Brussels, January 28, 2023

To Professor Charles Hyart


1. Russia is a European power

Россия есть Европейская держава

Russia is a European power. This was a phrase I often heard repeated by Charles Hyart (1913-2014), my teacher of language and of history of Russian civilisation at the University of Liège[1]. It appears in Article 6 of the Nakaz of Empress Catherine II of Russia (1729-1796), the Instruction she issued in 1767 to the Legislative Commission responsible for harmonising the laws. This work was an authentic treatise on political philosophy, inspired by L’esprit des Lois (1748) of Montesquieu (1689-1755) and by the Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794). It was written in French, then translated into Russian by the Tsarina herself [2]. The phrase appearing in this Article 6 underlines that there was, at least in the minds of certain leaders – despots, enlightened or otherwise –, a desire to impose the notion of a European Russia on both Russians and Westerners.

This orientation did not first emerge in the 18th century. Ever since Ivan IV, known as Grozny, the Terrible (1530-1584), the first Tsar of Russia who reigned from 1547 to 1584, Russia had regularly opened itself up to the West, and in particular to the English through the Northern ports. Peter the Great (1672-1725), who reigned from 1694 to 1725, began a genuine process to westernise the country. This movement continued until the Common European Home, the concept created by Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-2022), even if there were a number of pendulum swings which saw Russia’s European identity sometimes enhanced and sometimes rejected[3]. Some actors viewed the westernisation of their country as a process of derussification. They considered it a betrayal of the triumphant heritage of Byzantium from which Russia arose. They opposed Westernisation, which they regarded as deviance, in the name of slavophilia – Slav nationalism –, asianity or eurasianism, which were permeating the vastness of the two continents straddled by Russia[4].

But it was also in the name of this vastness that, despite her intellectual proximity to Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and to Alembert (1717-1783), Catherine the Great wrote in Articles 9 and 11 of her Instruction that:

[…] The sovereign is absolute; for there is no other authority but that which centers in his single person that can act with a vigour proportionate to the extent of such a vast dominion. […] Every other form of government whatsoever would not only have been prejudicial to Russia, but would even have proved its entire ruin [5].

We will not descend into such determinism.

The Western Europeans’ view of Russia also varied: the violent presence of the Cossacks of Tsar Alexander I  (1777-1825), conqueror of Napoleon (1769-1821), experienced by Liège, the Ardenne, then Paris in 1814, and then the fear of troops from a Russia who was “the policeman of Europe”, the Russia of Nicolas I (1796-1855), threatening the Belgian Revolution of 1830 from afar, gave way, after the Crimean War (1853-1856) [6], to the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1892 and to the bloody confrontation of 1914-1918 which led to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of 3 March 1918. This treaty, in which the central empires imposed peace on the Eastern front, meant, for Russia, the loss of Ukraine, the Baltic States and the Caucasus, against the backdrop of the anti-Bolshevik crusades pursued by the Allies: the English, French, Italian, American and Japanese intervened directly and militarily until 1920 [7].

Then came the fascination exerted by Petrograd, then Moscow, the new capital of a Bolshevik socialism, on our intellectuals and proletariat, until the end of the 20th century for some. A land existed, said André Gide (1869-1951) in 1936, where utopia was becoming reality [8], and which, increasingly, asserted itself as a global superpower with the United States, as French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) had foreseen a century earlier, in 1835, in Democracy in America:

There are, at the present time, two great nations in the world which seem to tend towards the same end, although they started from different points: I allude to the Russians and the Americans. Both of them have grown up unnoticed; and whilst the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly assumed a most prominent place amongst the nations; and the world learned their existence and their greatness at almost the same time.

All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and only to be charged with the maintenance of their power; but these are still in the act of growth; all the others are stopped, or continue to advance with extreme difficulty; these are proceeding with ease and with celerity along a path to which the human eye can assign no term [9].


2. The Second Russian Revolution

The arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin in March 1985 was a major bifurcation which triggered a reversion movement in Europe. The backdrop was characterised by the partial failure of the implementation of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), held in Helsinki in 1975 [10]. It was also a period of tensions over the siting of missiles in Europe, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the Polish crisis in the early 1980s.

From 1985 to 1986, the reforming Russian leader developed an idea which he presented in a speech he gave in London in 1984: in his view, Europe is our common home [11]. This initial signal enabled the European Economic Community, the following year, to begin negotiations with Moscow for the purpose of preparing a draft agreement on trade and cooperation. One of Gorbachev’s collaborators, Vladimir Lukin, a diplomat at the Foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation (MID), noted in 1988 that the European Common Home proclaimed by President Gorbachev represents the home of a civilisation on the periphery of which we have remained for a long time. Lukin, the future ambassador to Washington, noted that this process, which at that time was growing in Russia and in a number of countries in the East, had, everywhere, the same historical dimension, namely the dimension of a return towards Europe [12].

With his New Thinking, Gorbachev continued his reform of the USSR [13]. In his famous speech of 7 December 1988 at the United Nations in New York, the Kremlin leader showed a new face of Russia and undertook to withdraw from Germany and from Eastern Europe a substantial portion of the Soviet troops stationed there.

A few months later, on 6 July 1989, before the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, where, in 1959, General de Gaulle (1890-1970) had evoked the idea of a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals [14], Mikhail Gorbachev announced the repeal of the Brezhnev doctrine. This dealt with the right of the USSR to intervene in the socialist countries to defend the Communist doctrine and its territorial acquisitions. It was in this speech that the First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party repeated the words of Victor Hugo (1802-1885) on the United States of Europe, uttered in 1849:

[…] the day will come when you, France, you, Russia, you, Italy, you, England, you Germany — all of you, all the nations of the continent — will, without losing your distinguishing features and your splendid distinctiveness, merge inseparably into some high society and form a European brotherhood … the day will come when only the battlefield will be markets open for trade and minds open to ideas [15].

President Mikhail Gorbachev at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, 6 July 1989 (Photo capture INA)

In this speech, Gorbachev gave a broad explanation of his European Home concept and concluded that, by uniting, Europeans would be able to address the challenges of the 21st century.

[…] We are convinced that what they need is one Europe — peaceful and democratic, a Europe that maintains all its diversity and common humanistic ideas, a prosperous Europe that extends its hand to the rest of the world. A Europe that confidently advances into the future. It is in such a Europe that we visualise our own future [16].

At the time, this Soviet project, with its increasingly social-democrat orientation, was strongly supported by French President François Mitterrand (1916-1996) who tried to bolster its content, notably when he outlined the following plan on television on 31 December 1989:

On the basis of the Helsinki agreements, I expect to see the birth of a European Confederation, in the true sense of the word, in the 1990s, which will involve all states of our continent in a common organisation with continuous exchange, peace and security [17].

In Mitterrand’s view, the Pan-European union, the confederation he announced in his speech at the Elysée Palace, was not intended to replace the EEC.

In this context, the Warsaw Pact member countries and the NATO countries signed the Paris Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. Likewise, in the wake of this, Moscow endorsed the Charter for a New Europe, adopted by the 34 countries at the end of the same summit, organised ahead of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) of 19-21 November 1990 [18]. This charter dealt with respect for democratic pluralism and human rights and freedoms, and it aimed to open a new era:

We, the Heads of State or Government of the States participating in the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, have assembled in Paris at a time of profound change and historic expectations. The era of confrontation and division of Europe has ended. We declare that henceforth our, relations will be founded on respect and co-operation. Europe is liberating itself from the legacy of the past. The courage of men and women, the strength of the will of the peoples and the power of the ideas of the Helsinki Final Act have opened a new era of democracy, peace and unity in Europe [19].

 Hopes were clearly very high. In fact, according to Professor Hiski Haukkala, by signing the Paris Charter, Gorbachev signaled the end of a competing Soviet normative agenda for the future development of the European international society. Once again it was Europe’s turn to condition Russia’s place in Europe [20].


3. The seeds of a future problem

However, in late June 1991, after the Conference of the European Confederation held in Prague, on the initiative of François Mitterrand and endorsed by Vaclav Havel (1936-2011), President of Czechoslovakia, it seemed that it was a failure [21]. Mitterrand’s former advisor on the matter wrote that, in this case, the French President’s only mistake was being right too soon. His clear thinking collided with the convergence of conservatism (that of the Americans, who primarily wanted to maintain their influence in Europe) and impatience (that of the countries of Eastern Europe, who were keen to climb aboard the Community train) [22]. The acceleration of the processes of opening up to the countries of the East, German reunification, and the hostility of the United States to a process in which they were not involved caused the demise of the Confederation and the Common Home [23]. Jacques Lévesque, Professor at UQAM, expressed it thus:

The rapid and unexpected collapse of the regimes of Eastern Europe brought about the ruin of Gorbachev’s ideology of transition and European policy by depriving it of the essential drivers for its implementation and caused the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself [24].

In December 1991, Gorbachev’s USSR imploded in favour of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), dominated by the Russian Federation.

In spring 1992, after these events, Andrei Kozyrev, Foreign Minister under Russian President Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007), stressed the future importance for Russia of being part of the European structures and confirmed the value of active participation in the European process. Use of the norms and expertise accumulated in the European context would, he observed, be of great help in solving the internal problems of Russia and of the other former Soviet republics[25]. Under his influence, Russia applied for membership of the Council of Europe in May 1992, joining it on 28 February 1996 [26]. This was a significant step, too often forgotten. In November 1992, Russia also entered into negotiations with the EEC with a view to a partnership and cooperation agreement on shared democratic values, respect for human rights, and entrepreneurship. This agreement was signed on 24 June 1994 in Corfu (Italy), where Russia and the European Union declared themselves mutual strategic partners [27]. This was another important step in the rapprochement between Russia and Europe. This rapprochement was not merely a signature on paper: from 1990 to 1994, the EEC was responsible for 60% of the international aid to Russia via the TACIS programme [28], and it became one of Moscow’s leading commercial partners, representing more than a third of Russia’s foreign trade [29].

This process of rapprochement suffered as a result of NATO’s marginalisation of Russia during the Balkan wars [30]. This marginalisation triggered anti-Western sentiments and cost Kozyrev his job, despite his efforts to bring about, in the face of increasingly strong Russian nationalist pressure, a switch from his policy to a defence of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a vital interest of Russia [31].

In January 1996, Kozyrev was replaced by Yevgeny Primakov (1929-2015). A brilliant academic who spoke several languages, including Arabic and French, Primakov was in favour of a multipolar diplomacy in which Russia would assume a Eurasian power role, including in the ‘near abroad’ countries of the former Soviet republics. This multipolarity was viewed on the other side of the Atlantic as a desire to harm the United States on all fronts [32]. Europe, however, was still a favoured partner of Russia when a strengthened partnership agreement was signed in November 1997 [33]. The attractiveness of Europe for the Russians had lost the euphoria of the early days, especially as Brussels was showing increasing irritation through its constant criticisms, particularly concerning the Chechen question. In March 1999, it was the unilateral intervention triggered by the US Administration in Kosovo which caused a crisis with NATO; it reached its climax with the occupation by Russian paratroopers of Slatina-Pristina airport on 12 June 1999 [34]. This was also the time of the NATO expansion to include the “countries of the East”.

The US leaders and their West German counterparts skilfully derailed Gorbachev’s plans, offering NATO membership to East Germany, without making any formal promises, not in writing at any rate, on the future of the alliance [35]. But Mary Elise Sarotte, Professor of history at the University of Southern California, highlighted this when she recalled that James Baker, former Secretary of State under George H. W. Bush (1924-2018), from 1989 to 1993, had written in his memoirs: almost every achievement contains within its success the seeds of a future problem. She observed that, by design, Russia was left on the periphery of a post-Cold War Europe. A young KGB officer serving in East Germany in 1989 offered his own recollection of the era in an interview a decade later, in which he remembered returning to Moscow full of bitterness at how “the Soviet Union had lost its position in Europe” [36].

His name was Vladimir Putin, and he would one day have the power to act on that bitterness [37].


4. Outstretched hand and closed fist

The arrival of Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin took place against a background of détente with the West, when the post-9/11 war on terror and the development of energy cooperation with Western Europe were major factors.

As the first Russian leader to address the Bundestag, in September 2001, Vladimir Putin began his speech in Russian then continued at length in the language of Goethe, Schiller and Kant. He underlined the importance of European culture by recalling the significant contribution made by Russia to that culture which, he noted, has known no borders and has always been a common asset. And he continued:

As for European integration, we not just support these processes, but we are looking to them with hope. We view them as a people who have learned the lesson of the Cold War and the peril of the ideology of occupation very well. But here, I think, it would be pertinent to add that Europe did not gain from that division either.

It is my firm conviction that in today’s rapidly changing world, in a world witnessing truly dramatic demographic changes and an exceptionally high economic growth in some regions, Europe also has an immediate interest in promoting relations with Russia.

No one calls in question the great value of Europe’s relations with the United States. I am just of the opinion that Europe will reinforce its reputation of a strong and truly independent centre of world politics soundly and for a long time if it succeeds in bringing together its own potential and that of Russia, including its human, territorial and natural resources and its economic, cultural and defense potential [38].

Alongside this outstretched hand, the Kremlin leader lamented the objections that remained with the West and demanded loyalty from NATO by questioning the soundness of the expansion to the East and bemoaning the inability to reach an agreement on antimissile defense systems. Closing his speech about German-Russian relations, Vladimir Putin spoke of his conviction that Germany and Russia were turning over a new page in their relations, thereby making our joint contribution to building a common European home [39].

In the years that followed, Europe became the principal commercial partner of a Russia whose GDP growth reached 7% per year from 2000 to 2007 [40]. This favourable climate meant that the Russian-European Summit in St Petersburg in May 2003 was a great success. At this Summit, the Russian and European diplomats defined four spaces: a common economic space, a common space of freedom, security and justice, a common space of cooperation in the field of external security, and a common space on research and education [41]. The Moscow Summit of May 2005 outlined a series of roadmaps for the implementation of these cooperation spaces founded on security and stability. The Russians and Europeans agreed to actively promote them in a mutually beneficial manner, through close result-oriented EU-Russia collaboration and dialogue, thereby contributing effectively to creating a greater Europe without dividing lines and based on common values [42].

However, once again the geopolitical context collapsed. The Chechen terrorist attacks in Moscow (2002) and in Beslan (2004), the effects of the eastward expansion of the European Union in 2004 to include eight post-communist countries, meaning that Russia’s ‘near abroad’ – especially Belarus and Ukraine – became Europe’s ‘near abroad’, and the suspicion of European support for the colour revolutions – Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, and Kyrgyzstan in 2005 – led to a new Russian distrust of Europe. Simultaneously, the blatant human rights violations of Vladimir Putin’s regime and especially the assassination, in 2006, of Moscow-based journalist Anna Politkovskaya dashed the European hopes that had arisen from the 2003 Summit.

