The scene: A major symposium in Vienna on the reconstruction of Ukraine.
The big names of German industry were there.
Plus plenty of British peers and members of Parliament, up in arms against Putin.
Ukrainians, too, of course, beginning with the gas king, Dmytro Firtash, who, together with Ukrainian Business Future, organized the event.
And me giving the keynote address.
I recalled the cold shoulder that Obama gave Ukrainian president Poroshenko when the latter came to tell him that you don't win a war with blankets.
I evoked the pitiful spectacle of Europe advancing in disarray, retreating, then advancing again, all the while unable to speak with one voice.
I reviewed the victories racked up by Putin's ideology, which succeeded in getting European public opinion to swallow the bogus theories of nationhood based on language, Russia's origin in Ukraine (Kievan Rus), and Eurasia.
In short, I detailed the West's betrayal of a nation that paid dearly -- in blood -- for its fervent desire to join Europe.
And I said to my listeners that since the rest of the world seemed to have faltered at the task only they -- the protean practitioners of business -- remained to take up the torch and, perhaps, improvise a way forward.
In 1945, their forebears rebuilt a continent devastated by war. That was the Marshall Plan.
Forty-four years later, they pulled Leipzig, Dresden, and Erfurt out of backwardness and poverty. That was the reunification of Germany.
In Poland and Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism, they built societies that were not only prosperous but open. I can still hear Vaclav Havel, in Paris, inveighing against those who had begun to speak of the Europe's "expansion" to include Central Europe when they should have been referring to its "reunification." And I remember him adding, in a pensive and regretful way, that probably only economics, with its exchanges and its markets, with its principle of universal equivalence and integration, could counter this nonsense, this insult to common sense, this slap in the face to the new entrants, who were rightly proud of being not on the fringes but at the center of Europe.
Well, the same goes for Ukraine.
It is a country with an economy larger than that of the Czech Republic at the time.
It is a country that is healthier than Russia, whose demographics are in decline, whose infrastructure is in ruins, and whose spiritual impoverishment is patent.
With its 45 million inhabitants, most of whom are western oriented; with its educated young people who hold high expectations and are determined, as they showed on the Maidan, to break with the culture of bad governance and corruption that has always and everywhere been the prime obstacle to prosperity, Ukraine is an El Dorado for investors.
To my esteemed audience, who may have been mildly surprised at hearing themselves transformed into an outpost of European resistance to Putin, I then offered three ideas.
1. A world economic forum on the model of the one held each year in Davos but this time held in Kiev and devoted to Ukraine.
2. Investors are not philanthropists? They avoid countries in conflict? And the institutions that are supposed to insure against this type of risk (like Coface in France or the Export-Import Bank of the United States) refuse to do so for Ukraine? In response, I suggest the creation of an ad hoc insurance company jointly financed by the risk-insurance institutions of the member countries of the European Union and by the Ukrainian oligarchs, who owe that, at least, to their country.
3. Ukraine is weak? Choked by its powerful and diabolical neighbor? On the edge of a financial precipice and unable to make the basic investments of a normal state? For this, a third idea: a large European bond issue floated by the Ukrainian treasury, with the bonds guaranteed by the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
I am not an economist.
And I am aware that proposals of this sort may seem incongruous issuing from the mouth of a philosopher.
But, after all, what we are dealing with here is a question of principle.
Punishing the aggressor is good, but helping the victim is better.
Saying that "Ukraine is empowered to join Europe" is an empty phrase. However, when you point out the mutual interests that ensure that, as in Mandeville's fable of the bees, where private vices commingle to produce public good, Ukraine will in fact be part of Europe, it becomes a phrase with real impact.
To delight in the commerce of ideas and shared insights is good, even very good, but it remains a pious wish. By contrast, to recall that the same word denotes the other form of commerce, that which produces the wealth of nations, is the beginning of a policy. It is an act.
I learned from the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas that there are situations in which money -- yes, filthy lucre -- can have a civilizing influence.
The symposium in Vienna provided the perfect opportunity to put that theorem up for testing.
And it is now or never that we shall see whether the theorem will be borne out -- or, by contrast, whether fear, short-termism, and interests poorly understood will once again win out over courage and reason.
Translated by Steven B. Kennedy