A responsibility to protect all of humanity from annihilism

“Responsibility to protect” (R2P) was introduced to justify “humanitarian interventions”. In view of the age of global challenges, Wolfgang Hofkirchner proposes a new concept: the responsibility to protect all of humanity from annihilism.

Annihilism is the explicit justification or trivialisation of brinkmanship that risks annihilation, its preparation or execution, or the implicit sleepwalking into annihilation. Building up enemy images can escalate to hostilities and hostilities of nuclear powers can escalate to a tipping point, which is a point of no return.

Read this reflection on the Ukraine war in which Hofkirchner introduces the new concept:

The Ukraine conflict and the responsibility to protect all of humanity from annihilism [1]

Systems theory is called upon to provide the conceptual means for conflict transformation. Systemically, such a transformation is enabled, if the conflict can be raised to a higher level, a meta-level, on which the conflictive interests can be detached from the partisan view level and be re-evaluated from a common point of view such that legitimate interests of the parties involved can be made compatible and even supportive of one other. The parties only have to subject their interests to a logic of peace. It is important to understand that the logic of peace has become imperative for our age.

I focus on the Ukraine conflict and address (1) the parties’ given conflictive perceptions due to being subject to a logic of war, (2) the reflection on the risk of annihilation of human life on earth as game changer that needs to be accepted, and, accordingly, (3) the task of establishing common security as the required meta-level transformation.

1 The different perceptions of the conflict parties and the logic-of-war lock-in

A conflict takes (at least) two parties involved. At any point of the interaction, an act of one party follows a previous act of the other party and is followed by another act of this party. However, at any point each party can decide which act to choose and is responsible for that choice – a response not strictly determined by the previous act of the other party, though subsequent and in connection to it.

After a period of diplomatic and military alternations the conflict escalated onto a stage in which either party has been giving priority to a logic of war instead of a logic of peace. In February this year, the Russian Federation decided to start an assumed special military operation of pre-emptive collective self-defence with reference to the UN Charta instead of insisting on the establishment of a diplomatic dialogue with the USA and NATO, the EU and the OSCE member states to settle the conflict; the Ukraine, in turn, called for a total military defence instead of declaring their cities open cities. What was described by the Russian side as demilitarisation, denazification and neutralisation of a de facto NATO-prepared deployment zone against Russia was likened by the Ukrainian, NATO and US side as well as the EU to an unprovoked war of aggression, an invasion that attempts to occupy a sovereign country, annex territory and change its regime.

By backing Ukraine with delivery of (heavy) weapons, the Ukrainian aim has recently been set to victory over Russia. The conflict has become since a de facto proxy war between the Russian Federation and the USA/NATO and EU on Ukrainian territory. The risk of Western countries becoming de jure warring parties keeps getting higher. It is up to the Russian party to declare the violation of this red line.

2 Reflecting war in the atomic age

The coming true of such a risk would mean a World War III, an all-out war between nuclear powers and probably the last war on earth. This situation renders the conflict more dangerous than the Cuban missile crisis in the early sixties of the last century – which could be settled by insightful politicians – and the so-called NATO double-track decision (in German “Nachrüstung”) to deploy US Pershing II and Ground Launched Cruise Missiles as medium-range nuclear weapons in Western Europe – which in 1979 gave rise to a broad peace movement.

The request for a peace logic the implementation of which now is more urgent than ever can hardly be found. The US and NATO nuclear doctrine does not foresee a no-first-use option, the Russian doctrine permits the first use of nuclear weapons against aggressions with conventional weapons in the case of a decapitation strike against the military command and control centres and the government or another threat to the existence of the state. (As to a recent debate on the use of mini-nukes, the first use of tactical nuclear weapons was explicitly ruled out by the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation.) However, there is no guarantee for reciprocal restraint, there is no guarantee for a limitation of nuclear war. And a nuclear war cannot be won.

It is striking that this insight of Cold War I has not sufficiently been learned. It seems as if this imperative of the atomic age has been forgotten, pushed into the subconscious and not handed down to younger generations in many countries. But abiding by this imperative is the only effective solution. Any actor who takes part in international relations needs to assume the responsibility to protect all of humanity from annihilism, from thinking about the unthinkable annihilation. Mankind has become an objective community of destiny. The logic of peace must be aware that foreign policy is integrating with an emerging interior policy of the world society as a whole.

3 An inclusive security architecture for Europe and the world as the only sustainable negotiation result

The current war is also evidence of another insight. Not only have the military means of warfare become too powerful to be used responsibly, industrial and informatised civilisation has also become too vulnerable to be defended conventionally. The scale of human losses and damage to the societal infrastructure outweighs any possible gain against an attacker and can no longer rationally justify a defensive war.

This even applies to the means of economic warfare such as sanctions, which ultimately fall back on those who impose the sanctions, and it is true for the means of ideological warfare such as self-righteous allegations, which ultimately turn out to be double standard. Global attributions of good vs. evil (currently apostrophised as “democracy vs. autocracy”) underlie both cases and encourage belligerent behaviour. Political and cultural, i.e. national, ethnic, religious and other socially constructed differences are exaggerated in order to deny opponents of one’s own interests the right to be part of the world community. But as inhumane as that has always been, it is just as anachronistic today. The state of interdependence of all parts of the world community requires global co-operation, not confrontation, all the more as humanity must make every effort to collectively save the planet’s natural habitat as homeland earth.

In order to end the hostilities in Ukraine, to avert a protracted war and to allow for a lasting peace, it must be clear that a negotiated settlement is needed that is negotiated between the involved actors. Thus, any expulsion of Russia from social, that is, cultural, political, economic as well as ecological and technological relations, are counterproductive to reach that settlement, especially because it would continue the policy of the West that was an issue of concern that fuelled the conflict – for Russia, the proclaimed common European security architecture did not materialise the legitimate security interest of Russia, which is irrespective of the kind of government and the kind of ideology Russia might have. A common security for Ukraine as well as for other European states will not be possible without guarantees from Russia and, vice versa, a common security for Russia will not be possible without guarantees from Ukraine and from other European states as well as the USA as leader of NATO.

If these essential conditions cannot be agreed upon, the New Cold War will go on with a new iron curtain separating Europe from Eurasia and with a protracted threat of global annihilation, with the curtailing of social progress in every country and with environmental setbacks.


[1] This text is an elaboration of remarks I was invited to make on “The Russia-Ukraine War and its Systemic Solution” by sociologist and systems thinker, Francisco Parra-Luna. Parra-Luna had co-ordinated an open letter to Ursula von der Leyen that was published in the Spanish newspaper ABC on 28 March 2022. His proposal and a discussion including my remarks were published in Avances Sistémicos 2 (5), May 2022.

See also our newsblog here.

A German translation can be found here.

The photo above shows the atomic bomb test 1971 in French Polynesia [The Official CTBTO Photostream CC BY].

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