Russian president Vladimir Putin delivers his remarks about « Russia’s Role in World Politics » during the 43rd Annual Conference on Security Policy in Munich, Germany, Feb. 10, 2007. The theme for the conference is « Global Crisis-Global Responsibilities. » Defense Dept. photo by Cherie A. Thurlby (released)

It was a frustrated Vladimir Putin who attended the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy on 10 February 2007. As Professor Richard Sakwa from the University of Kent wrote, Putin, who was probably the most European leader his country had ever known, intended to bring his country into a new phase of international relations [43]. The Russian president issued a direct challenge to the unipolar model established by the role of the United States in the world and advocated a return to a multipolar world which took account of the economic realities of the planet: China, India, and BRICS, including Russia, had emerged, he pointed out. And although the Kremlin leader at the end of his mandate again evoked the idea of “the great European family”, he mainly denounced the insecurity which the NATO expansion was causing at the Russian borders, stating:

I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernisation of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? [44]

When the new president Dmitri Medvedev entered office on 7 May 2008, all this tension seemed to be forgotten. The Foreign Policy Concept which the President of the Russian Federation approved on 15 July 2008 called for strategic relations to be established with the European Union on a solid, modern legal basis and for a legal space to be created under the auspices of the Council of Europe which would extend across the whole of Europe.

The main objective of the Russian foreign policy on the European track is to create a truly open, democratic system of regional collective security and cooperation ensuring the unity of the Euro-Atlantic region, from Vancouver to Vladivostok, in such a way as not to allow its new fragmentation and reproduction of bloc-based approaches which still persist in the European architecture that took shape during the Cold War period. This is precisely the essence of the initiative aimed at concluding a European security treaty, the elaboration of which could be launched at a pan-European summit [45].

Thereupon, Moscow called for the construction of a genuinely unified Europe, without dividing lines, through equal interaction between Russia, the European Union and the United States. In addition, since Russia was asserting itself as the biggest European State with a multinational and multiconfessional society and centuries-old history, the Kremlin offered to play a constructive role in ensuring a civilizational compatibility of Europe, and harmonious integration of religious minorities, including in view of the various existing migration trends. The new policy concept also called for a strengthening of the role of the Council of Europe, and of the OSCE, and announced the desire of the Russian Federation to develop its relations with the European Union, a major trade, economic and foreign-policy partner. Russia also stated that it was interested in establishing a strategic partnership with the European Union and mutually beneficial relations with the countries in the Union [46].

The ambiguities between the Atlantic democracies also increased. Whereas the United States primarily viewed NATO as a leadership instrument whose role included bringing partners together on missions that might extend beyond the European theatre, the countries of Eastern Europe essentially saw NATO as an instrument of peace in Europe. For their part, the new members from Central and Eastern Europe viewed the Alliance as a bulwark against a Russia which they still feared. As Charles Kupchan wrote, the preoccupation of these countries rendered them open to a Euro-Atlantic order focused more on NATO than on the European Union. This analysis led the professor of International Relations at Georgetown University in Washington, to argue in favour of allowing Russia to join the Atlantic Alliance [47].

To respond to NATO’s continued expansion eastwards, the new military doctrine of Moscow regarded the enlargement of NATO as a major external threat, especially when the alliance contemplated allowing Georgia and Ukraine to join. In anticipation of the annual OSCE meeting in Athens, on 1 December 2009, Sergey Lavrov, Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation since 2004, presented a draft treaty on European security, which worried the Europeans and irritated Washington. This reorganisation of the security architecture was based on the idea that any action taken by one of the parties, individually or collectively, including as part of an international organisation, alliance or military coalition, had to take into account the interests of the other signatory parties to the treaty. The European Union responded politely, while drawing attention to the fact that this new proposal should in no way affect the current security obligations of the Member States of the Union [48].

In 2010, a number of initiatives appeared to offer a new momentum in relations between Russia and the West. At the United Nations, Russia voted in favour of sanctions against Iran, which was perceived positively in Brussels. As Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin welcomed his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk in Katyn and expressed remorse regarding the massacre carried out in Poland in 1940 on the orders of Stalin (1878-1953). In April 2010, in Prague, President Dmitri Medvedev signed the New Start Treaty with President Barack Obama with the aim of limiting the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The following month, NATO troops, at the cordial invitation of the Russians, marched in Red Square to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the victory over Nazism [49]. Efforts were also maintained on both sides to cement certain cooperation activities. At the EU-Russia Summit at Rostov-on-Don, in spring 2010, a Partnership for Modernisation (P4M) was launched in a relaxed atmosphere, but it failed to deliver any significant improvement in a relationship which some people already viewed as a compromise [50]. It is true that there was a growing feeling of unease in Europe over the reliability of the Russian energy supply [51]. The conflict in South Ossetia between Russia and a Georgia which seemed to be aligning itself with the West also increased tensions at diplomatic and military levels.


5. Relations during the stalemate

In July 2013, however, Russian minister Sergey Lavrov published an article in the highly respected international academic publication, the Journal of Common Market Studies; the former Russian representative at the UN (1994-2004) stated that:

European history cannot be imagined without Russia, just as the history of Russia cannot be imagined apart from Europe. For centuries, Russia has been involved in shaping European reality in its political, economic and cultural dimensions. Yet the debate of how close Russia and its west European partners can be and to what degree Russia is a European Country has also been going on for centuries.

Minister Lavrov also pointed out that, in recent years, […] we have an unprecedented opportunity to fulfil the dream of a united Europe [52]. Nevertheless, it was debatable whether that opportunity had passed.


President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy at the European University in St. Petersburg, 5 September 2013 (Photo European University)

Less than two months later, on 5 September 2013, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who was in St Petersburg for the G20 meeting, delivered a lecture at the European University. His words echoed those of Victor Hugo in 1849 and of Vladimir Putin in 2001, among others:

[…] We Europeans, we know one another. We – the French, the Prussians then Germans, the Swedes, the Dutch, the Italians, the Poles, the British, the Russians, and all the others, we have read each other’s books, we listened to each other’s music, we believed in the same God, we have engaged in battles between various sides, we spoke and traded with, and learned from each other, and at times have misunderstood each other. Perhaps we are, as has been said, one “European family”. But then again, one must be careful with a word like that, because to me it immediately brings to mind the first line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: « All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. »! I would say that the European family can be happy in its own way. I would say that the European family can be happy in its own way [53].

However, as with Putin’s speech in the Bundestag, the remainder of the text hinted at problems, with Herman Van Rompuy observing:

We share common borders, and also common neighbours. Ukraine, Armenia, Moldova which matter to us both, have to define their own path. But in our view, for Ukraine, an Association Agreement with the European Union would not damage the country’s long-standing ties with Russia. Why should it have to be a case of ‘either/or’? [54]

The creation of the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) between Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan in 2010 and the ambition to transform it rapidly into a genuine Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) could be interpreted as an initiative aimed at countering the growing presence of the European Union in the post-Soviet area. The Euromaidan demonstrations, which broke out in Ukraine in 2013 at the refusal of President Viktor Yanukovych to sign the Association Agreement with the EU in favour of an agreement with Russia, seemed to realise the Kremlin’s worst fears of seeing its ‘near abroad’ grow in importance.

The annexation of Crimea in March 2014, and in particular the shooting down over the Donetsk region of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on 17 July 2014, triggered European economic sanctions. These sanctions accelerated the breakdown in relations, especially as they significantly encouraged the rapprochement between Brussels and Kiyv: on 16 September 2014, the Association Agreement was ratified by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine and the European Parliament. Recalling the statement by US Vice-President Joe Biden that the American leadership had cajoled Europe into imposing sanctions on Russia even though the EU had initially been opposed, Sergey Lavrov pointed out that, for several years, Russia had over-estimated the independence of the European Union and even big European countries. The Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation repeated this view in 2017 [55].

Echoing the words of Russian historian Sergei Medvedev, relations between Europe and Russia had then reached stalemate [56]. At a meeting in Brussels on 14 March 2016 chaired by the Italian politician Federica Mogherini, European High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the Foreign Ministers of the 28 Member States unanimously adopted five principles aimed at guiding the Union’s policy on Russia:

– implementation of the Minsk agreement on the Donbas region of September 2014 and February 2015[57] as the key condition for any substantial change in the European Union’s stance towards Russia;

– strengthened relations with the EU’s Eastern partners and other neighbours, in particular in Central Asia;

– strengthening the resilience of the EU (for example, energy security, hybrid threats, or strategic communication);

– the need for selective engagement with Russia on issues of interest to the EU;

– the need to engage in people-to-people contacts and support Russian civil society[58].

These clearly stated positions illustrated but also contributed to the estrangement between Europe and the Russian Federation. Russia was also, and increasingly, openly ignoring the Union as an institution, as demonstrated by the visit to Moscow, in February 2021, of Josep Borrell, which coincided with the expulsion of European diplomats in the case involving Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny [59]. Russia seems to be gradually detaching itself from Europe, wrote the EU High Representative upon his return from this difficult trip[60].

The European Union’s commitment towards the Ukrainians had become increasingly evident since the Russian aggression of 24 February 2022. At the Foreign Affairs Council of 17 October 2022, the ministers took a number of important decisions after being informed of the military escalation and the strikes on Kiyv by the Russian army. They agreed to establish an EU military assistance mission to support the Ukrainian armed forces. The mission would train around 15,000 soldiers on EU territory. They also agreed to allocate €500 million in respect of the European Peace Facility to finance supplies intended for the Ukrainian forces, thus increasing military assistance to Ukraine to €3.1 billion[61].

This commitment clearly provided arguments for Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov when he declared, on 20 October 2022, that the supplies of weapons from the European Union to Kiyv made it a “stakeholder in the conflict” in Ukraine and that countries who supply weapons to Ukraine were “sponsors of terrorism[62].


6. Conclusion: power is not an emotion

6.1. From Kant to Hobbes…

Since their earliest contacts, the countries and peoples of Western Europe have had complex relations with Russia. The analysis of these relations is based on the preliminary questions of, firstly, what Russia is and, secondly, what Europe is, questions which are impossible to answer. Intuitively, we feel that it is an issue of temporality: the complex relationship between our present and our past, between history and future: the world to come, aspirations, plans.

The European Union and Russia do not use the same geopolitical grammar [63], since, in Moscow’s view, Europe often discredits itself through its soft power, which is perceived by the Kremlin, and by other governments, as a weak and haphazard hieratic policy. The shift in the discourse of several representatives of the European Union since the aggression in March 2022 has also surprised observers. This was the case when, on 13 October 2022, European Commission Vice-President and High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, declared, in response to the bellicose rhetoric of Vladimir Putin, that a Russian nuclear attack against Ukraine would provoke such a powerful answer that the Russian army would be annihilated [64]. The nature and the legitimacy of such statements is debatable. As Kathleen R. McNamara, Professor at Georgetown University and an expert in European issues, wrote in an article of The Washington Post entitled Is Venus becoming Mars?, whereas, previously, the European Union had sought to rise above the fray in the struggles between major powers, attempting to offer a peaceful alternative to violence and coercion, European leaders seemed to be trying to remake the European DNA and become a traditional power player [65]. This change was particularly surprising to McNamara since, in her book on constructing authority in the Union, published in 2017, she argued that the policy of the European Union, since it sought to complement rather than compete with the nation States that form the Union, rendered its authority inherently fragile [66].

The American neo-conservative historian and political scientist Robert Kagan, who was based in Brussels in the early 2000s, had also described the European Union as a particularly weak and passive actor in international relations, denouncing it as entering a posthistorical paradise of peace and relative prosperity by referencing the realisation of the Perpetual Peace of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), published in 1795 [67]. Kagan also expressed in a very gendered and well-known phrase that Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus. He observed that rather than viewing the collapse of the Soviet Union as an opportunity to flex global muscles, Europeans took it as an opportunity to cash in on a sizable peace dividend [68].

Kagan, who wrote Of Paradise and Power in 2003, denounced both Gaullism and Ostpolitik, as well as the European conviction that the United States’ stance towards the Soviet Union was too confrontational, too militaristic, and too dangerous. In this work, which focused on relations between the United States and Europe, Kagan drew a distinction between Western Europe, especially France and Germany, and the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, which, because of their different histories, had a historically ingrained fear of Russian power and, therefore, a more American perception of Hobbesian realities [69]. To explain this analysis, it is worth noting that in Leviathan, his famous treaty published in 1651, the English philosopher Hobbes (1588-1679) stated that:

[…] Fear of oppression disposes a man to strike first, or to seek aid through society, for there is no other way for a man to secure his life and liberty.

Men who distrust their own subtlety are in better shape for victory than those who suppose themselves to be wise or crafty. For the latter love to consult, whereas the former (fearing to be outdone in any negotiations) prefer to strike first  [70].

 Yet since fear was a communicative passion, it placed men in a state of perpetual defiance in which Hobbes calls for a war of every man against every man.

In this war of every man against every man nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have no place there. Where there is no common power, there is no law; and where there is no law, there is no injustice. In war the two chief virtues are force and fraud. Justice and injustice are not among the faculties of the body or of the mind [71].

The French philosopher and political scientist Jean-Marc Ferry, who taught at the Free University of Brussels and at the University of Nantes, offered a rather curt criticism of Kagan’s analysis, stating that the American had not understood the philosophical breakthrough which meant that the European Union, and in particular some of its Member States (France, Germany and Belgium), were leaning towards the increasingly important perspective of a cosmopolitan rule of law [72]. Ferry observed that the nations of Europe were weaker half a century ago than they were today, including in relation to America.

Today, they have the power – he continues – to assert a “Kantian” orientation towards the United States.

Ferry criticised Kagan for confusing and conflating power and violence. The philosopher pointed out that Europe’s challenge was precisely that it could have power in Europe without resorting to violence.

As “Kantians”, Europeans rely on a power which is a moral and a critical power rather than a physical power. […]  It is clear that if, like the United States, one claims always to be right and only ever to fight for the Righteous (since adversaries embody evil, we ourselves would embody good), it would be difficult to have a genuine discourse on Right. It demands a historical – as it were – sensitivity to what Hegel called “causality of fate”. There is, on the part of the Americans, barely any serious attempt to understand the historical reasons why the vast majority of the States is organised in an authoritarian, or even totalitarian, way; and that, therefore, it is unrealistic to want to introduce democracy by force without considering the context. However, Europeans are undoubtedly sensitive to history – almost overly so [73].

