We explore the fight between democracy and autocracy for the future of the internet. We’re joined by Jacob Helberg, author of The Wires of War. We cover the definition of autocracy, watershed moments in geopolitics, and how the physical infrastructure of the internet can be manipulated.
We explore the fight between democracy and autocracy for the future of the internet. We’re joined by Jacob Helberg, author of The Wires of War. We cover the definition of autocracy, watershed moments in geopolitics, and how the physical infrastructure of the internet can be manipulated.
“We have to see the world for what it is, not as we wish it were.” – Jacob Helberg
EPISODE GUIDE (LINKS, QUOTES, NOTES, AND BOOKS MENTIONED)
FULL TEXT TRANSCRIPT
This episode is our definitive guide to the fight between democracy and autocracy for the future of the internet. In it we cover:
ABOUT THE WIRES OF WAR
The Wires of War is all about the battle being waged that will determine the future of the internet, and in many ways, the future of global society. And it's a battle that's being waged both on the front and back end of the internet. On the front end, that's taking place in the apps we use every day, from Google to Facebook, to TikTok, to Twitter. On the back end, in the hardware, routers, protocols and even the undersea cables that travel hundreds of thousands of miles crisscrossing and connecting the entire world. The Wires of War is deeply compelling, expansive, and an incredibly detailed picture woven together of the world that we're in and what we face.
The Wires of War is out now and available on amazon.com.
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ABOUT DANIEL SCRIVNER
Outlier Academy is hosted by Daniel Scrivner. Over the last 15 years, Daniel has led design teams at Square and Apple, turned around a $3M+ ARR SaaS business, and invested in more than 100 companies. He launched Outlier Academy in 2020 to learn from the world’s best founders, investors, authors, and peak performance experts.
Daniel Scrivner (00:06):
Welcome to a new episode of Infinite Games, a show about the misfits, rebels and idealists reshaping the world, told through in-depth conversations with founders, operators and investors, working at the edge of what's next. I'm Daniel Scrivner, and on the show today, I sit down with Jacob Helberg, author of the incredible new book, The Wires of War, all about the technological battle that's underfoot for the future of the internet and whether that internet will be democratic, autocratic or mixed of each. This episode is special because it's our first official book club episode. Going forward, we'll share an episode with the bestselling author, whose work we love, every single month.
We've been insanely lucky to have the authors of New York Times bestselling books like Deep Survival, Silence: In the Age of Noise, What Technology Wants, Several Short Sentences About Writing and Personal Socrates, on the show. So we're doubling down and we're thrilled to have The Wires of War as our first official book club episode. So why this book? Because I think it covers an incredibly important topic. Over the last few years, I've spent an increasingly large amount of my time studying China, Chinese philosophy, history, Chinese companies and even some Mandarin. I've come away from that astounded by their thinking and contributions both past and present. I have zero desire to live under autocratic rule in a communist society.
I value everything that democracy gives us and makes possible, because I believe it gives everyone the ability to be themselves express themselves freely worship freely think and write freely and build incredible new things permissionlessly. So when I started hearing more and more people in my inner circle, talking about The Wires of War, I knew that I needed to read it. The Wires of War is all about the battle being waged that will determine the future of the internet, and in many ways, the future of global society. And it's a battle that's being waged both on the front and back end of the internet. On the front end, that's taking place in the apps we use every day, from Google to Facebook, to TikTok, to Twitter.
On the back end, in the hardware, routers, protocols and even the undersea cables that travel hundreds of thousands of miles crisscrossing and connecting the entire world. The Wires of War is deeply compelling, it's really expansive and it's incredibly detailed picture that weaves together of the world that we're in and what we face. In this episode, we cover the events in 2016 as Jacob was Google News' head of policy that opened his eyes to this global battle. Why we're in a global Gray War and how battles are fought digitally rather than physically? How adversaries around the world are tightly coupling cyber warfare into their real world military campaigns in increasingly sophisticated ways and how founders and investors should think about their role in this battle. The Wires of War is out now and available on amazon.com.
You can find Jacob Helberg on Twitter, @jacobhelberg. That's H-E-L-B-E-R-G. For links to everything that we cover, as well as our favorite takeaways from this episode, visit outlieracademy.com/67 for the full show notes and now, let's jump in with Jacob Helberg. Jacob, it's great to have you on the show today, thanks for making time and joining me.
Jacob Helberg (03:11):
Thanks for having me.
Daniel Scrivner (03:13):
First off. I just want to say that I think you've written an incredible book, where it's slightly different than what we typically cover, but it's incredibly related. It's all about technology. It's about the war that's going on in a very public ways, but also in a lot of somewhat hidden obscured ways. So, I'm really excited to dive into The Wires of War with you today, and I just wanted to ask, I thought an interesting place to start would just be to talk a little bit about your background. You wrote in the introduction of the book, just about your fascination with politics, your family origin growing up, and your own relationship to autocracy versus democracy. Can you just talk a little bit about your background and why you became so fascinated with geopolitics early on?
