Wed. Apr 17th, 2024

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a batch of 56 Starlink

It’s September 2023, and markets have become battlefields, as economics and geopolitics become ever more closely intertwined. Many think that we are returning to the Cold War, but we’re not. Back then, the military had the materiel and commanded the view of war. Now, after thirty years of globalization, it’s very often business that commands the resources, fundamentally changing the balance of power. Whether the U.S. fulfills its national security ambitions doesn’t just depend on its armed forces, but its relationship with firms. The recent revelation that Elon Musk used his control of the Starlink satellite system to unilaterally decide the limits on a Ukrainian offensive is just one example of how business can, quite literally, call the shots.

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How did this happen? At the height of globalization, the U.S. government and its allies handed over control of key communications networks to business, never thinking that these networks would become crucial strategic assets in shooting wars. The Internet—which came into being as a side-product of Pentagon spending—was turned over to a non-profit corporation dominated by private interests. Allies’ national telecommunications champions were privatized and U.S. giants, like Lucent, sold to foreign firms for spare parts. The submarine fibre cables that tied the world together were mostly laid by consortiums of for-profit companies. As new communications technologies such as cloud computing emerged, they were dominated by a few firms like Amazon and Microsoft.

This all meant that innovation happened faster than would have been conceivable during the Cold War. Government fell far behind the leading edge of many key technologies, leaving critical communications infrastructures under the control of the private sector.

That didn’t present national security concerns so long as the world was at peace. But now that geopolitics is back, the U.S. government faces a basic dilemma. How does it ensure national security in a world where the private sector holds many of the levers of power? Of course, it can turn to business for support. And where it can demand that support, the U.S. can sometimes do far more than it ever could during the Cold War (using telecommunications companies’ international reach, for example, to help it surveil the world). But sometimes, business may prefer to stay politically neutral, prioritizing profits for its shareholders, or, even worse, cosy up to geopolitical adversaries such as China or Russia.

The U.S. government’s first instinct in recent decades has been to create public-private partnerships to expand its power—and some private sector actors have certainly been willing to cooperate. The Starlink story is not the only story about business in the Ukraine conflict. In our new book we explain how the U.S. and the Ukrainian government have benefited from Microsoft’s willingness to abdicate neutrality. After years of trying to build a “digital Switzerland,” in which platform companies would be held inviolate from spying and conflict, Microsoft volunteered for the digital frontlines of the Ukraine war. From the beginning, it willingly surveilled the online battlefield, detecting and countering Russian cyber-weapons, and sharing key information with the U.S. and its European allies. It airlifted Ukrainian government ministries into the cloud, providing them with a degree of security that the government itself was incapable of doing.

Read More: Inside Elon Musk’s Struggle for the Future of AI

It wasn’t only Microsoft that helped out. As a new report by Ulrike Franke and Jenny Söderström explains, Amazon has been ferrying Ukrainian data to safety using customized suitcase-sized “Snowball” systems, providing safe storage for critical state information. Google has proudly announced that it is fighting disinformation, and blocking Russian state-funded news channels.

But not all business gives this kind of unequivocal support. As we recently found out, while Microsoft was countering cyber-attacks, the Ukrainian army found itself increasingly dependent on the whims of Elon Musk. Ukrainian commanders rely on Musk’s Starlink satellites to communicate on the battlefield and to guide automated drones to their target. Musk partly owes his near monopoly of low orbit satellite communications to government inaction in the U.S. and elsewhere. The result is an unprecedented level of privatized geopolitical power, concentrated in the hands of a single, politically erratic tycoon with a reported penchant for ketamine. Ukrainian soldiers reportedly found themselves cut off and blind when they ventured into territory that Starlink had ‘geofenced’. In another incident, Musk refused to provide access to Starlink when the Ukrainian military attempted a drone attack on Russia’s naval fleet, leaving the drones to wash up on shore, inoperable. The company had its own commercial worries. As Musk told his biographer, he did not build the system for war but so that “people can watch Netflix and chill.” Musk—who reportedly has had friendly conversations with Putin after the invasion—is at best a highly unreliable ally. But the U.S. has little option but to placate him and try to keep him onside, if Ukrainian commanders are to be able to talk to each other and their troops.

There are other problems when governments depend on the goodwill of tech founders. Some of the companies that are signing up for service in the Ukraine war have dubious records on citizen privacy. Palantir, which specializes in surveillance and data analysis, was co-founded by the billionaire Peter Thiel. Its CEO, Alex Karp, claims that it is responsible for “most” of Ukraine’s targeting. The embattled Clearview—whose privacy-intrusive facial recognition engine is powered by billions of images scraped without permission from the Web—says it is helping Ukraine identify Russian assailants. Both companies are likely embracing their wartime role to repair their battered domestic public images, and rehabilitate controversial technologies.

President Eisenhower famously warned of the dangers of a “military-industrial complex” in his closing address to the nation. While he feared that business might gain “unwarranted influence” thanks to the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry,” his greatest concern was that the military would overwhelm industry, subordinating innovation and entrepreneurialism to a government controlled by a technological elite. During the Cold War, the U.S. and other governments were far better organized and resourced than private industry, and had the legal power under the original 1950 Defense Production Act to command private resources for compelling national interests.

What we risk today is more or less the opposite, as government comes to rely more on business leaders than business leaders on government. Firms have pushed innovation further and faster than Eisenhower or his defense department leaders could have imagined. So now, senior officials are often obliged to kiss the rings of billionaires with questionable goals, and rely on the kindness of multinational corporations. When business cooperates, they can get access to capacities that the government doesn’t have. But things can go badly wrong when business won’t play ball. As the confrontation between the U.S. and China heats up, adding new pressures on top of the Ukraine-Russia war, the government is going to have to consider how best to manage this new set of relations.

Returning to Cold War controls would be a terrible idea. But allowing volatile individuals like Musk to dictate the course of war and peace is even worse. We need to reimagine how the U.S. government manages this new military industrial complex, avoiding past mistakes of selling critical infrastructure to the highest bidder. When business leaders hold monopolies on key resources, they should face a higher level of regulatory obligations vis-à-vis national security interests. But in contrast to current arrangements, under which government quietly negotiates clandestine access with telecommunications companies, these obligations ought be discussed and policed openly. That means antitrust and proper regulation of global information platforms that could otherwise hold government to ransom.

The technological dominance of U.S. companies has provided the U.S. with extraordinary power. But putting them in charge of national security is a very risky bet indeed.

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