Returning to Josep Borrell, in his speech to the ambassadors on 10 October 2022, the High Representative of the European Union endorsed the view that we Europeans are too much Kantians and not enough Hobbesians [74]. As the researcher Kathleen McNamara noted in The Washington Post, the reference to Hobbes is a striking reminder of the Kagan’s disdainful view of the European Union as a weak, cosmopolitan actor [75]. However, McNamara also observed that there was no robust military capacity behind the threat uttered by Josep Borrell on 13 October that would ensure the annihilation of the Russian army.

This view is also repeated more scathingly by Dmitri Medvedev, Vice-President of the Russian Security Council, in Pravda on 14 October 2022, when he described Josep Borrel as a great strategist and great military leader in a non-existent European army [76].


6.2. More RealPolitik for Europe?

In a collective work published in September 2022 entitled « Ukraine, the first global war », Nicole Gnesotto observed that, for Europe to be a power, its responsibility would involve agreeing to examine its principles against reality. (…) An end to the Ukrainian crisis, she points out, assumes that Europe accepts that it must go beyond the diplomacy of values and return to Realpolitik [77]. In her recent work « Europe: adapt or perish », the French historian recalls the importance of the report produced by the former Belgian statesman Pierre Harmel (1911-2009) in 1967 for the North Atlantic Council. This new edition from the new alliance evangelist, to echo the words of the former Foreign Minister in a speech in the Belgian Chamber [78], aimed not only to ensure a collective defence of the Atlantic area but also attempted to reduce East-West tensions. As Harmel wrote:

The easing of tensions is not the final objective: the ultimate goal of the Alliance is to achieve a just and lasting peaceful order in Europe, accompanied by the appropriate security guarantees, the ultimate goal of the alliance [79].

This purpose of the Harmel Exercise is still fundamentally relevant. Moreover, evoking the failure of an attempt to rebuild relations between Europe and Russia on the initiative of France in May 2021, Gnesotto called for military power to be put in its proper place, for it to be made an essential element of diplomatic credibility, a tool at the service of intelligence, negotiation, and persuasion [80].

It is said that now is not the time. But there will come a time when the grievances of the various parties on the ground will have to be taken into consideration [81].

However, this was also the conviction which Dominique de Villepin expressed very clearly when talking about innovation in diplomacy and in capacity to propose a new way: even, stated the former Prime Minister of France during the presidency of Jacques Chirac (1932-2019),

[…] when one has an adversary whom one believes to be in the wrong, a war criminal, evil, one must go part of the way. Otherwise, nothing happens [82].

The French sociologist Edgar Morin goes further: he outlines, even for today, the foundations of a peaceful compromise between the warring parties. At the end of his analysis, he advocates for Ukraine a neutrality similar to Austria, or even European integration. And he adds that it would be important to envisage, in future, the inclusion of Russia in the European Union as a positive outcome of Russian-Western relations. Anticipating possible strong reactions from readers, Morin observes that:

The anti-Russian hysteria, not only in Ukraine but also in the West, and especially in France, should eventually decline and disappear, in the same way as the nationalist hysteria of Nazi Germany and the anti-German hysteria which identified Germany and Nazism [83].

 In his work on perpetual peace, the great Prussian philosopher Kant observed that, in any event, the battlefield is the only court in which States argue for their rights; but victory, through which they win the case, does not decide in favour of their cause [84]. Admittedly, this was before the United Nations tried unsuccessfully, after two global holocausts, to establish the Perpetual Peace he held so dear.

Nevertheless, I feel that Europe must not abandon its Kantian ambition to favour the power of law over that of violence. However, one can concur with Henry Kissinger’s view that the most effective foreign policy is one that marries the principles of power and legitimacy [85], provided that the legitimacy is also the legitimacy of Law: power and legitimacy in a Europe which is faithful to its values and avoids the American debate between deep-engagers who favour US leadership via NATO and restrainers who favour disengagement and observe that their troops have remained twice as long on operations since the end of the Cold War than during that period [86].

It is for the Europeans themselves to take responsibility for who they are; if possible from the Atlantic to the Urals.

Admittedly, the price to pay for the Union seems very high today, since it involves having, simultaneously, a European diplomacy equal to the task, in other words one which relies more on power than on emotion, a military power which guards and protects us and gives us independence from the United States, and a diplomatic power which offers a genuine opportunity to communicate with a voice other than violence.


Philippe Destatte



[1] This text originated in a lecture presented at the Blue-Point in Liège on 24 October 2022 at the initiative of Rotary International. I would like to thank Caroline Goffinet and Alain Lesage for their initiative. I am grateful to my historian colleague Paul Delforge for his careful review of the manuscript and his suggestions. As the subject is particularly vast, we will refer to the recent abundant scientific literature on the subject, including: Tom CASIER and Joan DE BARDELEBEN ed., EU-Russia Relations in Crisis, Understanding Diverging Perceptions, Abingdon, Routledge, 2018. – David MAXINE, Jackie GOWER, Hiski HAUKKALA ed., National Perspectives on Russia European Foreign Policy in the Making, Abingdon, Routledge, 2013. – Tuomas FORSBERG & Hiski HAUKKALA, The European Union and Russia, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. – Romanova, Tatiana ROMANOVA and David MAXINE ed., The Routledge Handbook of EU-Russia Relations, Structures, Actors, Issues, Abingdon: Routledge, 2021. – Stephan KEUKELEIRE & Tom DELREUX, The Foreign Policy of the European Union, Bloomsbury Academic, 2022.

[2] Nicholas V. RIASANOVSKY, Histoire de la Russie des origines à nos jours, p. 283-285, Oxford University Press – Robert Laffont, 2014. – Iver B. NEUMANN, Russia’s Standing as a Great Power, 1494-1815, in Ted HOPF ed., Russia’s European Choice, p. 13-34, New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2008.

[3] Tom CASIER, Gorbachev’s ‘Common European Home’ and its relevance for Russian foreign policy today. Debater a Europa, 2018, 18, p. 17-34.

[4] Walter LAQUEUR, Russian Nationalism, in Foreign Affairs, vol. 71, nr 5, Winter 1992-1993, p. 103-116.

[5] Marie-Pierre REY, La Russie face à l’Europe, d’Ivan le Terrible à Vladimir Poutine, p. 144, Paris, Flammarion, 2002.

[6] That humiliating defeat ended the half-century in which Russia was the sole guardian of the system in Europe. Hiski HAUKKALA, A Norm-Maker or a Norm-Taker? The Changing Normative Parameters of Russia’s Place in Europe, in Ted HOPF ed., Russia’s European Choice ..,. p. 41 & 43. – H. Haukkala is Professor of International Relations, Faculty of Management and Business at the University of Tampere.

[7] N. V. RIASANOVSKY, Histoire de la Russie…, p. 522-523.

[8] André GIDE, Retour de l’URSS, Paris, Gallimard, 1936. Rappelé par Marie-Pierre REY, La Russie face à l’Europe, d’Ivan le Terrible à Vladimir Poutine, p. 12, Paris, Flammarion, 2002.

[9] Alexis de TOCQUEVILLE, Democracy in America, Translator Henry Reeve, p. 485,

[10] Hiski HAUKKALA, A Norm-Maker or a Norm-Taker? The Changing Normative Parameters of Russia’s Place in Europe, in Ted HOPF ed., Russia’s European Choice ..,. p. 47.

[11] M.-P. REY, Europe is our Common Home, A study of Gorbachev’s Diplomatic Concept, in The Cold War History Journal, volume 4, n°2, Janvier 2004, p.33–65. at the United Nations, President Gorbachev, addressed at the United Nations General Assembly, December 7, 1988. – Text provided by the Soviet Mission, Associated Press, – See Richard SAKWA, Gorbachev and His Reforms, 1985-1990, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1990.

[12] Vladimir LUKIN, in Moskovskie Novosti, n° 38, 1988, in Neil MALCOM ed., Russia and Europe: An End to Confrontation?, p.14, London, Pinter, 1994 – M.-P. REY, « Europe is our Common Home »: A study of Gorbachev’s diplomatic concept, in Cold War History, vol. 4, 2, p. 33-65, 2004.

[13] Mikhail GORBACHEV, Perestroika: New Thinking for our Country and the World, New York, Harper & Collins, 1987.

[14] C. de GAULLE, Discours de Strasbourg du 23 novembre 1959.

[15] Inaugural speech of the Peace Congress, delivered in Paris on 21 August 1849 in Victor HUGO, Œuvres complètes, Actes et Paroles, t.1., Paris Hetzel, 1882. – Stéphanie TONNERRE-SEYCHELLES, Victor Hugo et les Etats-Unis d’Europe, 8 avril 2019. Blog Gallica,

[16] Address given by Mikhail Gorbachev to the Council of Europe (Strasbourg, 6 July 1989) Hugo said that the day would come when you, France, you, Russia, you, Italy, you, England, you Germany — all of you, all the nations of the continent — will, without losing your distinguishing features and your splendid distinctiveness, merge inseparably into some high society and form a European brotherhood (…). The day would come when the only battlefield would be markets open for trade and minds open to ideas. (…) We are convinced that what they need is one Europe — peaceful and democratic, a Europe that maintains all its diversity and common humanistic ideas, a prosperous Europe that extends its hand to the rest of the world. A Europe that confidently advances into the future. It is in such a Europe that we visualise our own future.

[17] Allocution de M. François Mitterrand, Président de la République, à l’occasion de la présentation de ses vœux, Paris, dimanche 31 décembre 1989, Texte intégral, République française, Vie publique.

[18]. Hubert Védrine notes: for the United States, it is intolerable to think of founding a European confederation without them. Hubert VEDRINE, Les mondes de François Mitterrand, Paris, A. Fayard, 1996. – in Une vision du monde, p. 489-491, Paris, Bouquins, 2022.

[19] Charter of Paris for a New Europe, Paris, November 21, 1991.

[20] H. HAUKKALA, A Norm-Maker or a Norm-Taker? The Changing Normative Parameters of Russia’s Place in Europe, in Ted HOPF ed., Russia’s European Choice ..,. p. 52.

[21] The newspaper Le Monde described the Prague Conference of 12-14 June 1991 as being as politically inoffensive as a Sorbonne symposium, see: Une initiative controversée de M. Mitterrand, Prague accueille les Assises de la Confédération européenne, in Le Monde, 13 juin 1991. – The place of the United States in this initiative seemed to be at the heart of the press conference of the two presidents at the end of the conference: Conférence de presse conjointe de M. François Mitterrand, Président de la République, et M. Vaclav Havel, président de la République tchécoslovaque, notamment sur le rôle des Etats-Unis dans la construction de l’Europe, la notion géographique de l’Europe et l’éventuelle intégration de la Tchécoslovaquie à l’OTAN, Prague, June 14, 1991, République française, Vie publique.

[22] Jean MUSITELLI, François Mitterrand, architecte de la Grande Europe, Paris, Institut François Mitterrand, 5 février 2012. Our translation. – Frédéric BOZO, Mitterrand, la fin de la guerre froide et l’unification allemande, p. 344-361, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2005. – Sylvain KAHN, Histoire de la construction de l’Europe depuis 1945, p. 224, Paris, PuF, 2021.

[23] M.-P. REY, La Russie face à l’Europe…, p. 429.

[24] Jacques LEVESQUE, 1989, la fin d’un empire, L’URSS et la libération de l’Europe de l’Est, Paris, Presses de Science Po, 1995. – The Enigma of 1989: The USSR and the Liberation of Eastern Europe, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997. – J. LEVESQUE, Soviet Approaches to Eastern Europe at the Beginning of 1989, in CWIHP Bulletin, 12/13, 2001.

[25] Andrei KOZYREV, Russia: A Chance for Survival, in Foreign Affairs, vol. 71, no 2, Spring 1992, p. 1-16.

[26] The Duma ratified the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms by the Federal Law of 30 March 1998.

[27] S. KAHN, Histoire de la construction de l’Europe…, p. 279.

[28] The EU’s TACIS programme supports democratisation, strengthening of the rule of law and the transition to a market economy in the New Independent States (NIS), which emerged from the break-up of the Soviet Union. These countries are the following: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, Moldova, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Ukraine.

[29] M.-P. REY, La Russie face à l’Europe…, p. 433.

[30] Ph. DESTATTE, Russia in Nato, Thinking the Unthinkable? in Cadmus Journal, Report to the World Academy of Art and Science on War in Ukraine, Global Perspectives on Causes and Consequences, p. 38-76, July 2022.

[31] Julie DESCHEPPER, Le moment Kozyrev : retour sur les fondements de la politique étrangère post-soviétique, in La Revue russe, n°45, 2015, Les années Eltsine, p. 79-89. p. 86.

[32] N. S. RIASANOVSKY, Histoire de la Russie…, p. 748. L’historien américain écrit : pour monter une coalition mondiale antiaméricaine sous la bannière de la « multipolarité », la Russie est prête à tous les sacrifices (…).

[33] ACCORD DE PARTENARIAT ET DE COOPÉRATION établissant un partenariat entre les Communautés européennes et leurs États membres, d’une part, et la Fédération de Russie, d’autre part, 28 novembre 1997.

[34] Mary Elise SAROTTE, Not one inch, America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate, p. 308, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2021. – Bill CLINTON, My Life, Ma vie, Random House – Odile Jacob, 2004, p. 902-903.

[35] Ph. DESTATTE, Russia in Nato, Thinking the Unthinkable? in Cadmus Journal, Report to the World Academy of Art and Science on War in Ukraine, Global Perspectives on Causes and Consequences, p. 38-76, July 2022.

[36] M. E. SAROTTE, Not one inch…, p. 19-20.

[37] Mary Elise SAROTTE, A Broken Promise? What the West Really Told Moscow about NATO expansion, in Foreign Affairs, Sept-Oct 2014, p. 90-97.

[38] Vladimir PUTIN, Speech in the Bundestag of the Federal Republic of Germany, September 25, 2001.

Vidéo :

[39] I am convinced that today we are turning over a new page in our bilateral relations, thereby making our joint contribution to building a common European home. Vladimir PUTIN, Speech in the Bundestag… September 25, 2001.

[40] Hiski HAUKKALA, From Cooperative to Contested Europe? The Conflict in Ukraine as a Culmination of a Long-Term Crisis in EU–Russia Relations, in Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 2015, 23:1, p. 25-40, p. 30.

[41] M.-P. REY, La Russie face à l’Europe…, p. 437.

[42] Richard SAKWA, Russia against the Rest, The Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order, p. 256, Cambridge University Press, 2017.

[43] Richard SAKWA, Frontline Ukraine, Crisis in Borderlands, p. 30-31, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.

