The Jungle Grows Back How can We Redefine the Future World Order in the Tension of Power and Ideas?

Marco Marsili*


Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, peace and stability are challenged every day. The Russian intervention in Ukraine and Georgia (Marsili, 2016), the economic expansion of the People’s Republic of China (Marsili, 2015), the nuclear threat from Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the revisionism of the United States (U.S.), and, last but not least, hybrid threats such as international terrorism, jeopardise the world order (Marsili, 2019). The maintenance of world order is the main concern of the international community (Bull, 1997). The cardinal points of international law are lost, and the rule of law is a ghost that wanders around the world: are we back to the jungle? How can we redefine the future world order in the tension of power and ideas?

* Research fellow at Centro de Investigação do Instituto de Estudos Políticos da Universidade Católica Portuguesa (CIEP-UCP). Research associate at: Centro de Estudos Internacionais (CEI-IUL) – Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL); Centro de Investigação, Inovação e Desenvolvimento da Academia Militar (CINAMIL); Centro de Investigação e Desenvolvimento do Instituto Universitário Militar (CIDIUM)

Attempts to ensure the world order were sought by the international society within the League of Nations during its short life (1920-1946). The League failed to resolve the major political disputes and, finally, failed in its primary purpose, the prevention of another world war (Northedge, 1986: 276–278). The idea of an international governmental organisation (IGO) to prevent future wars or to limit hostilities was resumed after World War II, with the foundation of the United Nations (U.N.) in 1945.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the following events – disbanding of the Warsaw Pact in July 1991, and dissolution of the Soviet Union (USSR) in December same year – the international structure has ceased to be bipolar and in this vacuum regional powers such as China and the Russian Federation emerged and gained space.

Power and ideas before the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Many authors, before the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the events that ended the East-West bipolar competition, analysed the role of ideas (or ideologies) and the structure of the international system, and how this was correlated with power and world order.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1993: 459–463) argues that structural factors and ideological and institutional transformation contributed to bringing the Cold War to an end. In the last chapter of Politics among Nations, Morghentau outlines three ideal-types of policy and ideologies: the policy of the status quo concentrates on maintaining power; imperialism seeks to obtain more power; and the policy of prestige demonstrates power. He finds that the world is politically organised into nations (1951: 68) that collide in an unending struggle for power (1946: 47). Therefore the proper way to manage this mechanism is through a developed and sophisticated diplomacy by way of negotiations (1958: 270–280).

In most of his remarkable works Waltz concludes that conflicts originate in the structure of the international system (1963: 881–901; 1979; 1988: 615–628; 1990: 21–38). He gathers that ideology does not play a key role; the distribution of power accounts for the stability of the international system, and we can expect more stability in bipolar systems than in multipolar systems, as it reduces the occasion for dispute due to the size of the two superpowers. According to Waltz, states are interested in performing the same function of achieving security, and power of balance accounts for the stability of the international system, reducing the occasion for dispute. Likely, Cesa (2009: 185–187) believes that all states are interested in performing the same function of achieving security. I think that the world is presently in the midst of an epochal transition from unipolarity to multipolarity, where a distribution of power in which more than two nation-states have nearly equal amounts of military, cultural, and economic influence (Marsili, 2015: 70).

Political leadership

Some authors consider that the decisions made by leaders have an enormous impact. Other scholars like Suri (2002: 61) and Cesa (2009) underline both the role of policymakers and ideology. Suri (2002: 67–81) acknowledges that Reagan policy played a key role in overcoming the Cold War, even if many authors think he played no role whatsoever, and it was all down to Gorbachev (Cox: 2007, 129–130). Cox argues that whether or not we see Reagan as a catalyst for change, his presidency marked an important transitional moment in the history of the Cold War. According to some writers, in fact, we should not be seeking the causes of 1989 in one man or even one presidency, but in broader changes taking place in the world economic system after World War II.

This is not the place to discuss the impact of the President Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical speeches (1982; 1987) on the events that followed, but it is meaningful what U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz writes in his memories about the 40th president of the United States: “If the first Reagan term could be characterised by a building of strength, in the second term we could use that strength for determined and patient diplomatic efforts to produce greater peace and stability in the world” (Shultz, 1993: 486).

Reagan’s successor played a crucial role, too. During 1989 President George W. Bush intervened decisively on the question of Germany, not only in reassuring Germany’s western allies that unification would not upset the balance of power in Europe but in reassuring Gorbachev too that a united Germany would not be at the expense of the USSR, and that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) would go no further the new Germany (Cox, 2007: 131), even if the Alliance began to expand eastwards. To some extent, political leaders have a burden in establishing and maintaining the world order.

