How many times have you watched The Lord of the Rings, and what’s your favourite scene in the movie? Mine comes at the end of the battle for Helm’s Deep, in the second film of the trilogy, The Two Towers. Down the mountainside comes the white wizard Gandalf (or maybe it was beige?), sweeping away the army of evilorcs in a breathtaking display of righteous and unambiguously successful military intervention. Except, of course, this is a fantasy. In reality, there are no unambiguously righteous or successful interventions in life, military or otherwise.
Yet the myth of the saviour, casting out darkness with one sweep of their mighty sword, remains an immensely powerful leitmotif in our imaginations, however sophisticated our claims to the contrary. In its most virulent form, it is driving western attempts to remake the middle east, and in other less virulent varieties it continues to pollute our attempts to practice international cooperation, reform the foreign aid business, create more democratic forms of global governance, build civil societies worthy of the name, or even turn our personal and professional relationships into healthier and more democratic encounters. If I was to ask Santa for a Christmas present or make a new year’s resolution it would be this: let’s bury “Gandalf’s ghost” for once and for all.
So what would replace it? Not inertia, isolationism or complacency but “critical friendship” – “the loving but forceful encounters between equals who journey together towards the land of the true and the beautiful”, as I put it in Future Positive. Applying that philosophy to the World Trade Organisation or to massive human-rights abuses is not easy, but it would certainly provoke a refreshing, honest and potentially much more successful conversation about the design and application of rules, standards, conditions, trade-offs and compromises in the international arena. Call me romantic, but at some point in the not too distant future the world will surely rejoin its long march to international cooperation, and the last five years will come to be seen as a temporary blip in the course of global affairs.
If you want an alternative and better model from the The Lord of the Rings, then how about the elves who appear to bolster the sagging army of humans as the orcsapproach the gates of the Helm’s Deep fortress? They arrive when you need them, leave when you ask them to, provide the help you actually want rather than the help they think you ought to have, behave consistently across the ages (and we’re talking thousands of years), and value their own culture while declining to impose it on others. And they have those lovely pointy ears.