Last October, says Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker, Pentagon official Colin Kahl made a phone call “to avert disaster in Ukraine”. The recipient wasn’t some top-level government official, but Elon Musk. Even though the billionaire businessman is “not technically a diplomat or statesman”, Kahl remembers, “I felt it was important to treat him as such, given the influence he had”. SpaceX, Musk’s space firm, had for months been providing internet access across Ukraine through its Starlink satellites, described by one soldier as the “essential backbone of communication on the battlefield”. But last autumn Musk gave the Pentagon an ultimatum: if it didn’t assume the £400m annual cost of Starlink, he would cut access. This June, the Defence Department agreed to cough up.
Few civilians can claim to have become the “arbiter of a war between nations” in such a decisive way. But Musk’s influence on the US government doesn’t end at the defence department. SpaceX rockets are currently the only way Nasa transports astronauts to space; Joe Biden’s plan to boost electrical vehicle ownership depends on charging stations owned by Musk’s firm Tesla. Worries about this “degree of dependency” are only intensified by the billionaire’s “erratic behaviour”. Board members at his companies have raised concerns about his use of the prescription sleep aid Ambien, which can cause hallucinations, and he is said to self-medicate with ketamine. His change of heart on supplying Starlink to Ukraine came after what he described to defence officials as a “great conversation” with Vladimir Putin. For now, officials have no choice but to put up with him. As fellow tech titan Reid Hoffman puts it, Musk’s attitude is like Louis XIV: “L’état, c’est moi.”