Some rather aberrant reflections about schoolyards, wars, NATO, Russia, and China

Not only scientists, but all people are constantly searching for causes to explain the course of their own lives and that of the world in general. This need becomes particularly strong when death and life are at stake. War makes each of us an explorer of primary causes. Who was responsible for the First World War? Why did Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have to happen? In addition to the official interpretations of the various camps, there are countless private attempts at explanation. What they have in common is that they rarely distinguish between superficial, more or less accidental causes and long-term ones. The external cause immediately responsible for the outbreak of World War I was undoubtedly the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, but the long-term cause was the race of the great European powers for greater economic as well as military power. This race did not fail to slowly but inexcorably fill the powder kegs in all leading powers of Europe. At some point it had to explode – with or without the complicity of the Serbian assassin Gavrilo Princip. And no doubt, the war in Ukraine was arbitrarily unleashed by one man, Vladimir Putin. That is the ostensible direct cause of its outbreak, but the long-term cause of the renewed confrontation between East and West lies much deeper.

In this context, I am tempted to offer some off-beat reflections on an experience that almost all of us had to go through. Leave a schoolyard unattended, and chaos reigns at first – everyone against everyone – but only for a fairly short time. Usually the fists of the stronger prevail against those of the weaker. Never did I experience that among pupils left to their own devices, something like a multipolar society develops, where everyone has the right to be happy in his or her own way. No, the power of the strongest decides. If there are two equally strong groups, then constant fights are the rule, which are always decided by violence – headlocks, fisticuffs including a lot of other tortures. The situation in a schoolyard will only be stable afte the power hierarchy is clearly established. In my opinion, peace researchers have never been able to sufficiently explain war and peace in a schoolyard, otherwise they would know that this is but the beginning of what is then continued among adults – only that the fights no longer take place with headlocks and fists but with bombs up to weapons of mass destruction.

Schoolyards illustrate human behavior under the condition of enforced spatial proximity. The same pupils, who may treat each other with utmost indifference as long as each goes his own way, instantly get into ranking fights as soon as they have to endure each other in the confined space of a limited school area. Wrestling and mutual blows and punches are then to decide who will determine and enforce a common order. Peace only comes, when the hierarchy is fixed. In other words: a schoolyard is the world en miniature.

Five hundred years ago, the population on the globe was so small and the centers of human civilization were so far apart that most of the time they lived independently from each other: there still existed a truly multipolar world. Since the second half of the twentieth century, this situation has dramatically changed. A population of soon ten billion people now not only has access to all the planet’s resources, but its power centers now threaten every point on Earth with supersonic missiles. There are no longer any areas of retreat. States have become dangerously close to each other, and they constantly try to intimidate their rivals with their muscle games just like the boastful bullies in the confined space of a school.

We know that in the latter peace can only come about in two possible ways. Either the strongest prevail: a monopolar order then develops around them, or a deus ex machina in the form of a teacher intervenes from the outside and suppresses all fights. Obviously, our poor globe has the tremendous misfortune that God is not interested in world affairs, i.e. in armaments and economy – I can understand that quite well. So we cannot count on a deus sine or ex machina to impose an end on the battles for rank between NATO, Russia and China. We humans are forced to work it out among ourselves, all by ourselves. In other words, the situation is exactly the same as in an unsupervised schoolyard.

 Certainly, without Vladimir Putin, the outbreak of war against Ukraine on February 24 of this year would not have occurred, just as without Gavrilo Princip the beginning of World War I would not have happened on July 28, 1914. But in both cases, it was only a matter of time before the smoldering rivalry ignited into open combat. Back then, what was at stake was determining order in Europe; today, the three leading powers are fighting to determine order on the globe. How will the dwindling resources be distributed? Who will end the arms race? Who will enforce the rules that put a stop to the progressive poisoning of nature and the heating of the planet? In a multipolar world, no one can solve these problems, because everyone is trying to gain the maximum advantage for himself. 

I’m afraid that I’m going to offend the reluctant reader, for example a peace researcher, even more with the following reflections. Let’s assume that the biggest among the pubescent louts are equally strong or that they form shifting coalitions. Then the schoolyard will come to rest only when one of these coalitions proves stable. In fact, the balance of power has always been a reason why wars between states were often decided only years after their beginning. But, not doubt, in the long run, they have always been decided. At some point, the strong defeat the weak and incorporate them into their own dominion. The whole history of mankind since its documented beginning more than ten thousand years ago is a process of incessant incorporations: Families merged into clans, clans into tribes, tribes into peoples and states, states into multi-ethnic superpowers. However, this history was almost never recorded by the losing party who had to suffer it, but by the victors – in retrospect, the past appears as an unending sequence of their triumphs. But this is exactly the problem that we face in our time. Since the second half of the 20th century there can and will be no more such triumphs. A red line has been drawn, that divides the history of man into a before and an after:


It is at this point that the – terribly dilettantish and, of course, completely unscientific – comparison with a schoolyard completely fails. There, the stronger fists reliably ensured some kind of peace, but in the 21st century such an outcome is out of the question. Neither NATO nor Russia nor China can win and become the sole ordering power. This possibility has been eliminated once and for all since all three powers possess the end-time weapon. Weapons of mass destruction that wipe out life on the entire planet no longer permit victories – their use brings about something radically different: the peace of a planetary graveyard.