[44] The stones and concrete blocks of the Berlin Wall have long been distributed as souvenirs. But we should not forget that the fall of the Berlin Wall was possible thanks to a historic choice – one that was also made by our people, the people of Russia – a choice in favour of democracy, freedom, openness and a sincere partnership with all the members of the big European family. Vladimir PUTIN, Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, February 10, 2007.

Video :

[45] The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, 12 January 2008. Approved by the President 15 July 2008.

[46] The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, 12 January 2008.

[47] Charles A. KUPCHAN, NATO’s Final Frontier, Why Russia Should join the Atlantic Alliance, in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 89, Nr 3, May-June 2010, p. 100-112, p. 103.

[48]  Conclusions of the EU/Russia Summit European Parliament resolution of 17 June 2010 on the conclusions of the EU/Russia summit, 31 May – 1 June 2010.

[49] Walter LAQUEUR, Moscow’s Modernization Dilemma, Is Russia charting a New Foreign Policy, in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 89, Nr 6, Nov. – Dec. 2010, p. 153-160.

[50] H. HAUKKALA, From Cooperative to Contested Europe?, p. 30sv. – Boris TOUMANOV, Un peu de détente politique à Rostov, dans La Libre Belgique, 31 mai 2010.

[51] In January 2009, Russia pretended to stop gas deliveries to Europe. S. KAHN, op. cit., p. 271.

[52] Sergey LAVROV, State of the Union Russia-EU: Prospects for Partnership in the Changing World, in Journal of Common Market Studies, Vol. 51, p. 6-12, July 9, 2013.

[53] Herman VAN ROMPUY, Russia and Europe, Today, Lecture at the European University at Saint-Petersburg, 5 September 2013.

[54] Ibidem.

[55] Richard SAKWA, Russia against the Rest. The Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order, p. 259-260 and 261, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2017. – Exclusive: « We will survive sanctions » says Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to FRANCE24, 17 Dec. 2014. On 17 December 2014,.

[56] Stalemate may be the most appropriate definition of the present quality of EU – Sergei MEDVEDEV, The Stalemate in EU-Russia Relations, Between ‘Sovereignty’ and ‘Europeanisation, in Ted HOPF ed, Russia’s European Choice, p. 215–232, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. – H. HAUKKALA, From Cooperative to Contested Europe?, p. 30. – Fabienne BOSSUYT & Peter VAN ELSUWEGE ed, Principled Pragmatism in Practice, The EU’s Policy Towards Russia after Crimea, Leiden, Brill, 2021. – Derek AVERRE & Kataryna WOLCZUK eds, The Ukraine Conflict: Security, Identity and Politics in the Wider Europe, Abingdon, Routledge, 2018. – Marco SIDDI, The partnership that failed: EU-Russia relations and the war in Ukraine.

[57] S. KAHN, op. cit., p. 279.

[58] Foreign Affairs Council, 14 March 2016, European Council, Council of the European Union,

See also: Facts and figures about EU-Russia Relations. Nov. 4, 2022.

[59] Tatiana KASTOUEVA-JEAN, La Russie après la réforme constitutionnelle, dans Thierry de MONTBRIAL et Dominique DAVID, RAMSES 2022, p. 147, Paris, IFRI-Dunod, 2021.

[60] Josep BORRELL, Ma visite à Moscou et l’avenir des relations entre l’UE et la Russie, Bruxelles, European Union External Action (EEAS), 7 février 2021.

[61] Foreign Affairs Council, 17 October 2022.

[62] Guerre en Ukraine : la Russie accuse l’Union européenne d’être partie prenante dans le conflit, Paris, AFP, 20 octobre 2022.

[63] Sylvain KAHN, Histoire de la construction de l’Europe…, p. 323.

[64] Jorge LIBOREIRO, Ukraine war: Russian army will be « annihilated » if it launches a nuclear attack, warns Josep Borrell, in Euronews, October 14, 2022. EU diplomat says Russian army will be ‘annihilated’ if Putin nukes Ukraine Josep Borrell said that the West’s answer to a nuclear attack would be ‘powerful’ but not nuclear. Le Monde with AFP, October 13, 2022.

[65] Kathleen R. MCNAMARA, The EU is turning geopolitical. Is Venus becoming Mars?, EU Diplomat Josep Borrell warned the Russian Army will be « annihilated » if it launches a nuclear attack. These words suggest a more assertive European Union, in The Washington Post, October 17, 2022.

[66] K. MCNAMARA, Politics of Everyday Europe: Constructing Authority in the European Union, Oxford University Press, 2017.

[67] Immanuel KANT, Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace and History, Translated by David L. Colclasure, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2006. – E. KANT, Œuvres philosophiques, III, Les derniers écrits, coll. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris, Gallimard – NRF, 1986.

[68]. Robert KAGAN, Power and Weakness, Policy Review, June & July 2002, p. 1-2 & 8. – K. MCNAMARA, Politics of Everyday Europe…

[69] Robert KAGAN, Of Paradise and Power, America and Europe in the New World Order, p. 5-6, New York, Knopf Publishing Group, 2003.

[70] Hobbes’s Leviathan, Reprinted from the edition of 1651, Oxford, At the Clarendom Press – Oxford University Press, 1909-1965. – Brigitte GEONGET, Le concept kantien d’insociable sociabilité, Éléments pour une étude généalogique : Kant entre Hobbes et Rousseau, in Revue germanique internationale, 6, 1996.

[71] Thomas HOBBES, Leviathan… – Jean TERREL, Thomas Hobbes : philosopher par temps de crises, Paris, PuF, 2012.

[72] The concept obviously refers to the idea of a League of Nations and cosmopolitical law between the citizens of a universal state, dear to KANT in his text Idée d’une histoire universelle au point de vue cosmopolitique (1784) dans E. KANT, Œuvres philosophiques, II, Des prolégomènes aux écrits de 1791, coll. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, p. 187-205 (traduction of Luc Ferry), Paris, Gallimard – NRF, 1985.

[73] Jean-Marc FERRY, A propos de La puissance et la faiblesse de Robert Kagan, Les Etats-Unis et l’Europe, ou le choc de deux universalismes, in Septentrion, p. 263-278, Jean-Marc Ferry, interview with Muriel Ruol, La puissance et la faiblesse. Les États-Unis et l’Europe, Bruxelles, La Revue nouvelle, janv.-fév. 2004/n° 1-2. BEN Mokhtar BARKA, Jean-Marie RUIZ, dir., États-Unis / Europe : Des modèles en miroir, Villeneuve d’Ascq, Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2006.

[74] EU Ambassadors Annual Conference 2022: Opening Speech by High Representative Josep Borrell, Brussels, October 10, 2022.

[75] K. MCNAMARA, Politics of Everyday Europe…

[76] Medvedev: Borrell’s remarks about Russian nuclear strike, in Pravda, 14 October 2022.

[77] Nicole GNESOTTO, La puissance n’est pas l’émotion, Conversation avec Laurent Greilsamer, dans E. FOTTORINO dir., Ukraine, Première guerre mondialisée, p. 37, Paris, Éditions Le 1, 2022. Texte du 9 mars 2022.

[78] Vincent DUJARDIN, Pierre Harmel, Biographie, p. 620, Bruxelles, Le Cri, 2004. – Annales parlementaires, Chambre, 26 avril 1966, p. 26.

[79] V. DUJARDIN, Pierre Harmel…, p. 649.

[80] N. GNESOTTO, L’Europe: changer ou périr, p. 217, Paris, Tallandier, 2022.

[81] Emma ASHFORD, The Ukraine War will end with negotiations, Now is not the time for talks, but America must lay the groundwork, in Foreign Affairs, October 31, 2022.

[82] Dominique de VILLEPIN, Pour stopper la guerre, le « principe actif » de la diplomatie, dans E. FOTTORINO dir., Ukraine, Première guerre mondialisée…, p. 46.

[83] Edgar MORIN, Pour le compromis et la paix, dans Éric FOTTORINO dir., Ukraine, Première guerre mondialisée…, p. 33.

[84] E. KANT, Projet de paix perpétuelle, coll. La Pléiade…, p. 347.

[85] Richard SAKWA, Russia against the Rest, The Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order, p. 255, Cambridge University Press, 2017.

[86] Jolyon HOWORTH, Les Etats-Unis face à leurs engagements extérieurs, Deep engagement contre restreint, dans Thierry de MONTBRIAL et Dominique DAVID, RAMSES 2023, p. 232-235, Paris, Ifri-Dunod, 2024. – Andrew J. BACEVICH, The Age of illusions: How America Squandered its Cold War Victory, New York, Metropolitan Books, 2020.

Mons, 21 October 2021 [1]


In his History of the Origin of Representative Government in Europe, a series of lectures given two centuries ago, from the end of 1820 to 1822, but published thirty years later, François Guizot (1787-1874) criticised partial opinions conceived before examining the facts. Guizot, a professor at the Sorbonne and future Minister of Education under Louis-Philippe, believed that this attitude distorted the rectitude of judgments and introduced a deplorable frivolity into research. He thought that erudition would suffer as a result of inadequate investigation and cursory judgments. Although, in 2021, European democratic concepts have evolved fundamentally since Guizot’s time, particularly in favour of educational progress and especially higher education, heuristics as a tool for discovering facts remains a serious concern for researchers in all disciplines, and also for citizens in a digital world. European universities, through their process, and above all through their ambition, are arguably one of the best responses to these genuine concerns.


A Professor of history at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1812 and then a senior civil servant under the Restoration, François Guizot alarmed the authorities with his liberal ideas and was suspended from teaching from 1822 to 1824. It was during this period that he wrote his major historical works, entitled History of the English Revolution, General History of Civilisation in Europe, and Histoire de la civilisation en France, works which brought him recognition as one of the finest historians of his time [2]. With his scientific mindset, he was one of the first historians – notably after the Liège scholar of the 16th century, Jean Chapeaville (1551-1617) [3] – to use the footnote, in other words, a reference to sources, and to develop an apparatus criticus, using primary sources [4]. After being elected deputy at the beginning of 1830, Guizot became Minister of the Interior in the government that arose out of the July Revolution, which resulted in Louis-Philippe becoming king of the French. As Minister of Public Education from 1832 to 1837, then of Foreign Affairs, he played a key political role, even serving as President of the Council. Conservative by nature and opposed to universal suffrage, he fell from power, along with the king, during the Revolution of 1848 and devoted himself to writing until the end of his life [5].

1. Questions concerning the relationship between a subject and an object

In 1820, while his political friends were excluded from the business of government and he was teaching in Paris, his audiences compiled their notes with a view to publishing his lectures on The History of the Origins of the Representative Government in Europe. Guizot did not perform the necessary revision work until much later, as his lectures were not published until 1851, and then shortly thereafter in London, in English, the following year. During the opening discourse of his lecture of 7 December 1820, which is reproduced in the work, Guizot starts by addressing the relativity of historical facts, which, if they have not gained or lost any of their content over the time they have spanned, will reveal their meaning only gradually, and analysing their significance will reveal new dimensions: and man thus learns, he writes, that in the infinitude of space opened to his knowledge, everything remains constantly fresh and inexhaustible, in regard to his ever-active and ever-limited intelligence [6]. The problem which Professor Guizot imparts to his students lies at the very heart of the objective he has set for his lecture: to describe the history of the public institutions in Europe based on reading about the particular moment of the new political order that had emerged in 1815. For Guizot, this means we have to reconnect what we now are with what we formerly were, and even – and he expresses it so beautifully –, gather together the links in that chain of time.

The problem, observes Guizot, is that studying the old institutions using modern ideas and institutions to explain or judge them has been largely neglected. And when it has happened, he says, it has been approached with such a strong preoccupation of mind, or with such a determined purpose, that the fruits of our labour have been damaged at the outset.

 Opinions which are partial and adopted before facts have been fairly examined, not only have the effect of vitiating the rectitude of judgment, but they moreover introduce a deplorable frivolity into researches which we may call material. As soon as the prejudiced mind has collected a few documents and proofs in support of its cherished notion, it is contented, and concludes its inquiry. On the one hand, it beholds in facts that which is not really contained in them; on the other hand, when it believes that the amount of information it already possesses will suffice, it does not seek further knowledge. Now, such has been the force of circumstances and passions among us, that they have disturbed even erudition itself. It has become a party weapon, an instrument of attack or defence; and facts themselves, inflexible and immutable facts, have been by turns invited or repulsed, perverted or mutilated, according to the interest or sentiment in favour of which they were summoned to appear [7].

Guizot’s analysis is still valid: the problem of discussing political issues that are relatively close in time but perceived as distant due to the scale of the changes that have occurred in the institutional conditions, changes which can be drastic in the case of a revolution or a profound regime change.

He highlights the danger facing teachers, researchers and « intellectuals » – I am aware that it is anachronistic for me to use this word in 1820 or even in 1850 –, the difficulty they have in speaking or writing neutrally, objectively and dispassionately, with the distance that is expected of the role or profession of the person expressing their opinion and getting close to the truth or even telling the truth. The issues surrounding analysis of sources, the ethics of the scientist, and logic as conditions of the truth, along with questions concerning the relationship between a subject and the object they are addressing [8] and historical criticism are at the heart of this self-reflection.


2. A Cognitive Apocalypse

In his lecture to his students, Guizot highlights the risk of being contented too quickly with a sparse collection of sources which appear to support a previously stated assumption without truly substantiating it. When faced with the ambitions and requirements of proof, scant data produces incorrect interpretation of documents. Passion and commitment based on a flimsy argument threaten quality of knowledge, while erudition becomes a partisan instrument. How often do we encounter this situation in a world in which, however, education – and particularly higher education – is becoming increasingly democratised?

Guizot, who, as a minister, had previously resurrected the Académie des Sciences morales et politiques (Academy of Moral and Political Sciences), would today find support for his views from another scientist, a member of the Académie des Technologies (National Academy of Technologies of France) and the Académie nationale française de Médecine (French Academy of Medicine). Just over two centuries after the declarations we have highlighted, Gérald Bronner, professor of sociology at the University of Paris, observes in his remarkable work Apocalypse cognitive (Cognitive Apocalypse) that the first twenty years of the 21st century have introduced massive deregulation in the marketplace for ideas. We note, as does Bronner, that this cognitive market is characterised both by the vast amount of information available, which is unprecedented in the history of humanity, and also by the fact that everyone is able to contribute their own representation of the world. Furthermore, Bronner believes that this evolution has weakened the role of the traditional gatekeepers, namely the academics, experts, journalists, and so on, all those who were previously regarded as rightfully able to participate in public debate and perform a beneficial regulatory role [9].

