Editor’s note: Frida Ghiti(@fridaghitis) former producer and correspondent for CNN, is a columnist on world affairs. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a columnist for the Washington Post and a columnist for the World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. See more opinion on CNN.
If Elon Musk’s actions hadn’t had such powerful consequences, we could sit back and enjoy the show. But, as he likes to weigh in heavily on consequential issues, the rest of the world must worry about the impact and wonder which side he is on. What are the principles – moral, ethical, financial – that drive his exuberant forays into global affairs?
Nothing in Musk’s monumental streak of business accomplishments suggests he has any expertise in immersing himself in the world’s most dangerous conflicts. But that didn’t stop him. Musk spoke about the Russia-Ukraine war and Taiwan’s tensions with Beijing with the self-confidence of someone who knows what he’s talking about.
No matter that his proposals won the support of dictators. Like some extremely wealthy men, Musk can operate under the illusion that he is a genius at everything. He combines the arrogance of wealth with the craving for attention of an insecure soul.
But people who need a lot of attention make themselves vulnerable. And Musk, not content with possessing the largest fortune in the world, is played by a master manipulator.
Among his many manic maneuvers, a recent “peace” proposal for Ukraine – offered in a Twitter poll – come out. Musk asked his 100 million followers to vote on a plan that appeared to have been drafted in the Kremlin, with distorted history Crimea – the Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia in 2014.
He suggested that Ukraine (and presumably the world) accept Russian sovereignty over Crimea, that another referendum be held in Ukrainian lands annexed to Russia, this time under UN supervision (and despite Russian military occupation!), among other ideas.
The reaction was quick. Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky retaliated with his own Twitter poll, asking his followers if they prefer the Musk who supports Ukraine or the one who supports Russia. Specifically, the Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany replied, “Fuck you… @elonmusk”
(Musk replied to Zelensky’s tweet saying he’s “still very supportive[s] Ukraine” but fears “massive escalation”.)
Russia, of course, I loved the map. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov praised Musk, adding that “to achieve peace without fulfilling Russia’s conditions is absolutely impossible.” The plan, he thus confirmed, met Russia’s conditions.
Then there was another twist on the much-scrutinized tweet. After US political scientist Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group said Musk told him he had spoken to Russian President Vladmir Putin before this tweet, Musk denied it.
But the most telling analysis of the relationship between Musk and Putin – those two paragons of overconfidence – came from Fiona Hill, who was once the top Russian leader on the US National Security Council.
“Putin”, she says Politico“plays the egos of great men, gives them the feeling that they can play a role. But in reality, they are only direct transmitters of Vladimir Putin’s messages.
As a former KGB agent, Putin is trained in the art of reading and manipulating people. Some images of Putin plying his trade with world leaders — for example, bringing his black Labrador to a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is said to be afraid of dogs, in 2016 — are indelible.
What’s in it for Musk? The man who put thousands in electric cars, who turned spaceflight into a for-profit business, is now trying out a different vehicle. It is an ego trip.
Imagine if he could solve the war in Ukraine! Nobel Peace Prize, anyone?
If a proposal Putin liked wasn’t enough, Musk had a little something for Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In a interview with the Financial Times, he unveiled his proposal to resolve the hostilities between Beijing and Taipei. Musk suggested creating “a special administrative zone for Taiwan“, thinking that “they could have a more lenient arrangement than Hong Kong”. China, you will recall, promised “one country, two systems” for Hong Kong, until it broke its word and crushes the freedom of Hong Kong.
Like Russia before it, China was fast with praise and thank you for the billionaire. Taiwan’s envoy to Washington had a scathing responsetweeting: “Taiwan sells many products, but our freedom and democracy are not for sale.”
It may not be fair to portray the Tesla tycoon as a friend of dictators. Life isn’t Twitter, and in the real world, Musk’s SpaceX-created Starlink internet service has been an invaluable tool for Ukrainians fighting Putin’s invasion.
(Interestingly, Musk too Told the Financial Times that Chinese officials asked him to promise not to sell Starlink systems in China.)
A few days ago, CNN discovered that SpaceX had written to the Pentagon, asking it to start paying tens of millions of dollars a month or it could stop funding Starlink in Ukraine.
Starlink’s presence there has not exactly been an entirely charitable enterprise. Documents reviewed by The New York Times showed much of the cost was borne – paid to Starlink – by the US, UK and Poland, which paid for 17,000 of the 20,000 terminals sent in Ukraine. Starlink donated 3,000, and Musk says SpaceX is covering the hefty monthly fee for the service.
Musk’s impulsiveness and U-turns are familiar. Just as he decided to buy Twitter, then changed his mind, then changed it again, he swerved on Starlink.
CNN’s report sparked a firestorm of criticism. Two days later, Musk backtracked, with the dismissive attitude of someone who makes decisions on the fly. “What the heck…we will continue to fund it for free,” he said. tweeted.
When someone replied that no good deed goes unpunished, Musk struck a humanitarian pose and said, movingly, “Even so, we should still do good deeds.”
Is Musk a philanthropic humanitarian or a pro-dictator tycoon?
Despite his shenanigans, and even though he sometimes seems to act like a mischievous teenager, he likes to take himself seriously, thinking big things about important matters. Some of his business ideas and their execution deserve the highest praise.
But he also loves to poke fun, sometimes with disastrous consequences. It is to be prosecuted on allegations that he boasted anything but worthless dogecoin as part of a pyramid scheme. (musk says he still supports it.) The Securities and Exchange Commission investigate him on Twitter, and before punished him on other market-manipulating tweets. Musk and the SEC settled on fraud chargesagreeing on penalties.
He claimed he wanted to buy Twitter and put former President Donald Trump back on the platform because he is a “absolutist of freedom of expression”. Freedom of expression in the complicated and rapidly changing era of social media is one of the topics on which experts say he doesn’t have a serious understanding of the extraordinarily complex issues that a major platform has to deal with.
Musk’s restless mind could use a moment to focus on what he believes. He seems to want to be one of the good guys, but he doesn’t seem quite sure. Maybe that’s what happens when you’re the powerful ruler of your business empire and you seem to think that makes you one of the masters of the universe.
A very powerful and impulsive man, who needs a lot of attention, can be a perilous force.