Fortunately for us and the future of our planet, the leading players know this quite well (but not necessarily politicians like Donald Trump). Especially the military at the highest level are perfectly aware of the instruments they are handling.  But why are they acting again against their better knowledge, and many of them also against their conscience, by fomenting mutual hatred? The answer may be primitive, but it seems to be correct. They all continue to obey the laws of the schoolyard, which apply among testosterone-driven students in a confined space just as they do on our now terribly crowded and largely plundered planet. all powers want to determine the future order for their own benefit. It is this ambition of the rival powers which constantly increases their rivalry. The balance of terror may have prevented hot war between the main rivals, Russia and the United States, during the Cold War, but both powers demonstrated strength by often brutally making nations on the periphery their pawn victims. A state of lasting stability is never achieved through such a balance of terror – if only because unforeseen inventions – our so-called progress – may suddenly destabilize any equilibrium at any time. Technological breakthroughs ensure, in an almost mechanical way, that the potential for mass destruction and the destruction of nature is continually increased.

Not only we, the individual citizens all over the world, have become powerless in the face of this process, even the politicians of the three rival superpowers behave like its puppets. As long as they face each other – on a multipolar plane – they have no way to stop the economic-military race, because every renunciation, every weakness of their own side amounts to an advantage for the other. For neither side will voluntarily allow itself to be overcome by the other. No matter whether we speak about the USA, China or Russia. A politician who freely agrees to the subordination of his country would be hounded away as a traitor by the scorn of his citizens.


Abominable, this philosophy of strength and power, some readers of these lines will object at this point. There speaks a hard-boiled realist who knows nothing of love, renunciation, compassion and self-sacrifice for others – a man who just cannot or will not see the best in man, namely his idealism.

It is true that man has been able to endure his own history, which on the surface consists of a chain of never-ending wars, only because for most of them there have always been islands of retreat: Family, friends, communities in which one practiced the opposite of struggle and competition, namely, mutual help to the point of sacrificing oneself for others. Without this omnipresent polarity, from the dawn of history to our present day, it would not have been possible for man to even dream of peace, love and solidarity. Each of us survives the first years of his life solely because he has been loved and protected by others. The dimension of help and love is therefore as elementary to human history and to the life of every human being as the sinister confrontation with the laws of the schoolyard.

To a certain extent, the two dimensions are mutually dependent. It is well known that external aggression mobilizes the willingness to help each other in a threatened community. No amount of prosperity could have prevented Europe from breaking up again, but Putin’s war has brought Europeans closer together. And NATO, dismissed as brain-dead by Emmanuel Macron just a few years ago, is not only undergoing a renewal but even an expansion with the accession of Sweden and Finland. The Russian president claimed that he did not care about Finland and Sweden joining NATO. He had to spread this lie because otherwise he would admit that with his invasion of Ukraine he did not weaken but on the contrary strengthened NATO considerably. 

Love and hate are mutually dependent in Russia too. Anyone who follows Russian-language propaganda knows that hatred of the “collective West” is accompanied by mantra-like invocations of unity and mutual aid and sacrifice. We hear that both the U.S. and despised, decadent Europe would prefer to wipe Russia off the map and appropriate its raw materials. In order to prevent the global Russiaphobians from achieving their goal, all Russians are called upon to resolutely oppose the enemy. In the Western camp, the calls are less shrill, but enemies become more similar over time, because each of them naturally strives to use the most effective weapons in the military as well as ideological struggle. What this means on the battlefield is clear from the outset. The war of howitzers wreaks the same havoc in the cities of Ukraine when waged by the Russians or by the Ukrainians. War crimes occur – at least in part – simply because of the develish logic of such weapons. As for the ideological struggle, it boils down to both sides lying without restraint whenever death or life is at stake.

I spoke of a red line separating our time from the entire past, because the schoolyard model has lost its validity for all history to come. Since mankind invented nuclear and hydrogen bombs and supersonic missiles, there can be no winners on the battlefield. However, the ambition of the main rivals, Russia, the USA and China, to become powers determining the world order, and the hatred of the rivals who want to prevent them from doing so, remains unabated. The struggle therefore continues below the nuclear level, and it is being fought in the peripheral states. In the cold war of the first phase from 45 to 1990, these were mainly Third World states. Europe felt itself safe. Today, after Ukraine, the second phase of the new cold war could now spread to the European Union. Eruope is no longer safe. Possibly, with Putin’s blessing, the war will soon encompass Belarus.

I am afraid that love, this second omnipresent dimension and constant next to struggle and hatred, does not offer any solution to our unique historical situation. At present it is already obscured by outright hatred on all sides. Rather, it is growing fear that could promise a way out of danger. Fearing the catastrophe of mutual destructions, Americans and Russians must be ready to substantially limit their sovereignty, recognize each other as equals, unite to form some kind of joint world government. At this point it should not be forgotten that such a wish was first expressed on the part of Russia. On December 20, 1991, Boris Yeltsin proposed that his country join NATO. At the time, people reacted with amazement and incomprehension. China did not yet play a role. Russia seemed to have just stepped down as a major power from the world stage. People wondered where to find the enemy if the whole world were only NATO?

But that was the solution then, and it still is today. I, for one, cannot imagine any other.