Bronner’s analyses display a degree of pessimism concerning our ability to cope with this situation. At least three reasons are cited: firstly, the famous Brandolini’s Law or Bullshit Asymmetry Principle. The Italian programmer Alberto Brandolini observed, in 2013, that the amount of energy needed to refute nonsense is far greater than that required to produce it [10]. Will we all be able to find the time, strength and courage to deal with waffle, simplistic analyses and even fake news? Many academics on social media have stopped doing so.

In his fine work on Le courage de la nuance (The courage of nuance), the essayist Jean Birnbaum wisely recalls the presentation made by Raymond Aron (1905-1983) at the Société française de Philosophie in June 1939. Faced with the increasing dangers, the great French intellectual called on his colleagues to assess their commitment: I think, said the author of Introduction à la philosophie de l’histoire [11], that teachers like us are likely to play a minor role in this effort to save our deeply held values. Instead of shouting with the parties, we could strive to define, in the utmost good faith, the problems facing us and the way to solve them [12].

Next, Bronner calls on a great mind of the mid-19th century: Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859). More resolutely democratic than his contemporary Guizot, Tocqueville writes, in his book Democracy in America (1835), that in general, only simple conceptions take hold of the minds of the people. A false idea, but one clear and precise, will always have more power in the world than a true, but complex, idea [13]. Some of you may still recall the excellent cartoon by Wiley Miller, published in The Intellectualist, in 2015, which shows a crowd of people approaching a ravine on a path marked Answers, simple but wrong » while one or two are making their way along a winding path, book in hand, having chosen the direction « Complex but right ».

Wiley Miller, The Intellectualist, 2015

Beyond the common meaning of the words, complex systems analysis, so dear to William Ross Ashby (1903-1972), Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), Herbert Simon (1916-2001), Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972), Jean Ladrière (1921-2007), Edgar Morin, Jean-Louis Le Moigne, Ilya Prigogine (1917-2003) and Isabelle Stengers, to name but a few, often remains outside the field of knowledge of our university chairs and, therefore, of our students.

Lastly, Bronner notes that our voracious brains do not automatically lead us to scientific models. Even where we have an appetite for knowledge, he adds, this can easily be distracted by the way in which the cognitive market is editorialised. This is the case, for example, with the confusion between correlation and causality, which is clearly illustrated by the Nazi slogan, “500,000 unemployed: 400,000 Jews” [14]. This device seems to crop up repeatedly. But there are other examples, and in all fields. For example, in 1978, the French fascist party, the Front national, stated: « A million unemployed people are a million immigrants too many. France and the French first. »[15] Another example is the poster that Nigel Farage unveiled in Westminster in mid-June 2016, one week before the BREXIT referendum on 23 June. The British broadcaster and Leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) used a picture with the slogan Breaking point: the EU has failed us all, with the subheading: We must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders. The photograph used was of migrants crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border in 2015, with the only prominent white person in the photograph obscured by a box of text. Many people reacted by saying that to claim that migration to the UK is only about people who are not white is to peddle racism. That controversy prompted Boris Johnson to distance himself from Nigel Farage’s campaign [16].

The fact that we have found some particularly divisive, if not detestable, examples could weaken the idea that each of us, entirely logically, may simply demonstrate only what is prejudice. We often start the process of judgment with an inclination to reach a particular conclusion. In their book Noise: A Flaw of Human Judgment, Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass R. Sinstein give a great example of a slant of thought they call conclusion bias, or prejudgment: when one of George Lucas’ collaborators in the development of the screenplay for Return of the Jedi, the third Star Wars film, suggested that he should kill off Luke and have Princess Leila take over, Lucas rejected the idea and disagreed with the different arguments, replying that « You don’t go around killing people » and, finally, that he didn’t like and didn’t believe that. As the authors observed, by « Not liking » before « Not believing », Lucas let his fast, intuitive System 1 thinking suggest a conclusion [17]. When we follow that process, we jump to the conclusion and simply bypass the process of gathering and integrating information, or we mobilise System 2 thinking – engaging a deliberative thought – to come up with arguments that support our prejudgment. In that case, adds Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner for economics, and his colleagues, the evidence will be selective and distorted: because of confirmation bias and desirability bias, we will tend to collect and interpret evidence selectively to favour a judgment that, respectively, we already believe or wish to be true [18]. Prejudgments are evident wherever we look, conclude the three professors. When people determine what they think by consulting their feelings, the process involved is called the affect heuristic [19], a term coined by the psychologist Paul Slovic, Professor at the University of Oregon.

3. Heuristics as a form of resistance for enlightened minds

As is often the case, we can counter our reasons to despair with reasons to rejoice and hope. In my view, these lie in the power of heuristics, techniques and scientific method(s).

Heuristics is generally understood to mean all the intellectual products, processes and approaches that foster discovery and invention in science. There are two distinct aspects. Firstly, a methodological classification which denotes the discovery techniques that substantiate and legitimise knowledge and, secondly, what we can refer to as general heuristics. This forms part of epistemology, the critical study of science [20], and is responsible for describing and reflecting the general conditions for progress in scientific activity [21].

We are clearly all familiar with the questions of method, the path we follow or undertake, which is designed to lead us and to enable us to achieve a given goal and capitalise on a result. This is the path that provides us with our experience as scientists and intellectuals, which we call experimentation when we initiate it systematically. Scientific research is based on a desire to travel along this path, interactively combining assisted observation of experimentation and system analysis, thus enabling explanation. Adapting thoughts to facts is observation; adapting thoughts to each other is theory [22].

In that respect, contemporary research has two messages for us. Firstly, that of rigour and critique, and, secondly, that of relativity, and therefore humility. In my view, these are each as necessary and important as the other.

3.1. The first message: that of rigour and critique.

Rigour consists, firstly, in knowing what one is talking about, what the problem is, and what one is looking for. This is the first reasonable goal of heuristics: to express in general terms the reasons for choosing subjects which, when analysed, may help us achieve the solution [23]. We can, of course, follow in the footsteps of mathematicians, physicians, logicians, and philosophers, such as Pappus of Alexandria (4th century AD), René Descartes (1596-1650), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716), Bernhard Bolzano (1781-1848), Ernst Mach ((1838-1916), Jacques Hadamard (1865-1963), George Polya (1887-1985), Jean Hamburger (1909-1992), Morris Kline (1908-1992), and, more recently, Daniel Kahneman and Shane Frederick. In each of our disciplines, we have visited one or more of them, if not all. A mathematician such as Polya, author of How to Solve it? [24], who taught in Zurich and then at Stanford, argues that the sources of inventions are more important than the inventions themselves. This should, he claims, be the motto of any student planning a career in science. Unsubstantiated demonstrations, lemmas that appear out of nowhere, and supplementary approaches that occur unexpectedly are puzzling and depressing for all students, both good and mediocre [25]. Having struggled through an oral exam on Bernouilli’s theory, I can personally testify.

There are, in the world, certain traditions for constructing a critical and intellectually robust discourse, one which is also not Eurocentric and does not, contrary to what we too often teach, date back to the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. As a Visiting Professor at the National Engineering School of Tunis, I am constantly discovering how much we owe – and the term “we” includes researchers such as Arnold J. Toynbee and Joseph Schumpeter – to the Arab scholar Ibn Khaldoun (1332-1406). In the introduction to his great work Muqaddima, this 14th century economist, sociologist and historian recommended making a comparison between the stories as handed down and the rules and models thus established. If they concur and are consistent, these stories can be declared authentic, if not, they will be considered suspect and discounted [26].

This tangible heuristic effort was pioneered by the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457), whose role was, according to François Dosse, decisive in the notion of truth, to the extent that Dosse, a historian and epistemologist at the University of Paris, spoke of a real turning point [27]. Valla questioned the authenticity of the Donation of Constantine, written in 1440. This text, which acknowledged the fact that the Roman emperor Constantine the Great had bestowed vast territory and spiritual and temporal power on Pope Sylvester I (who reigned from 314 to 335), had great influence on political and religious affairs in medieval Europe. Lorenzo Valla clearly demonstrated that this document was a forgery by analysing the language of the donation. He showed that the Latin used in the text was not that of the 4th century and so argued that the document could not possibly have dated from the time of Constantine [28].

The critical method has found its guardians of the temple in Charles-V Langlois and Charles Seignobos, who established a bulwark against what they considered the natural inclination of the human spirit: not taking precautions and acting confusedly in situations where the utmost caution is essential. They wrote that while everyone, in principle, accepts the value of Criticism – with a capital C! – it hardly ever happens in practice.

The fact is that Criticism is contrary to the normal aspect of intelligence. The spontaneous human tendency is to add belief to assertions and to reproduce them, without even distinguishing them clearly from one’s own observations. In daily life, do we not accept indiscriminately, without any checks, hearsay, anonymous, unsafe information, and all types of documents of mediocre or dubious merit? (…) Any sincere person will recognise that significant effort is needed to shake off the ignavia critica, that common expression for intellectual cowardice; that this effort must be repeated, and that it is often accompanied by genuine suffering [29].

Suffering, the word is out … As with beauty, one needs to suffer to be a researcher. Research is a form of torture inspired, in part, by the works of the German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886). To reach scientific paradise, the research process subjects the document, and the student and the teacher, to a series of analytical operations made up of internal criticism or scholarly criticism (restoration, provenance, classification of sources, criticism of scholars), then to internal criticism (interpretation, negative internal criticism, criticism of sincerity and accuracy, establishing the specific facts) and, lastly, optimises them in synthetic operations.

In 1961, in his extraordinary work entitled L’histoire et ses méthodes (History and its methods), published under the direction of Charles Samaran (1879-1982) from the Institut de France, Robert Marichal (1904-1999) picked up the notion put forward by Langlois and Seignobos, observing that documentary criticism had scarcely been challenged by the proponents of “New History”, which, according to this esteemed archivist, thought that the traditional processes were still effective. Marichal added that the principles that apply to criticism were no different, in general, to those that apply to all human knowledge, as can be found in any logic or psychology textbook [30].

Fifty years later, Gérard Noiriel, a specialist in epistemology in history, states in the online edition of the work by Langlois and Seignobos that they had not invented the rules of historical method, as the basic principles had been known since the 17th century and had been codified by German historians at the beginning of the 19th century. The major contribution of these two professors at the Sorbonne is arguably, states Noiriel, that they wrote that it was necessary to read the historians with the same critical precautions as when one analyses documents [31].

Human science has been greatly influenced by the scientific path taken by history at the end of the 19th century. But, like history, it has distanced itself from this strict criticism of documents. In an introduction, in 2008, entitled L’approximative rigueur de l’anthropologie (The approximate rigour of anthropology), Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, a professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences sociales (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences) in Paris, showed that the word was nothing more than an apparent paradox, highlighting the inevitability of approximation faced with the vulnerability of cognitive bias and ideological excesses, and then abandoning this quest completely in a book entitled La Rigueur du qualitatif The Rigour of the Qualitative) [32]. De Sardan also enlisted his American colleague Howard Becker, who, in Sociological Work: Method and Substance (Chicago, Adline, 1970) and Writing for Social Scientists (University of Chicago Press, 1986 & 2007), had highlighted this tension between consistency of what is being described and conformity with the elements discovered [33].

The scientific paradigm has given way to other paradigms, which have also characterised all human sciences. This is the case with the famous École des Annales (School of Annals), whose books, by a brilliant professor from Liège, Léon-E. Halkin (1906-1998), and supported by the Centre de Recherches historiques at the École pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, have helped to clarify these issues surrounding historical criticism.

Although it remained a methodological requirement, the strict critical method – in the sense of the idolatrous cult of the document [34]  – seemed to become more relaxed at the beginning of the 1980s. At the same time, as Charles Samaran had already done in 1961, it was now a question of highlighting the general principles of the method [35], or even the ethics, of the historian. In that regard and taking their cue from the editorial director of l’Histoire et ses méthodes, Guy Thuillier (1932-2019) and Jean Tulard call on the mighty Cicero for help: the first law he must obey is to have the courage not to say what he knows to be false, the second is to have the courage to say what he believes to be true. Thus, they continue, sincerity of mind implies critical sense [36]. The other precepts of Thuillier and Tulard are those I offer to my students, pointing out that this advice applies to all their tasks in all disciplines, as in daily life:

  • Do not assert anything unless there is a “document” that you have verified personally.
  • Always indicate the document’s degree of “probability” – or uncertainty. Do not rely on appearances or have blind faith in texts (…)
  • Always explicitly highlight the assumptions that guide the research, and point out the limits of the investigation (…)
  • Maintain a certain distance from the subject in question and do not confuse, for instance, biography and hagiography (…)
  • Be wary of hasty generalisations (…)
  • Be aware that nothing is definitive (…)
  • Know how to use your time well; do not rush your work (…),
  • Do not shut yourself away in your office (…). Life experience is essential (…) [37]

3.2. The second message is that of relativity, and therefore of humility.

 The remarkable work done by Françoise Waquet, research director at the CNRS, ends with some powerful words: science, she writes, is human – inevitably, mundanely, profoundly so [38]. Her research, in laboratories, libraries and offices, among teachers and students, books and computers, shows how business rules and academic passion(s) are structured around objectivity. Waquet considers the analyses performed Lorraine Daston, co-director of the Max Planck Institute Berlin for the History of Science. These works showed a propensity to strive for a knowledge that bears no trace of the person who has the knowledge, a knowledge which is not characterised by bias or acquired concepts, by imagination or judgment, by desire or effort. In this system of objectivity, passion appears to be the internal enemy of the researcher [39].

Henri Pirenne expressed it perfectly, in 1923, when he claimed that, in order to achieve objectivity or impartiality without which there is no science, [researchers] must constrict themselves and overcome their cherished prejudices, their most deeply seated convictions, and their most natural and respectable sentiments [40]. Moreover, Émile Durkheim expressed the same view for sociology, as did Marcel Mauss for anthropology, Vidal de la Blache for geography and even Émile Borel for mathematics. We could, as Françoise Waquet did, list numerous examples that, even in the so called “hard” sciences, lead to a form of asceticism and ardent objectivity [41].

In the second half of the twentieth century, the dramatic advances in science after the end of the Second World War and the questions arising from criticism of modernity have not left science unscathed. The Jesuit François Russo (1909-1998), a former student at the École polytechnique, noted, in 1959, that science tends to pose problems that lie beyond the domain of the strict scientific method. He cited the theories of Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and Georges Lemaître (1894-1966), other analyses regarding the universe in its entirety, and considerations concerning the depletion of energy in the universe, biological evolution, the origins of life and of humans, human nature, etc., underlining that scientific advances cause these questions to reappear rather than disappear. In this way, and at the same, he posed questions of meaning [42].

