The Stalinist who wrote the playbook for French foreign policy

The philosopher-statesman Alexander Kojève and President Emmanuel Macron make unlikely bedfellows as France tries to reshape the world order.

French and European flags
French and European flags. Credit: imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo

In April, Emmanuel Macron visited Beijing with every intention of reshaping the existing world order in France’s image. Amid an already controversial summit with Chinese President, Xi Jingping, Macron outlined his vision of Europe as a ‘third superpower’, a ‘strategically autonomous’ bloc independent of both America and China in a world of multipolar competition. Macron’s remarks that, in the face of a looming crisis in Taiwan, ‘the worst thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the US agenda and a Chinese overreaction’ were particularly controversial. Indeed, while Macron demurred from a full break with Washington in favour of a Euro-American partnership in pursuit of a shared commitment to a ‘rules based’ world order, his words were taken by the Americans as a veritable declaration of independence by the Elysée.

France’s postwar approach to international politics has long been characterised by an intransigent attitude towards US leadership. Macron’s declaration that France, and Europe, should chart a course between Washington and Beijing could easily be seen as nothing more than a continuation of De Gaulle’s ‘neither Washington nor Moscow’ policy, assiduously followed by his Cold War successors. But Macron’s vision of Europe as a superpower in its own right is bolder than de Gaulle’s strategy of playing East and West against each other. His dream of a world of regional political blocs, implicitly organised around a hegemonic power, in which France would occupy the position of primus inter pares in a new, sovereign, and politically integrated Europe, is far bolder than Gaullist realpolitik. But where the so-called ‘Macron Doctrine’ and its blueprint for a multipolar world break with the Gaullist imaginary, they find another, largely forgotten, antecedent in the writings of the elusive philosopher-statesman Alexandre Kojève.

Kojève, a self-declared ‘philosophical Stalinist’, was born Aleksandr Kozhevnikov to an aristocratic family in Tsarist Russia and was a nephew of the artist Wasilly Kandinsky. In 1920, he fled the Russian Revolution for France, where he gained a reputation as a famed interpreter of Hegel and an architect of the European Union as a senior bureaucrat in the French foreign office after 1945. While today Kojève is best remembered as the inspiration for Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the ‘end of history’, he also played an outsized role in shaping French foreign policy until his death in 1968. Named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour for his services to France in 1964, Kojève helped to shape the European Economic Community and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, all the while remaining a ‘Sunday Philosopher’ in correspondence with many of the great thinkers of the day. For Kojève, who criticised Leo Strauss for suggesting that the philosopher should be sceptical of advising tyrants, philosophy and politics went hand in hand: the point of philosophy could never only be to describe the world – it had to aspire to change it.

Kojève’s role as a philosophical statesman began in 1945, when he delivered an enigmatic memorandum to the French government, entitled ‘Outline of a Doctrine of French Policy’, which laid out a remarkable – and prescient – vision of France’s postwar foreign policy. For Kojève, France faced two major challenges that its foreign policy should be oriented to prevent. The first was the need to prevent Germany from translating her undeniable economic supremacy into political hegemony; the second, the need to stay out of any war between the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ bloc and the Soviet bloc, which he felt was liable to destroy civilisation in the fires of nuclear war.

Kojève’s solution was the creation of a new civilisational bloc, which he called the ‘Latin Empire’, with France at its head and including Spain, Italy, and perhaps Portugal. It would lead European civilisation beyond the domination of either Washington or Moscow. Although Kojève wrote in the dying days of European colonialism, he had another type of empire in mind. As he argued, the integration of ‘nation states’ into ‘empires’ was simply the next step in the same process which had turned loose associations of feudal baronies into states, as larger and larger territorial units were progressively integrated, a process he believed would end in the creation of a single world government.

France – and Europe – would, he argued, have to embrace the new era of empires of associated states, demanded by the technological, economic, and military needs of the coming century if they hoped to survive. In the coming age of great power blocs, such as the US led ‘Atlantic Alliance’ and the Soviet Bloc, Kojève argued, no European country alone could marshal the resources, economic power, or population to maintain an independent existence. A ‘see-saw’ foreign policy, like the one eventually pursued by de Gaulle, wouldn’t cut it. Only by uniting into an empire could Europeans acquire ‘a political base adequate to the given historical conditions’ and remain free and politically active rather than becoming mere subjects of an American or Soviet world empire.

Kojève, like Macron, emphasised European autonomy as the essential mission of French foreign policy. Indeed, he argued that:

It is generally said that political will is a will to power or to ‘greatness’. Without a doubt. But it would be more correct and more precise to say that all truly political will is above all an autonomous will and a will to autonomy.

If Europeans could not muster the resources to maintain that autonomy, then they would soon find themselves subjected to the decisions of an external power, a ‘depoliticising’ transformation which would render Europeans citizens in name only, as their states were reduced to satraps of one of two superpowers. And, like Macron, Kojève argued that this demanded a ‘real political unity‘ as well as economic union, which included the creation of ‘an army powerful enough to assure its autonomy in peacetime’. In an age of larger and larger states, demanding greater and greater numbers of soldiers, a larger economic base, and more access to raw materials, no one European state would be up to the task – but a new European empire might be.

For the same reason, if Kojève’s ‘empire’ eschewed colonialism in its classic formulation, it did not spell the end of French aspirations to draw North Africa and the Mediterranean into its economic and political sphere of influence. Instead, he proposed that the Latin Empire should pursue the creation of a ‘unified Latino-African world’, vastly expanding the pool of labour and resources available to the Latin Empire. If such a strategy sounds frighteningly neo-colonial, however, Kojève was quick to clarify that this would necessarily mean the integration of Europe and Africa as equals. Indeed, throughout his career Kojève advocated a strategy of ‘giving colonialism’, whereby Western states would pursue the redistribution of the profits of colonialism to the developing world, particularly Africa, as he explained in a 1957 lecture on ‘Colonialism from a European Perspective’. It is hard not to see Macron’s declaration that ‘I believe that our strategy must be Afro-European […] involv[ing] Africa as a partner, on an entirely equal footing’ as a continuation of the same logic, even if it is not one to which he has always lived up to.

We should not stretch the comparison too far. Kojève’s Latin Empire, which he intended to be comprised of France, Spain, and Italy, was smaller than both the modern EU and Macron’s proposed ‘European Political Community’, and more explicitly Catholic, or ‘Latin’, and civilisational. Nonetheless, considering Kojève’s foundational role in the formation of the European Steel and Coal Community and the later European Economic Community (precursors to the EU), it is worth observing that Kojève ruefully suggested that this project should eschew the name empire in favour of ‘union’ or ‘accord’.

Less glibly, although Macron has eschewed a Catholic animating principle for Europe, he justifies it on the – slightly more ecumenical – grounds of ‘European liberal values’. As such, Macron appears just as attentive for the need to unite this new European empire on ‘civilisational’ grounds as Kojève, even if both avoid the thinly veiled ethnic divisions between the ‘civilisational’ blocs proposed by writers such as Samuel Huntington.

Today, Macron is not alone in embracing ‘civilisational’ thinking. The same impulse can be found in the otherwise quite different geopolitical approaches of Xi Jingping, Donald Trump, and Vladmir Putin. But by reading Macron’s approach to foreign policy through the lens of Kojève’s blueprint for a French-led Europe, we can scratch below the surface level culture war posturing that often defines debates on the so-called ‘clash of civilisations’. Thinking with Kojève enables us to look deeper and to understand the harsh geopolitical, economic, and technological pressures shaping Macron’s thinking – and with it the future of Europe – in an age of empires.


Angus Brown