A center for international studies is often the first interdisciplinary academic unit established by a university as evidence of a commitment to international education. During the Cold War a large number of such centers were established and were permitted to compete for Federal support through Title VI of the National Defense Education Act. The dominant paradigm for these centers was the realist, or game-theoretic, approach to international relations (IR). This approach was premised on gaming the strategies of the two (or sometimes three) great powers of the Cold War era.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 began the decline of the game-theoretic IR school. The end of the Cold War led to predictions of a unipolar world dominated by the United States, the “Washington consensus,” and the “end of ideology.” However, the world that actually emerged in the 1990s and beyond turned out to be polycentric and chaotic. The game-theoretic approach was not particularly useful for understanding the dynamics of this new international environment. International centers began to focus less on great power international relations and more on the issues underlying globalization.
As the field of IR declined, the fields of comparative politics (CP) and international political economy (IPE), gained in the post-Cold War era. The once-small CP section of the American Political Science Association now competes with American politics for the honor of being the largest section. Likewise, IPE has had a stunning growth from what was once a small subspecialty. Both fields are well represented in contemporary international centers.
The rise of cultural studies in the humanities also brought an infusion of fresh ideas and talent to international centers. The replacement of the Western high canon by transnational and trans-cultural subject matter internationalized the humanities. It was not long before the humanists discovered that the international center provided a supportive venue for their efforts.
The most striking feature in the evolution of international centers has been the rise of global thematic studies, which continue to proliferate and lead to an increasing diversity among international centers, as centers make different choices about which themes to target. While traditional economic topics such as global finance and investment remain of interest, newer themes include global health, global environment, global human rights, global popular culture, global religions, global crime, and global terrorism.
This thematic diversity in turn reflects a change in the role of the international center. During the period of IR hegemony, the international center set the agenda for international studies. Today it follows the agendas of its most active faculty. The international center also offers a common playing field, or to put it more elegantly, a Gramscian space, in which to address the substantive and theoretical issues that concern all world areas but are beyond the purview of any area center.
The area centers address the different ways that the global affects the regional and local, while the international center addresses the systemic issues. Thus the international center has become a service unit, in the most positive sense, for globally-oriented students and faculty and for foreign area centers, as well as a locus for new thinking about global issues and the global system.