11/07/2018 17:01 BST | Updated 11/07/2018 17:01 BST

Elon Musk's Submarine Is Everything Wrong With Western Foreign Policy

The billionaire's kid-sized sub plan represents dangerous, pervasive ideology that still underwrites Western foreign policy

Brian Snyder / Reuters

On Tuesday it was announced that after 17 long days, the Thai schoolboys and their coach were successfully rescued from the Tham Luang underground cave.

In a story that gripped the international media, all twelve schoolboys and their coach were guided to safety through the flooded cave system - a miraculous end to a tale which is also a tragedy in the death of Saman Gunan. It’s not hard, however, to see why the group’s experience has captivated the world. It’s a story of defying extreme odds, divorced from global politics.

Except nothing is divorced from politics.

It was a Twitter suggestion that first led Elon Musk to believe he could help the boys. On American Independence Day he responded to a tweet asking him to ‘assist in anyway [sic]’ the group trapped in the cave. Though in his initial response he stated, ‘I suspect that the Thai govt has this under control’, Musk’s subsequent actions undermined his words.

Over the weekend, the billionaire sent engineers to Thailand from SpaceX and Boring Company, tweeted technical suggestions and eventually began posting videos of tests involving a SpaceX Falcon rocket, turned into a ‘kid-size submarine’ intended to navigate the caves. On Monday both Musk and his machine were on location, ready to save those trapped on behalf of the world.

But he couldn’t. Rescue mission commander Narongsak Osotthanakorn said that though Musk’s equipment was ‘technologically sophisticated’ it ultimately was ‘not practical’ and didn’t fit with their mission to go in the cave. In fact, Thai rescue plans were already well underway by the time the mini-sub arrived and there was the possibility it might get there only after the whole group was saved. Not to mention the fact that some sections of the cave passages were only 40cm wide and divers had to take off their air tanks to squeeze the boys through: a machine would have been useless. Undeterred, Musk left his submarine with the Thai authorities ‘in case it may be useful in the future’.

Osotthanakorn’s public rejection saw Musk attract online ridicule, as well as praise, for his actions. He since defended himself by tweeting purported correspondence with Richard Stanton (the British diver who was one of the first to initially locate the boys) which encouraged him to develop the submarine as quickly as possible. Although that didn’t halt the creation of several internet memes.


But this isn’t about Musk’s attempts to play Tony Stark and swoop in and save the day. His actions represent the dangerous, pervasive ideology that still underwrites Western foreign policy. There’s this idea that the Global North has technological and intellectual superiority over the rest of the world, and is better placed to solve problems than even the countries where these problems are located. First-hand knowledge? That means nothing in comparison to Western wealth and firepower.

And how the boys were rescued ultimately depended on local insight and on-the-ground experience. It wasn’t through sophisticated imported tech but simple bravery, determination and true international collaboration that the Thai schoolboys and coach were saved. A group of elite Thai and international divers guided each one to safety, two divers assigned to each to help them navigate the treacherous cave system. It was knowledge of the environment they were dealing with, combined with pooling of global expertise, that helped achieve this miracle.

But that’s not to say countries in the Global South aren’t also technologically developed. Musk ended the tweet announcing his submarine gift with the words ‘Thailand is so beautiful’, playing into the reductive stereotype that all certain nations have to offer is tourist opportunities. The West won’t let go of the belief that it’s the guardian of technology’s Promethean fire - the rightful holder and bestower of powers that can shape the world. Yet this couldn’t be further from the truth.

In many areas, nations in the Global South are the world’s pioneers and it’s the North which is behind. Take global warming, for example, the phenomenon in which historically the North plays the biggest role yet the South is most affected. Indeed, though this specific cave flooding was due to Thailand’s monsoon season, it’s climate change which is causing sea levels to dangerously rise and making weather patterns more extreme. Tackling climate change is something which truly does need the full force of the North’s economic might - yet here it’s hands-off. Trump wasted no time in pulling America out of the critical Paris agreement and there’s concern he doesn’t even understand how climate change works. And the UK is also culpable, the government supporting a third Heathrow runway whilst rejecting the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon.

By contrast, those in the Global South are dedicating their ingenuity and talent to tackling the climate crisis. 47% of Kenya’s energy consumption comes from geothermal sources, Puerto Rico is pursuing solar powered microgrids, and last month India declared confidence that it will meet and even exceed its 2022 renewable energy targets. It’s this attitude and these examples which Europe and the US need to learn from, not disregard by automatically assuming they know and do best.

The story of the Thai schoolboys should be more than an incredible tale of survival: it’s a parable of Western hubris. It’s Europe and America’s wake-up call to rethink their foreign policy - before we all need to live in Elon’s submarine.