What Do You Do with Elon Musk's Musings About World Politics?
A textbook case for The Ideas Industry!
Back in May, when Elon Musk first proposed buying Twitter, I concluded that, “[Elon] Musk seems like the archetype of a plutocrat who aspires to be a thought leader, makes mistakes when he drifts outside his area of expertise and has surrounded himself with people feeding his ego because they are afraid to speak truth to money.”
Five months later, Musk’s bid buy Twitter kinda sorta seems like it’s back on. In the interim, however, there was litigation that in the discovery phase led to the release of a lot of Elon Musk’s texts. The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel went through them so we don’t have to, and came away with a remarkably similar conclusion about Musk and his coterie of friends and colleagues:
The texts are juicy, but not because they are lurid, particularly offensive, or offer up some scandalous Muskian master plan—quite the opposite. What is so illuminating about the Musk messages is just how unimpressive, unimaginative, and sycophantic the powerful men in Musk’s contacts appear to be. Whoever said there are no bad ideas in brainstorming never had access to Elon Musk’s phone.
In no time, the texts were the central subject of discussion among tech workers and watchers. “The dominant reaction from all the threads I’m in is Everyone looks fucking dumb,” one former social-media executive, whom I’ve granted anonymity because they have relationships with many of the people in Musk’s texts, told me. “It’s been a general Is this really how business is done? There’s no real strategic thought or analysis. It’s just emotional and done without any real care for consequence.”….
Few of the men in Musk’s phone consider themselves his equal. Many of the messages come off as fawning, although they’re possibly more opportunistic than earnest. Whatever the case, the intentions are unmistakable: Musk is perceived to have power, and these pillars of the tech industry want to be close to it.
That sounds about right (see also Bloomberg’s Brad Stone). As I noted in The Ideas Industry, speaking truth to power is hard enough, speaking truth to money is even harder. Musk has been operating in a world where he rarely receives pushback for even his most dubious ideas.
This leads us to Musk’s recent Twitterventions into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Until this past week Musk’s primary intervention regarding the war had been his SpaceX firm providing Starlink service to Ukrainians (with a strong assist from the U.S. government), which has been like a good thing.
Drezner’s World is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
As the war has heated up, however, Musk tweeted the following earlier this week:
It is safe to say this proposal did not go over well with anyone not actively rooting for Russia to win. He received immediate pushback from, among others, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, who has some decent Twitter game. But for the purposes of Drezner’s World, what was interesting was the reaction from the foreign policy community.
Ordinarily, plutocrats like Musk want to be taken seriously as thinkers, and because of their wealth are often given due deference even when they wade far out of their area of expertise. In this case, however, something unusual happened: no deference was given.
Musk’s attempted forays into international relations went even worse than his Twitter takeover. Even though it was his own Twitter poll, Musk’s preferred option lost out in the vote, 41 percent to 59 percent.
In response, Musk tried to suggest that it was a reasonable suggestion because some in eastern Ukraine would prefer to join Russia. He did so by tweeting out the results of a 2012 election.
This worked out… poorly for him:
I could go on for a lot longer, but you get the point. Which leads to my question: why did Musk face so much pushback? Whatever one thinks of Musk, he has had some legitimate corporate successes and is rich as fuck. Why did the foreign policy community not toady up to him?
My hunches are as follows:
Musk’s mercurial reputation was already well-known; therefore, even the most ambitious foreign policy supplicants saw little point in kissing up to him;
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a rare instance in which partisan splits are not all that strong. Contra breathless press reportage about Republicans turning against the war, the truth is most Americans and most conservatives back Ukraine pretty strongly. There was limited upside to embracing Musk’s position;
This is serious stuff, and foreign policy experts have had enough of amateurs coming to the table with a random poll and pretending like they know what they are talking about. This kind of thing doesn’t matter most of the time but it is particularly dangerous when the person doing it has 100 million Twitter followers.
To be fair to Musk, having “pro-Ukraine but anti-World War III” policy preferences is not insane. Musk’s hubris is that, knowing very little about the facts on the ground, he can gin up an easy solution. It reminds me of another foreign policy dilettante who had real power and mostly made a mess of things.
So good on the foreign policy community for not succumbing to the temptation of treating Musk with kid gloves. Hopefully, Elon does not double down on his ill-informed beliefs and tries to learn more about the rest of the world.