Should it be said that the debates on these issues have evolved, from Raymond Aron (1905-1983) to Paul Ricœur (1913-2005), from Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) to Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), from Karl Popper (1902-1994) to Richard Rorty (1931-2007) and Anthony Giddens, etc.?

On the question of objectivity, he was one of the professors whose classes had the greatest impact on me, who, when faced with passion, demonstrated the path of lucidity. In L’histoire continue (History is going on), the medievalist Georges Duby (1919-1996) considers that it is strict positivist ethics that gives the profession of researcher its dignity. If, he continues, history is abandoning the illusory quest for total objectivity, it is not on account of the stream of irrationality that is invading our culture, but it is above all because the notion of truth in history has changed. Its goal has moved: it is now interested less in facts and more in relationships… [43]


Conclusion: sentiment, reason and experience

Let us return to François Guizot, where we began, but this time in closing.

In that Guizot’s moment, as Pierre Rosanvallon called it, a veritable golden age of political science [44], the lesson was clear: how, at close quarters and under pressure from the major upheavals seen in that period – the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, and the structural and systemic transformations they caused in the fields of technology, politics, society, culture, etc. –, how can we comprehend these events under the sovereignty of reason?

Even if most people have perceived, each in their own time, the advent of a new world [45], with its growth, acceleration, emerging trends and instabilities, our society appears to be characterised more so than yesterday by the flow of information of all kinds that reaches us, challenges us, and assails us. Carried along at great speed on what was already being called the information superhighway a few decades ago, we are learning to control our minds at hitherto unknown speeds, bolstered as we are by our digital tools. To put it mildly, it is now microprocessors that punctuate our work. During lockdown, having switched from Teams to Zoom, from Jitsi to Webex or Google Meet – and having often continued the habit, we all know that it is now the digital world that sets the pace. In the flow of messages, links and texts sent to us, we are learning how to identify the hackers and other digital pests. Beyond our defensive tools, it is experience that often guides us.

We have few firewalls to defend ourselves against the demons of the cognitive apocalypse described, or promised, by Gérald Bronner. We do not want any censorship of “good thinking” or a sterilised world in which we filter our connections and sanitise our brains. In my view, the best form of regulation remains our own intelligence.

This certainly involves heuristics and research methods. In a formal address he gave in September 1964 to mark start of the new term at the Faculté polytechnique de Mons, professor and future rector Jacques Franeau (+2007) noted that it was necessary to avoid confusing objective with subjective, and that, since the primary aim of any society was to create the best environment for human life and happiness, it was necessary, to achieve that goal, for it to start from certain and objective data, to have knowledge before choosing its direction, and then to build on the solid foundations afforded by that knowledge [46].

Thus, to address the concerns, we have highlighted two responses: firstly, rigour and criticism and, secondly, relativity and humility.

Without resorting to Voltaire’s idea that all certainty which is not mathematical demonstration is merely extreme probability [47], the teaching of those who frequent higher education must base stringency on both the robustness and the reasonable traceability of any information produced. Citing a source does not, whatever the discipline, mean referring to the overall work of a scholar, nor even to one of their creations – digital or paper – without specifying the location of the information. Some colleagues or students send you a 600-page book with no further clarification, editing or pagination. Verification is impossible. Similarly, to return to an observation made previously by both the German-American mathematician and economist Oskar Morgenstern (1902-1977) [48] and the Frenchman Gilles-Gaston Granger (1920-2016) [49], the issue of data validity and reliability does not seem to be of interest to many researchers. For these two distinguished experts in comparative epistemology, it was economists who were being targeted. But we can be sure than many other researchers are affected. I am certain that these testimonies resonate with you as they do with me. Training our students in rigour, precision and criticism will certainly help to make them not only good researchers, but also mindful and courageous intellectuals, in other words individuals capable of grasping the most difficult or far-fetched content, breaking free from it, and communicating only what is accurate and certain.

Relativity and humility stem from our awareness of our weaknesses when faced with the world and the difficulty we have in grasping the system as a whole. They are also nurtured by the legitimate notion that explanations of phenomena and their truth change with scientific advances. It cannot be denied, states Granger, that a Newtonian truth concerning the trajectory of a star differs from Einstein’s truth regarding the same object [50]. Rather than being sceptical about scientific knowledge, it is instead a question of looking at ourselves, as human beings, and acknowledging the richness of our capacity to articulate sentiment, reason and experience. At a time when cybernetic dreams are becoming a reality in artificial general intelligence, we have an ever-increasing number of human and scientific references to show us the way.

Thus, to conclude this talk, I will refer to the author of La Science expérimentale, Claude Bernard (1813-1878). In his acceptance speech at the Académie française, on 27 May 1869, the great doctor and philologist observed that, in the progressive development of humanity, poetry, philosophy and science express the three phases of our intelligence, moving successively through sentiment, reason and experience [51].

Nevertheless, states Bernard, it would be wrong to believe that if one follows the precepts of the experimental method, the researcher – and I would say the intellectual – must reject all a priori notions and silence their sentiment, so that their views are based solely on the results of the experiment. In reality, he adds, the laws that govern manifestations of human intelligence do not allow the researcher to proceed other than by always, and successively, moving through sentiment, reason and experience. But, convinced of the worthlessness of the spirit when reduced to itself, he gives experience (experimentation) a dominant influence and he tries to guard against the impatience of knowing, which leads us constantly to make mistakes. We must therefore go in search of the truth calmly and without haste, relying on reason, or reasoning, which always serves to guide us, but, at every step, we must temper it and tame it through experience, in the knowledge that, unbeknown to us, sentiment causes us return to the origin of things [52].

If, in 2021, European democratic conceptions have fundamentally evolved since Guizot, thanks to progress in education and in particular within higher education, heuristics as a tool for discovering facts remains a sensitive concern for researchers of all disciplines, but also citizens, in a digital world. European universities, such as those gathered in EUNICE, considering their background, but also above all by their ambition, undoubtedly constitute one of the best responses to real concerns.


Philippe Destatte



[1] This text is the background paper of the conference that I presented on October 21, 2021 at the Academic Hall of the University of Mons, as part of EUNICE WEEKS mobilising, with the support of the European Commission, the network which brings together the universities of Brandenburg, Cantabria, Catania, Lille – Hauts de France, Poznań, Vaasa and Mons.

[2] Laurent THEIS, Guizot, La traversée d’un siècle, Paris, CNRS Editions, 2014. – Edition Kindle, Location 1104. – François Guizot, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Oct. 8, 2021,

[3] René HOVEN, Jacques STIENNON, Pierre-Marie GASON, Jean Chapeaville (1551-1617) et ses amis. Contribution à l’historiographie liégeoise, Bruxelles, Académie royale de Belgique, 2004 – Paul DELFORGE, Jean Chapeaville (1551-1617), Connaître la Wallonie, Namur,  December 2014. which, at the time, had fascinated Professor Jacques Stiennon (ULIEGE).

[4] Ibidem, Location 1149-1150.

[5] Guillaume de BERTHIER DE SAUVIGNY, François Guizot (1787-1874), in Encyclopædia Universalis accessed on 13 October  2021. – Pierre ROSANVALLON, Le moment Guizot, coll. Bibliothèque des Sciences humaines, Paris, NRF-Gallimard, 1985. – André JARDIN and André-Jean TUDESQ, La France des Notables, L’évolution générale, 1815-1848, Nouvelle Histoire de la France contemporaine, Paris, Seuil, 1988.

[6] François GUIZOT, Histoire des origines du gouvernement représentatif en Europe, p. 2, Paris, Didier, 1851. – (…) and man thus learns that in the infinitude of space opened to his knowledge, everything remains constantly fresh and inexhaustible, in regard to his ever-active and ever-limited intelligence. GUIZOT, History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe, p. 2,

[7] François GUIZOT, History of the Origin of Representative Government in Europe, translated by Andrew E. Scobe, p. 4, London, Henry G. Bohn, 1852.

[8] Concerning these issues, see the always very valuable Jean PIAGET dir., Logique et connaissance scientifique, coll. Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, Paris, Gallimard, 1967. In particular, J. PIAGET, L’épistémologie et ses variétés, p. 3sv. – Hervé BARREAU, L’épistémologie, Paris, PuF, 2013.

[9] Gérald BRONNER, Apocalypse cognitive, Paris, PUF-Humensi, 2021.

[10] G. BRONNER, Apocalypse…, p. 220-221.

[11] Raymond ARON, La philosophie critique de l’histoire, Essai sur une théorie allemande de l’histoire (1938), Paris, Vrin, 3e ed., 1964.

[12] Raymond ARON, Communication devant la Société française de philosophie, 17 juin 1939, dans R. ARON, Croire en la démocratie, 1933-1944, Textes édités et présentés par Vincent Duclert, p. 102, Paris, Arthème-Fayard – Pluriel, 2017. – Jean BIRNBAUM, Le courage de la nuance, p. 73, Paris, Seuil, 2021.

[13] Alexis de TOCQUEVILLE, Democracy in America (1835), Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield & Delba Winthrop, p. 155, Chicago & London, The University of Chicago Press, 2002. – La Démocratie en Amérique, in Œuvres, collection La Pléade, t. 2, p. 185, Paris, Gallimard, 1992. – G. BRONNER, op. cit., p. 221.

[14] G. BRONNER, op. cit., p. 238 et 298

[15] Valérie IGOUNET, Derrière le Front, Histoires, analyses et décodage du Front national, 26 octobre 2015.

[16] Heather STEWART & Rowen MASON, Nigel Farage’s anti-migrant poster reported to police, in The Guardian, June 16, 2016.

[17] D. KAHNEMAN, Thinking, Fast and Slow, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. – Trad. Système 1/ Système 2, Les deux vitesses de la pensée, Paris, Flammarion, 2012. – See also: D. KAHNEMAN et al., dir., Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

[18] Daniel KAHNEMAN, Olivier SIBONY and Cass R. SUNSTEIN, Noise, A flaw in Human Judgment, p. 166-167, New York – Boston – London, Little Brown Spark, 2021.

[19] Ibidem, p. 168. – Paul SLOVIC, Psychological Study of Human Judgment: Implications for Investment Decision Making, in Journal of Finance, 27, 1972, p. 779.

[20] In the broadest sense of the concept, both Latin and Anglo-Saxon. See Gilles Gaston GRANGER, Epistémologie, dans Encyclopædia Universalis, viewed on 10 October 2021.

[21] Jean-Pierre CHRÉTIEN-GONI, Heuristique, dans Encyclopædia Universalis, viewed on 10 October 2021. – Avrum STROLL, Epistemology, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, viewed on 16 October 2021,

[22] Jean LARGEAULT, Méthode, Encyclopædia Universalis, viewed on 10 October 2021. – Scientific Method, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, October 15, 2021, viewed on 17 October.

[23] George POLYA, L’Heuristique est-elle un sujet d’étude raisonnable?, in Travail et Méthodes, Numéro Hors Série La Méthode dans les Sciences modernes, Paris, Sciences et Industrie, 1958.

[24] G. POLYA, How to Solve it?, Princeton University Press, 1945.

[25] G. POLYA, L’Heuristique est-elle un sujet d’étude raisonnable…, p. 284.

[26] Ibn KHALDUN, Le Livre des exemples, Autobiographie, Muqaddima, text translated and annotated by Abdesselam Cheddadi, collection Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, t. 1, p. 39, Paris, NRF-Gallimard, 2202. (Our translation in English) – Abdesselam CHEDDADI, Ibn Khaldûn, L’homme et le théoricien de la civilisation, p. 194, Paris, NRF-Gallimard, 2006.

[27] François DOSSE, L’histoire, p. 18-20, Paris, A. Colin, 2° éd., 2010. – Blandine BARRET-KRIEGEL, L’histoire à l’âge classique, vol. 2, p. 34, Paris, PUF, 1988.

[28] Ulick Peter BURKE, Lorenzo Valla, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, viewed on October 19, 2021 Donation of Constantin, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, viewed on October 19, 2021.

[29] Charles-Victor LANGLOIS and Charles SEIGNOBOS, Introduction aux études historiques, p. 48-49, Paris, Hachette & Cie, 1898. 4 ed., s.d. (1909).

[30] Robert MARICHAL, La critique des textes, in Charles SAMARAN dir., L’histoire et ses méthodes, coll. Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, p. 1248, Paris, NRF-Gallimard, 1961.

[31] Gérard NOIREL, Preface by Charles-Victor LANGLOIS and Charles SEIGNOBOS, Introduction aux études historiques, Paris, ENS, 2014.

[32] Jean-Pierre OLIVIER de SARDAN, La rigueur du qualitatif, Les contraintes empiriques de l’interprétation socio-anthropologique, p. 7-10, Louvain-la-Neuve, Bruylant-Academia, 2008.

[33] Howard BECKER, Les ficelles du métier, Comment conduire sa recherche en Sciences sociales, p. 48, Paris, La Découverte, 2002. – J-P OLIVIER de SARDAN, op. cit., p. 8.

[34] F. DOSSE, L’histoire…, p. 29. Here, we are referring to Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges (1830-1889). See François HARTOG, Le XIXe siècle et l’histoire, Le cas Fustel de Coulanges, p. 351-352, Paris, PUF, 1988.

[35] Ch. SAMARAN, L’histoire et ses méthodes…, p. XII-XIII.

[36] Ibidem, p. XIII. – J. TULARD & G. THUILLIER, op. cit., p. 91.

[37] J. TULARD (1933) and .G. THUILLIER, La méthode en histoire…, p. 92-94.

[38] Françoise WAQUET, Une histoire émotionnelle du savoir, XVIIe-XXIe siècle, p. 325 , Paris, CNRS Editions, 2019.

[39] Lorraine DASTON, The moral Economy of Science, in Osiris, 10, 1995, p. 18-23. – F. WAQUET, op. cit., p. 393,

[40] Henri PIRENNE, De la méthode comparative en histoire, Discours prononcé à la séance d’ouverture du Ve Congrès international des Sciences historiques, 9 April 1923, Brussels, Weissenbruch, 1923. – F. WAQUET, op. cit., p. 306.

[41] F. PAQUET, op. cit., p. 303. – Paul WHITE, Darwin’s emotions, The Scientific self and the sentiment of objectivity, in Isis, 100, 2009, p. 825.

[42] François RUSSO, Valeur et situation de la méthode scientifique, in La méthode dans les sciences modernes…, p. 341. – See also: F. RUSSO, Nature et méthode de l’histoire des sciences, Paris, Blanchard, 1984.

[43] Georges DUBY, L’histoire continue, p. 72-78, Paris, Odile Jacob, 1991.

