Elon Musk’s Shadow Rule
Musk wasn’t immediately convinced. “My inference was that he was getting nervous that Starlink’s involvement was increasingly seen in Russia as enabling the Ukrainian war effort, and was looking for a way to placate Russian concerns,” Kahl told me. To the dismay of Pentagon officials, Musk volunteered that he had spoken with Putin personally. Another individual told me that Musk had made the same assertion in the weeks before he tweeted his pro-Russia peace plan, and had said that his consultations with the Kremlin were regular. (Musk later denied having spoken with Putin about Ukraine.) On the phone, Musk said that he was looking at his laptop and could see “the entire war unfolding” through a map of Starlink activity. “This was, like, three minutes before he said, ‘Well, I had this great conversation with Putin,’ ” the senior defense official told me. “And we were, like, ‘Oh, dear, this is not good.’ ” Musk told Kahl that the vivid illustration of how technology he had designed for peaceful ends was being used to wage war gave him pause.
The meddling of oligarchs and other monied interests in the fate of nations is not new. During the First World War, J. P. Morgan lent vast sums to the Allied powers; afterward, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., poured money into the fledgling League of Nations. The investor George Soros’s Open Society Foundations underwrote civil-society reform in post-Soviet Europe, and the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson funded right-wing media in Israel, as part of his support of Benjamin Netanyahu.
But Musk’s influence is more brazen and expansive. There is little precedent for a civilian’s becoming the arbiter of a war between nations in such a granular way, or for the degree of dependency that the U.S. now has on Musk in a variety of fields, from the future of energy and transportation to the exploration of space. SpaceX is currently the sole means by which NASA transports crew from U.S. soil into space, a situation that will persist for at least another year. The government’s plan to move the auto industry toward electric cars requires increasing access to charging stations along America’s highways. But this rests on the actions of another Musk enterprise, Tesla. The automaker has seeded so much of the country with its proprietary charging stations that the Biden Administration relaxed an early push for a universal charging standard disliked by Musk. His stations are eligible for billions of dollars in subsidies, so long as Tesla makes them compatible with the other charging standard.
Musk’s hesitation aligns with his pragmatic interests. A facility in Shanghai produces half of all Tesla cars, and Musk depends on the good will of officials in China, which has lent support to Russia in the conflict. Musk recently acknowledged to the Financial Times that Beijing disapproves of his decision to provide Internet service to Ukraine and has sought assurances that he would not deploy similar technology in China. In the same interview, he responded to questions about China’s efforts to assert control over Taiwan by floating another peace plan. Taiwan, he suggested, could become a jointly controlled administrative zone, an outcome that Taiwanese leaders see as ending the country’s independence. During a trip to Beijing this spring, Musk was welcomed with what Reuters summarized as “flattery and feasts.” He met with senior officials, including China’s foreign minister, and posed for the kinds of awkwardly smiling formal photos that are more typical of world leaders.
Justine wrote in an essay for Marie Claire that their relationship eventually buckled under the weight of Musk’s obsession with work and his controlling tendencies, which began with him insisting, as they danced at their wedding, “I am the alpha in this relationship
There are competitors in the field, including Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, but none yet rival SpaceX. The new space race has the potential to shape the global balance of power. Satellites enable the navigation of drones and missiles and generate imagery used for intelligence, and they are mostly under the control of private companies. “The U.S. government is in massive catch-up to build a more resilient space architecture,” Kahl, the former Pentagon Under-Secretary, told me. “And that only works if you can leverage the explosion of commercial space.” Several officials told me that they were alarmed by NASA’s reliance on SpaceX for essential services. “There is only one thing worse than a government monopoly. And that is a private monopoly that the government is dependent on,” Bridenstine said. “I do worry that we have put all of our eggs into one basket, and it’s the SpaceX basket.”
Garrett Brown, a former field-compliance inspector at California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, added, “We have a bad health-and-safety situation throughout the country. And it’s worse in companies run by people like Elon Musk, who was ideologically opposed to the idea of government enforcement of public-health regulations.”