The Law of Nations. A Set of Rules for the International Community

The world order cannot prescind from a set of rules and institutions, governed by international law, but inspired by a moral and ethical tension, which goal should be the common good. In The Anarchical Society, Hedley Bull traces the story of international relations and explores the issue of world order. He thinks that order is an important good (Bull, 1977), but it is distinct from justice, and the preservation of world order may be neither necessary nor sufficient for achieving justice (Bull, 1971). Bull recalls the deep concerns expressed by Pufendorf in De statu imperii germanici, published in 1667 under the pseudonym Severino di Monzambano, about the lack of a strong central power – the Holy Roman Empire – which would prevent armed conflicts between nations.

Ensure order, in the current multipolar world, it is more difficult than in the past, and this requires strong international institutions and commonly accepted rules. Natural law provides the basis of the law of nations (ius gentium or jus gentium), a set of rules that has its source in the naturalis ratio and is observed equally among all gentes (“peoples” or “nations”) as customary law, in “reasoned compliance with standards of international conduct” (Bederman, 2004: 85).

The Founding Fathers and the Classical Theories. A compass for achieving the Word Order

In The Law of Nature and of Nations, Pufendorf argues that, as peace is weak and uncertain, it should be preserved as good of all mankind. Pufendorf owes much to the thought of Grotius, which can be considered the ‘founding father’ of the idea of an international society of states, governed not by force or warfare but by law. In De Jure Belli ac Pacis (1625) the Dutch jurist proposes the adoption of international law, based on natural law, which should be binding on all nations.

When Grotius develops his idea, the ancient system that, until then, had guaranteed the European order, has ceased to be effective. The jungle was growing: Europe was suffering long wars of religion, including the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) and the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), that ended with the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648. The Peace of Westphalia strips some powers from the Emperor – doing miss, in fact, a central authority able to mediate and prevent armed conflicts – and establishes a new political order that will lead to the modern international system (Croxton and Tischer, 2002).

Grotius (1738) formulated the “theory of the social contract” that is that the state of nature derives from the tendency of man who is led to establishing with others a specific form of peaceful political community and concorde (appetitus societatis). According to this theory, outlined in his legal masterpiece, individuals, in view of a common utility, pass from the state of nature to civil status by transferring to a ruler, by means of a pact, the power to enforce the sphere of interest of each individual coercively, in order to maintain social order and peace. The social contract is implemented when the state of nature becomes impractical, violent and insecure due to the increase in needs, the decrease in available wealth and the birth of selfish instincts. Therefore, we pass from a Hobbesian state of homo homini lupus,[1] in which prevails the law of the jungle, to the search for legal means aimed to resolve and prevent disputes between nations.

In Perpetual Peace (1795) Kant assumes that, in order to ensure lasting peace, nations must establish a system of rules that avoid the outbreak of armed conflict. To achieve this goal, he suggests founding the law of nations on a federation of states, or on what we can currently define an IGO like the U.N. The aim is to protect international law and to defend it against threats to international peace and security.

Security and justice are two faces of the “common good” or “commonwealth”, which can be achieved only through political means. Political theorists and moral philosophers have addressed this issue since the era of Ancient Greece. According to the natural law theory, certain rights are inherent by virtue of human nature endowed by nature, God, or a transcendent source, and are universal. These binding rules of moral behaviour originate from nature’s or God’s creation of reality and mankind. Even the tradition of Catholic social teaching provides tools for achieving the common good (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 2001) – Grotius himself (1772) reintroduced various elements of Christianity into his theory.


If the international society does not share common interests or values and does not bind itself by common rules and goals, world order and peace are in jeopardy. Common rules, inspired by the tension of power and ideas, provide standards of conduct and helps in making institutions operate properly. There is no need to look for something new, to establish a world order based on the moral principles of justice and fairness. If we look at the past, we find that these principles have already been encoded, and are still valid today – they should only be applied properly. It is up to political leaders to take action.


The author gratefully acknowledges the European Social Fund (ESF) and the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT), Portugal, for supporting this work through grant SFRH/BD/136170/2018.


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[1] Latin proverb meaning “Man is wolf to man”, quoted by Thomas Hobbes in the “Epistola Dedicatoria” to William Cavendish – 3rd Earl of Devonshire, in the premise to the De Cive [1642], Howard Warrender (ed.) (1983), Oxford, Clarendon Press, p. 73.

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