Jacob Helberg (03:51):
Sure. So as you point out, and as I talk about in the openings of the book, my family history was to a significant extent, impacted by a lot of different political movements and recent history. On my father's side, my grandparents were Holocaust survivors and immigrated to the US after the Holocaust and they're originally from Poland, but they were in immigration camps in Germany for some time, right after the war. On my mother's side, my grandparents were actually French citizens based in Tunisia when Tunisia was a French protectorate and their family had immigrated from Italy to Tunisia in the 1800s when Napoleon freed the Jews, to the extent that Jews were free at that time.
Jews in Italy were forced to walk bare feet in the streets, in certain instances, forced to pay higher taxes, denied certain professions. So, a lot of Jewish populations living in Italy fled to French controlled territories when Napoleon emancipated the Jews. Obviously, after the independence of France, French citizens, there was a rocky relationship between newly independent Tunisia and French citizens. So a lot of French citizens immigrated back to metropolitan France at the independence of when Tunisia became an independent country after World War II. The various ways in which geopolitics had such a tangible impact on, the direct, my grandparents.
To a certain extent, shaped the world view of my parents, contributed enormously to shaping my own views and hearing stories about ... on both of my parents' side, their families fleeing a country to move to another, in order to want to be safe and live free. I think that had an indelible impact on the way that I see the world.
Daniel Scrivner (05:45):
Before we go too much further, I think it'd be helpful to just give everyone a little bit of a primer of what you're trying to cover in the book. I say that in part, because it is very sweeping and broad, in terms of it's covering everything from the hardware of how the internet actually works and how the battle is playing out in that sphere. It covers the front end software side. So maybe I'll just ask, how do you describe the book and what were you hoping to achieve when you wrote it?
Jacob Helberg (06:09):
Well, the book talks about how technological change is leading to new paradigms in political power relationships and the way in which governments are using technology to leverage these new levers of power, as well as to compete and fight in what I call the gray zone, which is basically what military experts use to refer to the murky middle between war and peace. It's not peace, but it's beneath the conventional threshold of war. Obviously, technology has become so pervasive to every aspect of our everyday lives that you can actually carry out a cyber attack and use these technologies in ways that are very, very potent and high impact with very little repercussions.
So these new weapons are effectively becoming highly usable in the conduct of day to day political warfare. In a way, one of the main through lines of the book basically is meant to convey the basic idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same. These are new tools that are obviously changing, creating significant changes in the configurations of power relationships between countries, but the fundamental dynamics at work are actually very similar to prior patterns in history. You have arising autocracy that wants to revisit the way that the world is run, and it wants to refashion world order to its image and it is doing so by trying to basically recreate a 20th style sphere of influence using 21st century tools and technologies.
So the US is now facing this age old dilemma of what should we do as a democracy, that is war fatigued, that is coming out of two wars. To what extent should we be forward leaning in terms of confronting China on these issues? To what extent should we try to sit at a table with them to try to broker some sort of deal? So, in a way the patterns are similar, but the context has changed quite a bit because of technology.
Daniel Scrivner (08:16):
Obviously, a lot of the book is about China, but another term you use more often in China is just autocracy. Sounds like that can be applied not only to Russia, to Iran. Can you talk a little bit about what that means and I guess why that's a bigger, broader thing than just China?
Jacob Helberg (08:31):
Well, in the tech sphere, so it's interesting because on the one hand, I mean, China is the only country in the world that has the capacity to challenge the US geopolitically and try to push an alternative to the US-led order, which is why I play so much emphasis on China, but as you point out, what China wants is a world that's safe for the CCP, and a world that's safe for the CCP is a world where the political power and regime of the CCP is accepted as a legitimate regime and form of power, which when you're a democracy, you are inherently taught to believe. The way that democracies are entirely run is predicated on the idea that autocracy is illegitimate. So in a way, you have this really interesting convergence and big picture, strategic political interests between autocratic countries like Iran, Russia, China, where they have a lot of different interests because they're very different countries.
They have a major area of overlap, which is that they want a world where their form of autocratic power is treated as legitimate, not threatened and where democracy is discredited, because a world that is full of vibrant thriving democracies is a world that is inherently very threatening to autocracy.
Daniel Scrivner (09:53):
Maybe it's probably not super accurate, but it seems like one way to think about it in the vein of how people talk about crypto is democracies like this decentralized, autocracy is really ... it's one small ruling party, obviously being in charge of everything within those countries. Am I getting that loosely correct? Is that how you think about it?
Jacob Helberg (10:11):
Yeah, exactly. So from a technological standpoint, it's interesting because the way that that translates into the world of technology is the difference between democracies that are ... in terms of the power relationships, democracies are based on checks and balances where political power is distributed, which is also why democracies are conditioned to be much, much more comfortable with networks and social configurations that are based on decentralization. You have crypto, that's become massive in the US, that is basically all about decentralized network infrastructure. Obviously, you have the alternative in China where China loves artificial intelligence, for example, because artificial intelligence is based on highly centralized server centralization.