[44] Pierre ROSANVALLON, Le moment Guizot, coll. Bibliothèque des sciences humaines, p. 75 et 87, Paris, NRF-Gallimard, 1985.

[45] Michel LUSSAULT, L’avènement du monde, Essai sur l’habitation humaine de la Terre, Paris, Seuil, 2013.

[46] Jacques FRANEAU, D’où vient et où va la science ? Formal address to mark the start of term at the Faculté polytechnique de Mons, 26 September 1964, p. 58.

[47] René POMMEAU, Préface, in VOLTAIRE, Œuvres historiques,  p. 14, Paris, NRF-Gallimard, 1957.

[48] Oskar MORGENSTERN, On the accuracy of Economic Observation, Princeton, 1950.

[49] Gilles-Gaston GRANGER, La vérification, p. 191, Paris, Odile Jacob, 1992.

[50] Ibidem, p. 10.

[51] Claude BERNARD, Discours de réception à l’Académie française, 27 May 1869, in Claude BERNARD, La Science expérimentale,  p. 405-406, Paris, Baillière & Fils, 3rd ed., 1890.

[52] Ibidem, p. 439.

Namur (Wallonia), August 28, 2021

Anticipating means visualising and then acting before the events or actions occur. This implies taking action based on what is visualised, which just goes to show how complex the process is and how problematic our relationship is with the future. The saying “to govern means to foresee » is at odds with this complexity principle. It also refers to individual responsibility. Blaming politics is a little simplistic and unfair, as it is up to each of us to govern ourselves, which means we must “anticipate”. Yet we are constantly guilty of not anticipating in our daily lives.


1. Our relationship with the future

 Our relationship with the future is problematic. There are five different attitudes, of which anticipation is merely the fifth. The first is common: we go with the flow; in other words, we wait for things to happen. We hope everything will go well. It is business as usual, or we have always done this as they say in Wallonia. We can also echo the words used by the miners whenever the colliery tunnels were shored up: it can’t hurt, it’s not dangerous, it’s strong, it’s reliable, etc. My father taught me to ridicule this cavalier attitude and, above all, to challenge it.

The second attitude is more active: it involves playing by the rules and working within the norms. The elected officials pay close attention to this, and so do we all. We have to have an extinguisher in our car in case of fire, but mostly to comply with the legal obligations, regulations, technical checks, and so on. Note that public buildings and businesses are also required to have them and to ensure that they are checked regularly. Very few people have one or more fire extinguishers in their house or apartment, and, even if they do, they may not be in working order or suitable for the different types of fire that may occur. We know that it is not a legal requirement, so most people don’t bother about it.

The third attitude towards the future is responsiveness: we respond to external stimuli, and we adapt quickly to the situations that arise. Images of firefighters and emergency workers come to mind, of course, and entrepreneurs as well. Responsiveness may be a virtue, but we know that it is sometimes ineffective in the face of fast-moving events. In defence of their discipline, futurists often quote a saying which they attribute to the statesman Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838): when it’s urgent, it’s already too late.

The fourth attitude towards the future is preactivity: our ability – or lack of – to prepare for changes once they are foreseeable. The word foreseeable is clearly related to forecasting, in other words, an assumption is made about the future which is usually quantified and associated with a confidence index based on an expectation. This involves taking a number of variables and system elements into account against a background of previous structural stability and analysing them and their possible evolutions. The likelihood of these possible evolutions is then calculated. Validation is always uncertain due to the complexity of the systems created by the variables. A common example is the weather forecast: it gives me a probability of rain at a given time. If I am preactive, I take my umbrella or I pile sandbags in front of my doors.

The fifth attitude towards the future is proactivity. In his work on the Battle of Stalingrad – 55 years after the event –, British historian and former officer Antony Beevor criticises the German general Friedrich Paulus (1890-1957) for not, as the military commander, being prepared to confront the threat of encirclement which had been facing him for weeks, particularly by not retaining a strong, mobile, armoured capability. This would have enabled the Sixth Army of the Wehrmacht to defend itself effectively at the crucial moment. But, Beevor adds, that implied a clear assessment of the actual danger [1]. This means that, faced with expected and identified changes (I would say exploratory foresight), or even desired changes, which I will cause or create (I would then say normative foresight), I will take action. Anticipating means both visualising and then acting in advance, in other words, acting before the events or actions occur. That is why we could also say, with Riel Miller, that if the future does not exist in the present, anticipation does. The form the future takes in the present is anticipation [2].


2. A threefold problem to comprehend the future

We are all faced with a threefold problem when confronting the future. The first problem is that, in the tradition of Gaston Berger (1896-1960) [3], we are expected to look far ahead but, in reality, the future does not exist as an object of knowledge. Clearly, it does not exist because it is not written and is not determined, as Marx believed or as some collapse theorists today believe.

We are also expected to take a broad view and to reflect systemically. But forecasts only focus on a limited number of variables, even in the era of Big Data. Yet we find ourselves faced with systems which are all complex and interwoven in a tangle of unlikely events. We are all familiar with emergences [4] or sudden occurrences linked to the relationships between participants and factors within the system. When driving my car, I can anticipate a puddle, to avoid aquaplaning, or a patch of ice by telling myself that I must not break. But, in reality, I never know what my reaction will be when I feel my wheels shaking, or how my car, my tyres or the road surface will react. Similarly, I never know what the reaction will be of the drivers in front of me or behind me, or in the other lanes, or of the bird that happens to strike my windscreen at that precise moment. So, I have to deal with the complexity, but I cannot reduce it.

The third problem is that, faced with world systems of such complexity, my own knowledge tools are limited. We are trained in disciplines, epistemologies, knowledge methods, vocabularies, and scientific jargon which do not encourage multidisciplinarity (studying one discipline through several disciplines), interdisciplinarity (transferring methods from one discipline to another) or transdisciplinarity (a demanding approach which moves between, across and beyond disciplines), to echo the distinctions expressed by the Franco-Romanian physicist Basarab Nicolescu in response to the works of Jean Piaget (1896-1980) [5]. Our narrowmindedness and reluctance to open up affect our humility, encourage received ideas, create ambiguity (words do not have the same meanings), prevent the necessary constructive dialogue, and adversely affect collective intelligence.

A key achievement of the French economists and futurists Jacques Lesourne (1928-2020) and Michel Godet was to demonstrate the limits of forecasting, which looks to the past for invariants or relationship models to suggest its permanence or its relatively constant evolution in the future, leading to conditional forecasts: ceteris paribus, all things being equal”. Michel Godet’s major work is entitled The Crisis in Forecasting and the Emergence of the « La Prospective », (Pergamon, 1979). In it, he writes that it was on account of the philosopher Gaston Berger, who was himself nurtured on the reflections of Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) and Maurice Blondel (1861-1949), and numerous Anglo-Saxon sources of inspiration, that the foresight approach developed. This intellectual stance involves taking the past and future into consideration over the long-term, comprehending the entire system in a seamless way, and exploring capabilities and means of action collectively.

Against our cultural, mental, intellectual, scientific, social and political background, this approach is not encouraged. It does, however, move us on from the question “what is going to happen” to the question “what may happen” and, therefore, “what if?”. This is also linked to one of our major preoccupations: the short-, medium-, and long-term impact prior analysis of the decisions we take.

Foresight has developed methods based precisely on the issue of these emergences. In addition to analysing trends and trajectories – which can identify crises such as the global financial crash in 2008 –, it also works with wildcards: major surprises and unexpected, remarkable, and unlikely events, which may have significant impacts if they occur: the 9/11 attacks, the Icelandic volcano in April 2010, the Covid crisis in 2019, the floods in July 2021, and so on.

There is also much talk today of black swan events as a result of the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, formerly a trader and now professor of risk engineering at the University of New York. This involves identifying events that are statistically almost impossible – so-called statistical dissonance – but which happen anyway [6].


3. Constructing a political agenda for complexity

First of all, we must be sceptical about the retrospective biases highlighted by the economist, psychologist and future Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky, which involve exaggerating, retrospectively, the fact that events could have been anticipated. These biases are linked to the need we all have to make sense of things, including the most random events [7]. When the unpredictable happens, it is intellectually quite easy for us to see it as predictable.

Next, it should be noted that political leaders are faced with the core issues of appropriation, legitimacy, and acceptability – especially budgetary – of a decision taken at the end of a dialogue and negotiation process involving multiple participants. The public will not necessarily be in favour of the government spending significant amounts on understanding problems they cannot yet visualise. Like St. Thomas, if they can’t touch it, they won’t believe it. At the outset, the population is not ready to hear what the politicians have to tell them on the matter, whether it involves a “stop-concrete” strategy or a perishable supply of masks. For experts and elected officials alike, it is no longer enough to make claims. They now have to provide scientific proof, and, above all, avoid denial, as the emotional link can be considerable. The significant role played by the media should also not be overlooked. For a long time, it was thought that a pandemic was an acceptable risk, as in the 1960s with the Hong Kong flu which caused at least a million deaths globally between 1968 and 1970, whereas the sight of Covid-19 victims in intensive care is unbearable and makes us less willing to accept the number of deaths. Remember how, in France, Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot was criticised and accused of squandering public money when she bought health masks and vaccines for swine flu (H1N1 virus) in 2009-2010. At the same time, humans have a great capacity to become accustomed to risk. Think of the nuclear sword of Damocles that was the Cold War, which continued until the early 1990s. We should also question whether this military nuclear risk – the anthropic apocalypse – has disappeared.

We constantly find ourselves needing to agree on the priority of the challenges facing us. Constructing a political agenda for such complexity is by no means clear, and political leaders wonder whether they will be criticised for starting works that may not seem urgent or sufficiently important to merit sustained attention, stakeholder mobilisation, and the resulting budgets.

Finally, governing not only means solving organisational problems, allocating resources and planning actions over time. It also means making things intelligible, as the French historian Pierre Rosanvallon points out [8]. The political world does not appreciate the importance of the educational aspect. In Belgium, politicians no longer go on television to talk to people directly and explain an issue that needs to be addressed. Government communications have disappeared; now, there are only televised addresses from the Head of State, who in this way becomes the last actor to communicate values to the public in this way.


Conclusion: uncertainty, responsibility, and anticipation

In May 2020, during the Covid-19 lockdown, the host of Signes des Temps on France-Culture radio, Marc Weitzmann, had the bright idea of recalling the first major debate of the Age of Enlightenment on natural disasters and their consequences for human populations [9], a debate between Voltaire (1694-1778) and Rousseau (1712-1778) about the Lisbon disaster of 1755 [10].

HRP5XD Lisbon Tsunami, 1755 – Woodcut – The Granger – NYC

On 1 November 1755 (All Saints Day), Lisbon was hit by a huge earthquake. Three successive waves between 5 and 15 metres high destroyed the port and the city centre [11], and tens of thousands of inhabitants lost their lives in the earthquake, tsunami and huge fire that followed. When he heard the news, Voltaire was deeply affected and, several weeks later, in view of the gravity of the event, he wrote a famous poem in which his intention was to go beyond mere evocation of the disaster and compassion for the victims.

Come, ye philosophers, who cry, “All’s well,”

And contemplate this ruin of a world.

Behold these shreds and cinders of your race,

This child and mother heaped in common wreck,

These scattered limbs beneath the marble shafts—

A hundred thousand whom the earth devours,

Who, torn and bloody, palpitating yet,

Entombed beneath their hospitable roofs,

In racking torment end their stricken lives.

To those expiring murmurs of distress,

To that appalling spectacle of woe,

Will ye reply: “You do but illustrate

The iron laws that chain the will of God »? [12]

In this “Poem on the Lisbon disaster”, from which these lines are a short excerpt, Voltaire ponders the appropriateness of attributing the event to divine justice, when, according to some so-called optimistic philosophers at the time, everything natural is a gift from God and, therefore, ultimately good and just [13]. Without calling divine power into question, Voltaire counters this concept, rejects the idea of a specific celestial punishment to atone for vices in the Portuguese capital, and instead declares fate responsible for the disaster.

As mentioned by Jean-Paul Deléage, who, in 2005, published in the Écologie et Politique review the letter which Rousseau sent to Voltaire on 18 August 1756, Voltaire went on to propose a new concept of human responsibility. This concept was social and political rather than metaphysical and religious. Thus, in his reply to Voltaire, Rousseau states as follows:

 (…), I believe I have shown that with the exception of death, which is an evil almost solely because of the preparations which one makes preceding it, most of our physical ills are still our own work. Is it not known that the person of each man has become the least part of himself, and that it is almost not worth the trouble of saving it when one has lost all the rest Without departing from your subject of Lisbon, admit, for example, that nature did not construct twenty thousand houses of six to seven stories there, and that if the inhabitants of this great city had been more equally spread out and more lightly lodged, the damage would have been much less, and perhaps of no account. All would have fled at the first disturbance, and the next day they would have been seen twenty leagues from there, as gay as if nothing had happened; but it is necessary to remain, to be obstinate around some hovels, to expose oneself to new quakes, because what one leaves behind is worth more than what one can bring along. How many unfortunate people have perished in this disaster because of one wanting to take his clothes, another his papers, another his money?  Is it not known that the person of each man has become the least part of himself, and that it is almost not worth the trouble of saving it when one has lost all the rest? [14] 

Whereas, for Voltaire, the Lisbon disaster was an accident and an unfortunate combination of circumstances, Rousseau feels that the natural seismic effects were compounded by the actions, urban choices and attitude of the people during the disaster. It is the responsibility of human behaviour that Rousseau highlights. In essence, he believes that, although Lisbon was destroyed, this was linked to the human decision to build a city on the coast and near a fault line. A lack of anticipation, perhaps.

Rousseau returned to these matters in his Confessions, in which he again absolves Providence and maintains that, of all the evils in people’s lives, there was not one to be attributed to Providence, and which had not its source rather in the abusive use man made of his faculties than in nature [15].

In the appropriately named Signes des Temps, or Sign of the Times, programme, Marc Weitzmann established a link between this debate, the question of uncertainty, nature and mankind, and the thoughts of French urbanist Paul Virilio (1932-2018). Scarred by the blitzkrieg and his lost childhood, and the idea that acceleration prevents anticipation and can lead to coincidence, Virilio, author of Speed and Politics (MIT Press, 2006), The Original Accidentl (Polity Press, 2007), and The Great Accelerator (Polity Press, 2012), emphasised that industrial and natural disasters progressed not only geometrically but also geographically, if not cosmically. In his view, this progress of contemporary coincidence requires a new intelligence in which the principle of responsibility permanently supplants the principle of technoscientific effectiveness, which is, considers Virilio, arrogant to the point of delusion [16].

