discursive narratives and ontological security. International political economy is no longer limited to the relations between sovereign states, as capital and currency unions, global value chains, mega economic and trade groups, and non-governmental organizations all transcend sovereign boundaries.

Third, international studies is shifting towards the study of world politics which holds that actors with material resources (individuals or groups) perceive one another in ways that shape different forms of resource and institutional integration. Throughout the history of international relations, competitive world wars and value-based peaceful evolution have failed to bring about the integration of heterogeneous civilizations. Amid global changes of a magnitude not seen in a century, research on world politics must respond to the “commonality” entailed by building a community with a shared future for mankind, which requires jointly confronting problems, working together to devise solutions, and sharing benefits among all participants.

Cao Dejun is an associate professor from the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China.