When I was about seven a popular children’s TV show was Spiderman and His Amazing Friends. Through the mists of time, I retain a strong memory of one particular episode, which turned out to be my first and most important lesson in international relations (I went on to take a master’s degree in the subject). It also laid the basis for a key insight into how communication can help resolve challenging situations and nurture better relationships. Let’s start with Spidey’s friends.
Firestar and Iceman were trapped in neighbouring rooms, neither aware of the other. Feeling cold, Firestar uses her magic powers to warm up the room. The heat seeps next door where Iceman responds by icing up. Firestar, feeling the chill, throws out another blast of heat. Iceman, threatened, ices up further. The pattern continues, each hero responding increasingly angrily to what they see as an attack. Neither realises their ‘enemy’ is actually their friend and that this cycle is bad for all.
This tragic scenario is actually a child-friendly version of the classic prisoner’s dilemma - a situation where uncertainty creates an incentive towards suboptimal behaviours. We are currently seeing a real-life version of this in Ukraine. Ukraine is clearly a victim, defending itself against attack by its much stronger neighbour. Yet Russia also sees itself as a victim, defending itself against an expansionist NATO. What’s seen as defence by one party is aggression by the other. It’s a mirror image of what happened 60 years ago in the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Cuba welcomed Soviet missiles and troops to defend it from its big, hostile neighbour. The US found that unacceptable then, as Russia does now.
The root problem here is not the protagonists’ psychological makeup, but their system structure. Firestar and Iceman clearly have no intention to hurt each other but, lacking information, operate out of fear. Nation states suffer an extreme version of this in that, with no higher authority, their dilemma is permanent (what political theorists call structural anarchy). Your neighbour might seem friendly, but how can you be sure? Maybe, like a grandmaster, they’re just luring you in for an attack later.
Like our superheroes, the two protagonists in the current European crisis are acting out of fear (Ukraine fears an expansionist Russia, Russia fears an expansionist NATO). Some simple communication can help. Russia could announce it will pause operations, honour Ukraine’s territorial integrity and even accept Ukraine’s wish to join NATO - so long as NATO expands no further. NATO can announce it reserves the right to accept any state’s application to join, but that it has no plans to expand - so long as Russia withdraws. Ukraine can announce a temporary pause on its plans to join NATO - on the condition that Russia signs a treaty recognising its territorial integrity. Each announcement can build enough confidence to inspire small steps back from the brink, gradually replacing fear with a virtuous cycle of trust. The path to peace is much longer, but it starts with words.
Of course, this is not just about superheroes and nation-states. All relationships fall somewhere along the spectrum of the prisoner’s dilemma, and can benefit from effective communication. For example, companies can win support from investors by volunteering more information on their performance and strategy. Leaders can promote a healthier workplace culture by creating pathways for candid feedback through surveys, AMAs, skip levels, focus groups and coffee chats. Managers can inspire loyalty by making team members feel like insiders with as much behind-the-scenes information as possible. In each case, the underlying goal is to reduce uncertainty and inspire confidence, thus resolving the prisoner’s dilemma. It’s a useful reminder that in pressured situations of all kinds we can all draw on a very special superpower - it’s called communication.