Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
If Elon Musk’s actions didn’t have such powerful consequences, we could sit back and enjoy the show. But, since he likes weighing in heavily on consequential matters, the rest of the world has to worry about the impact and wonder whose side he’s on. What are the principles – moral, ethical, financial – that drive his rambunctious forays into world affairs?
Nothing in Musk’s monumental series of business accomplishments suggest that he has any expertise to delve into the world’s most dangerous conflicts. But that hasn’t stopped him. Musk has been expounding on the Russia-Ukraine war and on Taiwan’s tensions with Beijing with the self-confidence of someone who knows what he’s talking about.
Never mind that his proposals won the support of dictators. Like some extremely wealthy men, Musk may operate under the delusion that he is a genius at everything. He combines the arrogance of wealth with the thirst for attention of an insecure soul.
But people who need a lot of attention make themselves vulnerable. And Musk, not content to possess the world’s largest fortune, is being played by a master manipulator.
Among his many manic moves, a recent “peace” proposal for Ukraine – offered in a Twitter poll – stood out. Musk asked his 100 million followers to vote on a plan that looked like it was drafted in the Kremlin, complete with distorted history of Crimea – the Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia in 2014.
It suggested that Ukraine (and one assumes the world) accept Russian sovereignty over Crimea, that another referendum be held in Russia-annexed Ukrainian lands, this time under UN supervision (and despite Russian military occupation!), among other ideas.
Reaction was swift. Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky shot back with his own Twitter poll, asking followers if they prefer the Musk who supports Ukraine or the one who supports Russia. More to the point, Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany responded, “F**k off…@elonmusk”
(Musk replied to Zelensky’s tweet by saying that he “still very much support[s] Ukraine” but fears “massive escalation.”)
Russia, of course, loved the plan. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov praised Musk, adding that “achieving peace without fulfilling Russia’s conditions is absolutely impossible.” The plan, he thus confirmed, fulfilled Russia’s conditions.
Then there was another twist to the much-scrutinized tweet. After US political scientist Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group said Musk told him he spoke to Russian President Vladmir Putin before that tweet, Musk denied it.
But the most telling analysis of the relationship between Musk and Putin – those two paragons of excessive self-confidence – came from Fiona Hill, once the top Russia hand in the US National Security Council.
“Putin,” she told Politico, “plays the egos of big men, gives them a sense that they can play a role. But in reality, they’re just direct transmitters of messages from Vladimir Putin.”
As a former KGB agent, Putin is trained in the art of reading and manipulating people. Some images of Putin plying his craft with world leaders – for instance, bringing his black Labrador to a meeting with the reportedly fearful of dogs then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in 2016 – are indelible.
What’s in it for Musk? The man who put many thousands of people in electric cars, who turned space flight into a for-profit business, is now trying out a different vehicle. This is an ego trip.
Imagine if he could solve the Ukraine war! Nobel Peace Prize, anyone?
If a Putin-pleasing proposal was not enough, Musk had a little something for China’s President Xi Jinping.
In an interview with the Financial Times, he unveiled his proposal for resolving hostilities between Beijing and Taipei. Musk suggested creating “a special administrative zone for Taiwan,” musing that “they could have an arrangement that’s more lenient than Hong Kong.” China, you’ll remember, promised “one country, two systems” for Hong Kong, until it broke its word and crushed Hong Kong’s freedom.
As Russia before it, China was quick with praise and thanks for the billionaire. Taiwan’s Washington envoy had a scathing reply, tweeting: “Taiwan sells many products, but our freedom and democracy are not for sale.”
Perhaps it’s not fair to paint the Tesla tycoon as a friend of dictators. Life is not Twitter, and in the real world the Starlink internet service made by Musk’s SpaceX has been an invaluable tool for Ukrainians fighting Putin’s invasion.
(Interestingly, Musk also told the Financial Times that Chinese officials asked him to promise not to sell Starlink systems in China.)
Starlink’s presence there has not exactly been a completely charitable enterprise. Documents reviewed by the New York Times showed that much of the cost has been borne – paid to Starlink – by the US, the UK and Poland, who paid for 17,000 of the 20,000 terminals sent to Ukraine. Starlink donated 3,000 and Musk says SpaceX is covering the considerable monthly fees for service.
Musk’s impulsiveness and U-turns are familiar. Just as he decided to buy Twitter, then changed his mind, and then changed it again, he swerved on Starlink.
The CNN report triggered a firestorm of criticism. Two days later, Musk backtracked, with the dismissive attitude of someone who makes decisions on the fly. “What the hell…we’ll just keep funding it for free,” he tweeted.
When someone replied that no good deed goes unpunished, Musk struck a humanitarian pose and declared, movingly, “Even so, we should still do good deeds.”
Is Musk a philanthropic humanitarian or a dictator-friendly mogul?
Despite his shenanigans, and even though he sometimes seems to act as a mischievous teenager, he likes to take himself seriously, thinking big thoughts about important topics. Some of his business ideas and their execution deserve the highest praise.
But he also likes to taunt, occasionally with disastrous consequences. He’s being sued on claims that he touted the all-but-worthless dogecoin as part of a pyramid scheme. (Musk says he still supports it.) The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating him over Twitter, and previously sanctioned him over other market-manipulating tweets. Musk and the SEC settled on fraud charges, agreeing on penalties.
He claimed he wanted to buy Twitter and put former President Donald Trump back on the platform because he’s a “free speech absolutist.” Free speech in the complicating, fast-changing age of social media is one of the topics where experts say he lacks a serious understanding of the extraordinarily complex issues a major platform has to grapple with.
Musk’s restless mind could use a moment to focus on what it is that he believes. He appears to want to be one of the good guys, but then he doesn’t seem quite sure. Maybe that’s what happens when you’re the mighty ruler of your business empire and seem to think that makes you one of the masters of the universe.
A very powerful, impulsive man, who needs a lot of attention, can be a perilous force.