Has this been a good year for international relations?

AAP/Jonathan Raa

My employers think I know something about the practice and theory of international relations. Perhaps I shouldn’t draw attention to my shortcomings in this area given that my university is currently in the business of “letting a few people go”. Between ourselves, though, I can’t quite work out whether we’ve just had a good year or one of the worst on record.

As is often the way in academia, it’s possible to make a pretty respectable argument for either case. One might be forgiven for thinking that in a year when conflict in the Middle East assumed rather apocalyptic proportions at times, and when the apparent threat from terrorism seemed ubiquitous and inescapable, the evidence was compelling and overwhelming.

And yet for those of us fortunate enough not to live in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, the chances of coming to a sticky end at the hands of Islamic State or any other “death cultists” remain vanishingly small. I’m about to head off to Paris to teach for six months and the last thing I’m worrying about is a random act of violence. Packing on the pounds or getting lung cancer from all that passive smoking – is smoking actually compulsory in France? – are different matters.

No doubt we shouldn’t be flippant about such issues and the inherently unjust distribution of life chances, but it is important to keep things in perspective. I may be an especially privileged and unrepresentative example, but many of my students are heading off for even more exotic foreign parts with every confidence of having a good time when they get there and returning safely afterwards.

If even a part of the world’s population is unambiguously enjoying the “good life” that’s quite an achievement. It’s possible to question whether self-absorbed hedonism actually constitutes the end point of human development, but my point is that many people have potentially good choices to make about how they spend their time.

But such selfish lifestyles are unsustainable and contributing to the thoughtless destruction of the plant, right? Possibly so, and this is perhaps the defining paradox of our age: the very affluence that we all pursue and which drives our “successful” economies looks set to make the planet uninhabitable.

And yet even here, there is evidence that all is not lost. The sceptics may be right in arguing that recent climate talks in Paris may not ultimately save the planet, but that they happened at all and that there was an agreement of sorts is quite remarkable and moderately encouraging. That individual states felt compelled to turn up and play a relatively constructive part is significant and possibly indicative of our potential to act collectively.

Being temperamentally a glass-half-empty sort of a chap I didn’t get too excited about the Paris talks, but that’s not to say I didn’t cheer them on, either. After all, what’s the alternative? Yes the problems are formidable, vested economic interests remain powerful, and national priorities still shape most policy decisions, but we do have to start somewhere.

Even the non-breeders among us have some sort of responsibility to the generations that follow in our wake, don’t we?

But even the glass-half-full types must have been disconcerted by the travails of the European Union. I have tried the patience of regular readers of this column before with my unabashed admiration of the EU as a political project. But unresolved economic crises, destabilising inflows of immigrants, the rise of the nationalist right and a fundamental loss of confidence in the EU’s problem-solving capacities have raised uncomfortable questions about the EU’s future – even whether it actually has one.

The big question that has emerged over the last year in particular is about the nature of international order as something more that a theoretical concept. Metaphors about glasses, whether half-full or half-empty, are predicated on the idea that there is some institutionalised basis to international interactions that allows nations and the host of other actors that distinguish contemporary international affairs to act in the first place.

The practice of international relations really isn’t “anarchic”. Much of the world is still surprisingly orderly and rule-governed. The challenge, as ever, is to expand the area in which this happy state of affairs exists. If the ambit of order can’t be expanded to embrace some of the more benighted regions of the world, their citizens will continue to vote with their feet.

Has it been a good year, then? It rather depends who you are. Anyone who lives in Australia can count themselves pretty lucky, though. Enjoying the luxury of taking an inconclusive academic interest in life and death questions is infinitely preferable to confronting the real thing.