Sunday, August 15, 2004

Anglo-Saxons versus Latin-Catholics 

Something a bit heavier to start your week.

A fascinating historical document has for the first time become available in English: only three and a half months after the end of the Second World War, French philosopher Alexandre Kojeve wrote an "Outline of a Doctrine of French Policy," a visionary assessment of the global geo-strategic situation and a manifesto for post-war French foreign policy. Kojeve presented the document to General de Gaulle, recommending it to the leader of the Free French as the plan of action for the future French governments. Now, thanks to translation by Erik de Vries, we can all get a glimpse inside the mindset of a significant section of the French political establishment.

Kojeve's essay is long and ranges over extensive territory, but essentially it revolves around one simple observation and a rather more controversial proscription: the post-war world will be divided by the rivalry between two opposing blocks: "the Anglo-Saxon and Slavo-Soviet Empires." While it is possible for France to throw her lot with either one (more likely the former), any such submission to and submergence within a foreign political civilisation would spell the "definitive disappearance of the Nation qua State worthy of the name" - that is, the end of France as we know it.

Kojeve's solution to this problem is the creation of the third, Latino-Catholic force in international politics - with France as its natural political and spiritual leader:
"Anybody who would like to safeguard the existence and the influence of the traditional Latino-Catholic civilization, which is also that of France (and to which France has, moreover, contributed much more than all other Latin Nations combined), must thus want to provide it with a political base adequate to the given historical conditions. And anybody who were to do this would serve not only the cultural interests of his country, but also those of all of humanity. For the Anglo-Saxons, the Germans, and the Slavs do not possess, and will never possess, what the Latins, with the French at their head, have given and will continue to give to the civilized world.

"Now, if one wants to preserve Latin and Catholic values, which are also eminently French values, and ensure their global influence — or, in other terms, if one does not want to leave the political world divided between the reciprocally hostile and antagonistic forces of the Slavo-Soviet and Anglo-Saxon Empires — if one wants to complement these two powers — and civilizations — with a buffering, peaceful, global third one, it would not fall to one Nation, and not specifically to France, to coordinate them. Besides the Slavo-Soviet Empire of the Orthodox tradition and the Protestant-inspired Anglo-Saxon, and perhaps the Germano-Anglo-Saxon Empire, a Latin Empire must be created. Only an Empire such as this would be at the political level of the two already existing Empires, for it alone could possibly sustain a war where its independence was at stake. And it is only by putting itself at the head of such an Empire that France could retain its political, and thus also cultural, specificity."
What is notable about Kojeve's project is not so much its vision but the bluntness with which it is put forward. After all, what Kojeve argues is hardly new or controversial to practitioners and observers of history and politics: the world is divided into distinct political and cultural groupings which compete with each other for survival and dominance. What's refreshing about the "Outline of a Doctrine of French Policy" is the directness that only academics can afford to adopt when looking at the world.

Most of us are slaves of an illusion that "the West" is a particularly meaningful concept. In reality it merely denotes a certain geographic communality, and the acceptance of the basic shared Greco-Roman, and later Christian, heritage. It is also the lowest common denominator label to distinguish the fruits of the European tree from those of, say, Arabia, or the Far East.

We believe in "the West" because intellectually we remain children of the Cold War, when for a historically brief moment the overwhelming threat of Soviet communism had managed to unite in an uneasy alliance the separate civilisations of Western Europe and their overseas offshoots. Yet the Cold War period was an aberration in the history of "the West", which for the fifteen hundred years of its modern incarnation consisted of competing cultural and political blocs. The two World Wars - both largely civil wars within the West (I'll drop the parenthesis now), which on account of alliance and cultural ties had the misfortune of spilling into other parts of the world - are but the culmination, albeit the bloodiest one, of that complicated European history of the past millennium and a half.

What we think of as the West is really three and a half different Wests: the Germano-Nordic civilisation, the Anglo-Saxon civilisation, the Latin civilisation, and the non-Orthodox Slavic sub-civilisation, which always saw itself as part of the West (the feeling was largely unreciprocated throughout history, particularly recently) but had the misfortune of laying on the faultline between the Germanic and Russian tectonic plates.

Since the fall of the Western Roman empire, these three civilisations (as much as it hurts me as a Pole, I have to drop the Western Slavs out of the equation for the sake of simplicity) were in constant conflict and competition with each other. Take the relations between Great Britain and France as one small example. A lasting alliance between these two countries is only a twentieth century phenomenon, preceded by nine hundred years of intense rivalry from the Norman Invasion to the latter Bourbons.

Seen from the perspective of history, Kojeve's manifesto - as well as many of the recent international events - emerge in a far clearer light. It shocks us to read about the rivalry between the "Anglo-Saxon" and "Latin-Catholic" empires; it might disturb us think about the contemporary French and German "betrayals", but only if we forget that the "Western alliance" is a 45-year historical fluke, without any historical precedent (notwithstanding the Western Roman empire) and without much prospects for a lasting sequel.

If all this seems rather pessimistic and deterministic, it need not. Difference doesn't automatically translate into active rivalry. The march of progress, or to use more value-neutral terms, the recent political, cultural, economic and technological trends and developments certainly lessen both the appetite and the capacity for intra-Western conflicts. It is also debatable to what extent the policy-makers of today (or for that matter those of 1945 or 1845) consciously try to implement the blunt and clear-cut visions of people like Kojeve or Huntington. Ideologies, including the ideology of competing Western civilisations, do play on politicians' minds, at least for some of them and some of the time, but so do pragmatism and opportunism. The road from theory to practice in politics is like a game of "Chinese whispers" - what emerges at the end often bears only remote resemblance to the original intellectual input, despite the best (or the worst) intentions of all concerned.

In the end, to acknowledge that we are not one big happy and united family is not necessarily the same as to expect, much less to wish for, the repeat of the bloody past fifteen centuries. This makes the pan-European experiment of the last sixty years all the more fascinating, and in some ways more hopeful, to watch.

We can debate to what extent General de Gaulle took onboard Kojeve's program, and to what extent he and his successors have succeeded in implementing its planks. We can also debate whether committed cabals of Anglo-Saxon and Latin-Catholic ideologues, safely encased within the bowels of anonymous government buildings in Washington, London and Paris, really do actively plot the clash of Western civilisations. Regardless, however, it is wise to remember today that our common roots in Athens, Rome and Jerusalem don't necessarily make for our common interests in Washington, Brussles or Baghdad.

By choosing to see many Wests instead of the West (at least in the cold hard geo-political sense) we might lose some of the warm certainties that kept us kept us going through the past sixty years, yet we might at the same time gain a clearer, more dispassionate view of the world, and with it greater immunity to anger, frustration and disappointment, which often plague our attempts to make sense of international politics.

(Via Instapundit and the American Thinker, and thanks to the reader Hansome Stan for bringing Monsieur Kojave's work to my attention)


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