Thus, as in Rousseau, our natural disasters seem increasingly inseparable from our anthropic disasters. All the more so since, as we now know, we have through our human and industrial actions altered the course of time in all its meanings: climate time, as well as speed time, or acceleration.

The fine metaphor used by futurists on the need to have good headlights at night – the faster we travel, the brighter they need to be – seems somewhat outdated. While, today, we are collectively wondering whether the road still exists, we can still enjoy inventing, plotting, and carving out a new path. For, in the words of Gaston Berger, the future is not only what may happen or what is most likely to happen, but is also, and increasingly so, what we want it to be. Predicting a disaster is conditional: it involves predicting what would happen if we did nothing to change the situation rather than what will happen in any event [17].

Risk management will remain a fundamental necessity on the path we choose. What is more, any initiative involves a degree of uncertainty which we can only ever partially reduce. This uncertainty will never absolve our individual and collective responsibilities as elected representatives or citizens. This uncertainty, in turn, creates a duty of anticipation [18].

Anticipation culture must feature at the heart of our public and collective policies. To that end, we must employ foresight methods that are genuinely robust and operational, along with impact prior analyses for the actions to be taken. That is the only way to tackle a new future without false impressions.

In his conclusions of The Imperative of Responsability, Hans Jonas decreed that, facing the threat of nuclear war, ecological ravage, genetic engineering, and the like, fear was a requirement for tackling the future [19]. We must treat anticipation in the same way. Thus anticipation meets hope, each being a consequence of the other.



Philippe Destatte


Related paper: Increasing rationality in decision-making through policy impact prior analysis (July 12, 2021)


Direct access to PhD2050’s English papers


[1] Free translation from: Antony BEEVOR, Stalingrad, p. 231-232 et 252 , Paris, de Fallois, 1999.

[2] Riel MILLER, Futures Literacy: transforming the future, in R. MILLER ed., Transforming the Future, Anticipation in the 21st Century, p. 2, Paris, UNESCO – Abingdon, Routledge, 2018.

[3] Gaston BERGER, L’attitude prospective, dans Phénoménologie et prospective, p. 270sv, Paris, PUF, 1964.

[4] According to the systemist Edgar Morin, emergence is an organizational product which, although inseparable from the system as a whole, appears not only at the global level, but possibly at the level of the components. Emergence is a new quality in relation to the constituents of the system. It therefore has the virtue of an event, since it arises in a discontinuous manner once the system has been constituted; it has of course the character of irreducibility; it is a quality which cannot be broken down, and which cannot be deduced from previous elements. E. MORIN, La méthode, t.1, p. 108, Paris, Seuil, 1977. – The concept of emergence finds its origin in George Henry Lewes. To urge that we do not know how theses manifold conditions emerge in the phenomenon Feeling, it is to say that the synthetic fact has not been analytically resolved into all its factor. It is equally true that we do not know how Water emerges from Oxygen and Hydrogen. The fact of an emergence we know; and we may be certain that what emerges is the expression of its conditions, – every effect being the procession of its cause. George Henry LEWES, Problems of Life and Mind, t. 2, p. 412, London, Trübner & Co, 1874. – André LALANDE, Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie, p. 276-277, Paris, PUF, 1976.

[5] See: Transdisciplinarité in Ph. DESTATTE & Philippe DURANCE dir., Les mots-clés de la prospective territoriale, p. 51, Paris, La Documentation française, 2009.

[6] Nassim Nicholas TALEB, The Black Swan, The Impact of the Highly Improbable, New York, Random House, 2007.

[7] Daniel KAHNEMAN & Amos TVERSKY, Prospect theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk, in Econometrica, Journal of the econometric society, 1979, vol. 47, nr 2, p. 263-291.

[8] Pierre ROSANVALLON, Counter-Democracy, Politics in an Age of Distrust, Cambridge University Press,  2008.

[9] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lettre à Monsieur de Voltaire sur ses deux poèmes sur « la Loi naturelle » et sur « le Désastre de Lisbonne », présentée par Jean-Paul DELEAGE, dans Écologie & politique, 2005, 30, p. 141-154.

[10] Cfr Marc Weitzmann, Le Cygne noir, une énigme de notre temps, ou la prévision prise en défaut, avec Cynthia Fleury, Bruno Tertrais et Erwan Queinnec, Signes des Temps, France Culture,

[11] Sofiane BOUHDIBA, Lisbonne, le 1er novembre 1755 : un hasard ? Au cœur de la polémique entre Voltaire et Rousseau, A travers champs, 19 octobre 2014. S. Bouhdiba est démographe à l’Université de Tunis. – Jean-Paul POIRIER, Le tremblement de terre de Lisbonne, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2005.

[12] Translation taken from the Online Library of Liberty,

VOLTAIRE, Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne (1756), Œuvres complètes, Paris, Garnier, t. 9, p. 475. Wikisources :

[13] We are talking about theodicy here. This consists in the justification of the goodness of God by the refutation of the arguments drawn from the existence. This concept was introduced by the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716) in an attempt to reconcile the apparent contradiction between, on the one hand, the misfortunes that prevail on earth and, on the other hand, the power and the goodness of God. LEIBNITZ, Essais de théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l’Homme et l’origine du mal, Amsterdam, F. Changuion, 1710. – See Patrick SHERRY, Theodicy in Encyclopedia Britannica, Accessed 28 August 2021.

We know that in his tale Candide, or Optimism, published in 1759, Voltaire will deform and mock Leibnitzian thought through the caricatural character of Pangloss and the formula everything is at best in the best of all possible worlds … VOLTAIRE, Candide ou l’Optimisme, in VOLTAIRE, Romans et contes, Edition établie par Frédéric Deloffre et Jacques Van den Heuvel, p. 145-233, Paris, Gallimard, 1979.

[14] Translation from Internet Archive, Letter to Voltaire, Pl, IV, 1060-1062, p. 51.,

Lettre à Monsieur de Voltaire sur ses deux poèmes sur la « Loi naturelle » et sur « Le Désastre de Lisbonne », 18 août 1756. in Jean-Paul DELEAGE, op. cit.

[15] J.-J. ROUSSEAU, Confessions, IX, Paris, 1767, cité par Sofiane BOUHDIBA, op. cit.

[16] Paul VIRILIO, L’accident originel, p. 3, Paris, Galilée, 2005.

[17] G. BERGER, Phénoménologie et prospective…, p. 275. (Free translation).

[18] Voir à ce sujet Pierre LASCOUMES, La précaution comme anticipation des risques résiduels et hybridation de la responsabilité, dans L’année sociologique, Paris, PUF, 1996, 46, n°2, p. 359-382.

[19] Hans JONAS, The Imperative of Responsability, In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, The University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Boston, April 30, 2018

In order to conclude the symposium Grappling with the Futures, Insights from History, Philosophy, and Science, Technology and Society, hosted in Boston by Harvard University (Department of the History of Science) and Boston University (Department of Philosophy) on Sunday, April 29 and Monday, April 30, 2018, the organizers wanted to hear about related organizations or initiatives. They wanted to both learn more about them and figure out the potential added value of these possible new additions to the network, which should not duplicate existing ones and should foster mutually beneficial synergies. We therefore heard from Ted Gordon for the Millennium Project, Keri Facer for the Anticipation Conference, Cynthia Selin for the Arizona State University initiatives, Terry Collins for the Association of Professional Futurists, Philippe Durance for the CNAM, Jenny Andersson and Christina Garsten for the Global Foresight Project[1], and myself for The Destree Institute. This paper is a revised version of my short contribution given in this final panel.

 1. A Trajectory from Local to Global

Some groups mainly know The Destree Institute as a local NGO with quite a long history (it will be 80 years old in June 2018) of modest size (10 researchers), a foundation that operates as a ‘think and do tank’ and is close to the Parliament of Wallonia and government, a partner of the regional administration and very open to the world of entrepreneurship. It works at the crossroads between five or six universities in cross-border collaboration. Twenty years ago now, after 15 years of research in history and future studies, The Destree Institute created its Foresight Unit, supplementing this last year with a laboratory of collective, public and entrepreneurial policies for Wallonia in Europe: the Wallonia Policy Lab [2]. Its work in this area is intellectually supported by a Regional Foresight College consisting of 30 leaders from various spheres of society.

To others, The Destree Institute is first and foremost a European and global research Centre in the field of foresight, a worldwide NGO with a special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and an official partner of UNESCO (with consultative status) since 2012; a member of the Open Government Partnership Civil Society Community; a founder of the Brussels Area Node of the Millennium Project; a leading partner of many European initiatives; and the headquarters of the Millennia2025 Women and Innovation Foundation, a global foresight initiative for women’s empowerment and equality, involving more than 10,000 members, researchers and grassroots workers in five continents, whose international foresight research process was launched in 2008 with the support of the Millennium Project and the patronage of UNESCO’s Director-General.

Both views are correct. The Destree Institute’s development from a local history research Centre in Wallonia to a European and global foresight actor is easily traced; at the same time, it has succeeded in maintaining strong local roots.

One of the main ambitions and achievements of The Destree Institute lies in its ability to develop a strong operational conception of foresight. We use foresight not only to think about the future but to shift the system, to trigger transition and transformation. Far from just thinking that one could modify the future simply by looking at it, Gaston Berger – whose importance has been emphasized by the organizers of the symposium – saw change as a process that is hard to implement and difficult to conduct, as the American researchers in social psychology whose models inspired him had shown. Berger particularly referred to the theories of change and transformation processes described by Kurt Lewin, Ronald Lippitt, Jeanne Watson and Bruce Westley[3]. With this in mind, we developed in 2010 a tool named the Bifurcation Method (in the sense of ‘bifurcations’ used by Nobel Prize-Winner Ilya Prigogine) in order to identify the different moments when the system, or a part of it, or an actor, could take different directions or trajectories. We first apply this tool to the past in what we call the retroforesight phase, identifying trajectories that could have been taken at particular past moments and what developments would have ensued. We can then use the techniques of foresight to try to identify bifurcations and trajectories in the future, using institutional rendezvous, assumptions and wildcards, events of low probability but with high impacts which can open up the cone of the future and cause movement in the system.

In this way, we are able to structure concrete operational work drawing on the kind of expertise described during the symposium by historians, philosophers, STS experts and others.

2. History does not hold the keys to the future

From History to Foresight is also the title of a well-known book by Pierre Chaunu [4]. It was written by the great French historian and Sorbonne professor in 1975 for a collection named Liberty 2000.

Chaunu wrote that a good reading of the present, integrating the past, leads imperceptibly to the future. It is, by nature, foresight-oriented [5]. He added that this foresight is, of course, linked to the idea of mankind. It therefore involves the « unfolding » of history [6]. He also observed: History does not hold the keys to the future. It cannot map out the path, but a history that is made part of the human sciences can correct us; it can impose a check on infantile projections that are captive to the short term [7]. I think that the integration of future studies in the human sciences will always remain a real and difficult challenge.

Those who were able to attend the Harvard meeting certainly feel, as I do, that more than 40 years after Chaunu’s analysis, we are fully on track to achieve the aims that the main organizer Yashar Saghai (Johns Hopkins University) proposed at the opening of the symposium for the meeting and its follow-up: to end isolation within each discipline (history, philosophy, science, technology and society) and between countries, to learn from each other in depth beyond interdisciplinary conferences, to gain an up-to-date knowledge of current research, to deepen connections with future studies practitioners and theorists. Yashar also insisted on the importance of probing the needs for a permanent network or platform for our communities. The challenge is, as Riel Miller said in his keynote address but also in his new book[8], to reinforce our understandings, practices and capacities.

3. Main requirements for a permanent network or platform

With its partners, The Destree Institute has launched and/or managed many networks and platforms in the last twenty years: the Millennia2015 foresight process, the Millennia2025 Foundation, the Internet Society Wallonia Chapter, the European Regional Foresight College, the European Millennium Project Nodes Initiative (EuMPI), the Regional Foresight College of Wallonia, the Wallonia Territorial Intelligence Platform, etc.

In all cases, the main requirements were the same:

1. to define clear aims that make sense and generate a desire to involve all the actors. These goals should be understood by all the partners without ambiguity. Clarifying words and concepts is a key task for all scientific ambition, and as such is shared by the futurists;

2. to stay firmly connected to the ground and able to come back to the present: what we will do tomorrow needs to be thought about in the present. We need our heads in the stars but our feet in the clay…

3. to fight against certainty. We often talk in terms of trying to throw light on our uncertainties, but we should also fight our great certainties about our disciplines, our fields, our methods and our perceptions of the world;

4. good leadership with proper respect for the members. In March 2018, the Women’s Economic Forum awarded my colleague Marie-Anne Delahaut the Woman of the Decade in Community Leadership Prize for her work for Millennia2025 [9]. We all know how sensitive these tasks are;

5. professionalism in management, because we need to improve our work and gain precious time for our researchers instead of wasting it;

6. relevant communication materials (logos, websites, etc.), although I tend to say, as General de Gaulle might have done, that logistics should follow ideas rather than vice versa;

7. and finally, as Professor Michel Godet often repeats, loyalty, competence and pleasure.

Pleasure in thinking together, pleasure in working hard together, pleasure in meeting together.

I feel that we have assembled these ingredients during these two days shared at Harvard and Boston Universities. Thank you to the organizers for bringing us together.


Philippe Destatte



On the same subject: What is foresight?

Direct access to Philippe Destatte’s English papers


[1] Global Foresight Project :

[2] Philippe DESTATTE, A Wallonia Policy Lab on the Foresight Trajectory, Blog PhD2050, Namur, April 11, 2018,

[3] Gaston BERGER, L’Encyclopédie française, vol. XX : Le Monde en devenir, 1959, p. 12-14, 20, 54, in Phénoménologie du temps et prospective, p. 271, Paris, PuF, 1964.

[4] Pierre CHAUNU, De l’histoire à la prospective, Paris, Robert Lafont, 1975.

[5] Une bonne lecture du présent intégrante du passé débouche, insensiblement, sur l’avenir, elle est, par nature, prospective. P. CHAUNU, op. cit. p., 283.

[6] Elle est, bien évidemment, liée à une idée de l’homme. Elle implique donc le « déroulé » de l’histoire. Ibidem, p. 285.

[7] L’Histoire n’a pas les clefs de l’avenir, elle ne peut pas tracer la voie, mais une histoire intégrée aux sciences de l’homme peut rectifier, elle peut réduire les projections enfantines, prisonnières du temps court. Ibidem.

[8] Riel MILLER, Transforming the future, Anticipation in the 21st Century, Paris-Abingdon, UNESCO-Routledge, 2018.