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International relations: continuity and change in global politics

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We live at a time of historic change in the international system. The rise of China and other developing countries, as well as the resurgence of Russian militarism, is challenging the long dominance of the west. Political upheaval and the growing role of networks are reshaping the world. Economic, social and technological changes are altering the context for international relations. This module asks the key questions about contemporary international relations. It teaches key ideas such as sovereignty and security; develops your ability to analyse and respond to some of the central problems of our day; and to understand longer trends of continuity and change in global politics.

What you will study

This module is of interest to anyone who wants to understand the key areas of change and major problems in international relations today.

The module is organised around a series of problem areas, or choices, facing the world today.

  • Will the rise of China lead to greater co-operation or conflict with the United States (US)?
  • Is political and economic change leading to a more uniform world or one split by inequalities and difference?
  • Can justice be pursued at the international level in the areas of humanitarian intervention and global inequality?
  • Can issue areas as diverse as economic relations between China and the US, nuclear proliferation and arms control be governed effectively at the international or global level?
  • How do states and other players pursue security in the international system?

Each of these forms the focus for the first five blocks of the module.

Block 1: Co-operation or conflict? Introducing international relations
The first block begins with China’s deepening interconnections with the US and analyses whether this key relationship will lead to greater co-operation or conflict. It also sets out the scope of international relations as a subject.

Block 2: Flat or uneven? Change and transformation in the international system
This block tackles the rise of the modern system of nation states and asks: is the world getting ‘flatter’ or more uneven? That is, are the political systems and economies in the world becoming increasingly similar – liberal, democratic and rich – or is the world more diverse, unequal and divided than ever?

Block 3: Just or unjust? Intervention and equality in the international system
The third block asks whether justice can be achieved in the international system and whether ideas about universal rights can – or should – be applied across the world. Does the historical dominance of the west continue to create injustices in the world today?

Block 4: Top-down or bottom-up? Governance in the international system
This block looks at global governance and whether international co-operation is achieved from the top down, in relations between powerful states, or from the bottom up, through the actions of transnational networks of activists.

Block 5: Secure or insecure? Pursuing security in the international system
The fifth block assesses how states have traditionally pursued their own security through the balance of power and nuclear deterrence. It questions whose security is being safeguarded and draws on feminist analysis to look at the particular role of gender in war. And it asks how we change an issue dramatically when we say it is a matter of ‘security’.

Block 6: Continuity or change in global politics
The final block looks back over the module and prepares the ground for your end-of-module assessment.

In addressing these questions, the module provides you with a knowledge of the main ideas, theories and concepts that scholars in international relations have developed to analyse continuity and change in global politics. While it is an OU level 3 module, it introduces you gradually to the subject, moving from some of the founding ideas in international relations, through debates over historical change, to key contemporary debates in the subject. It carefully and cumulatively builds up your knowledge of key concepts and different theoretical approaches so that, by the end, you have the ability to critically evaluate these ideas and their application to major real-world problems facing the world today.

In addition, the module draws on a number of other subject areas. It deals with ideas current in politics more widely, on issues of sovereignty and governance, and draws on some aspects of political theory to do with questions of justice. It teaches some key ideas in economics to do with economic growth, measuring income inequality, trade and how national economies ‘balance the books’. It also looks at how ideas from the wider social sciences on gender and postcolonialism, have influenced the study of international relations.

By taking this module, you'll:

  • develop your understanding of the changing relations between nation states in the international system and the wider political, economic and social changes affecting international relations
  • be able to analyse the prospects for co-operation and conflict and the sources of order and disorder in the international system
  • develop your skills as a critical, independent learner and writer.

The module is delivered through a combination of online learning, a variety of audio and visual materials, a module textbook and with possible face-to-face options. Module materials are regularly  reviewed and updated to account for developments in international politics.

You will learn

As well as developing your ability to analyse key problems in international relations, the module enables you to develop a set of valuable practical and transferable skills. These include critical thinking; working independently and in collaboration with fellow students; critical problem solving; communicating your ideas effectively in a number of ways (essay writing, reports and projects); ICT and numerical skills; and synthesising and applying knowledge. You will also learn how to manage your time effectively and be able to organise and complete a programme of work to a specified standard. You will also develop your ability to reflect on your own learning.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 3 module. OU level 3 modules build on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from previous studies at OU levels 1 and 2 with the OU. They are only intended for students with recent experience of higher education in a related subject.

Prior social science study will be an advantage but is not essential. Our OU level 2 modules International development: making sense of a changing world (TD223) and Understanding politics: ideas and institutions in the modern world (DD211) would be ideal preparation.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

What's included

You'll be provided with a module textbook and have access to a module website which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • study guide
  • interactive and online resources
  • audio and video materials
  • assessment guide
  • online forums and tutorials. 

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11) or macOS Ventura or higher.

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop, as described above.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You'll have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance.

We aim to provide online tutorials, and recordings of these will typically be made available.

While you’re not obliged to attend any of these tutorial events, you are strongly encouraged to take part.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying DD313 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

International relations: continuity and change in global politics (DD313) starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2024. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2025.

Course work includes:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
1 Interactive computer-marked assignment (iCMA)
End-of-module assessment