So autocracy, you really do have these two conflicting models of technology. On the one hand, you have centralization, that's pushed by China. On the other hand, you have decentralization, that's pushed by the US. Obviously, the Chinese internet is such a perfect example of how you have a government that has successfully centralized so many core nodes in China's internal internet, where they are able to ... and they actively aim to decentralize the internet in China by basically being able to triangulate CCTV camera images with cell phone data, with payments data, by having everyone live online and operate and be pegged to a digital social score. It's a highly, highly centralized system that is completely in contrast to the system that we have here, that is fundamentally based on a lot of values and principles of privacy and ultimately, customs and habits, where we expect a certain degree of decentralization.
Daniel Scrivner (12:02):
Talk about a few different watershed moments, but one that I want to rewind back to is ... again, one thing I love about the book is just the breath. I mean, you go literally back to the 1950s and 70s to talk about foundational technology. You zoom forward in time, but the book kind of kicks off, at least your story in the book kicks off in 2016 when you were the head of news policy at Google during the 2016 elections, and I thought for people that haven't read the book yet, if you could share a little bit about that story and why for you, that was a major watershed moment.
Jacob Helberg (12:32):
Well, I think it was a watershed moment for the tech industry at large, because it was one of the first major examples of autocratic governments using technologies that we had mostly taken for granted in the West as being inherently vehicles of democratization, liberalization, freedom of expression, and turning those technologies upside down and subverting them to attack the very types of freedoms that we thought were inherent to these technologies. I think that one of the big takeaways is that technology is fundamentally neutral. It can be used to do incredible things or sometimes very nefarious things. And just like steel can be used to build a machine gun or a hospital, a lot of technologies are basically the same way.
The reason that I think that it's significant is because if you look at the broader arc of the history of the internet, there was a sense of euphoria in the early 20 times, and between 2009 and 2012, when you obviously had these leaderless movements pop up across the Middle East and in many parts of the world, in Russia, and there was a Jasmine revolution in China, where a lot of people were using the internet to congregate, to assemble, to organize, to talk, debate, dissent and there was this belief, this culminating belief that the internet was freeing people. It was finally allowing people to express themselves.
It was toppling regimes that had been in power for decades like the Mubarak regime, and ultimately, this was going to really bring new life to the democratic movement around the world, and what we saw by 2014, 2015, 2016, is that obviously, right after the Arab spring, Russia, China, Iran scrambled to try to basically reverse this trend, address the risk that free speech online posted their regimes. China basically shut down every major American content platform in China. Iran and Russia took drastic measures as well. By 2014 and 2015, Russia started going on offense where they basically viewed, "Okay, these technologies can be used as weapons against us. How can we use it as a weapon against democracy in the West?"
So I think the way that they have basically shown the use case, they proved a pilot between 2014 and 2016, that it was possible to use these technologies in ways that are enormously impactful. And after Russia interfered on our elections, you basically saw a whole slew of autocratic countries follow suit. China now is a major player in the info op space as well, but Iran is in there. So, it's interesting how now, this has just become a battle zone.
Daniel Scrivner (15:27):
Yeah, and you go into painstaking amazing detail in terms of all of the types of manipulation, some of the different techniques and tactics that were being used then. Broadly, it seemed like the 2016 election was around foreign countries trying to influence opinions, and one of the stats I read in the book that I thought was incredible was I think for a lot of people, when you hear that headline, you think, "Well, you know how real is that?" You have an amazing stat in the book that you talk about in the US, swinging just 80,000 votes in like four or five states can basically determine an election for one side or another. So one question I wanted to ask is this Gray War or this pilot started in 2016, and we're now six, seven years into this. How are we doing? Do you think we've improved at being able to fight misinformation?
Jacob Helberg (16:14):
So it's interesting because I think that when the Gray War started depends a little bit on who you ask. I mean, if you're China ... the Cold War never really ended. If you're China, 1989 was the end of the Soviet American Cold War, but China was very much in a, we need to adapt and ensure our survival mode and that meant changing strategies. For them, the Cold War never ended. Technology just basically changed how you compete strategically. I think that ultimately from the vantage point of autocracies, the Gray War, quote unquote, meaning this battle where governments are using dual use technologies specifically to fight and compete, that really started from their vantage point with the Arab spring, where basically the US government brought their full fledged support in favor of these leaderless movements and these revolutions.
They started seeing all these dictatorships get toppled. So they, I think, interpreted that as democracies are basically waging war on us. For us, it was really 2016, that was basically, now, these autocracies are going on offense against us. They're using our technologies to discredit us, undermine us and I think that was really the firing shot, but they had been, I think ... China has been investing a lot of money, 2016 was what I call the front end battle. The hardware battle, the back end battle was something that was brewing in the pipeline for some time, and China obviously invested reportedly 75 billion dollars in subsidizing Huawei because I think it sees a lot of benefits to controlling the information in our infrastructure, in a variety of countries.
So, I think 2016 brought us the Gray War to our attention, but ultimately, a dominant feature of the Gray War is that it's gray, it's ambiguous, it's hard to define it and it's something that had been going on for some time.
Daniel Scrivner (18:13):
Yeah, and you talk about there, and I think it makes sense to start to get into that now is what that backend battle looks like. I think that's what's fascinating is what ... from my vantage point, I feel what I've seen covered at length is the battle that's been waged on these dual use platforms, which is everything from Twitter, to TikTok, to Instagram, to Google news, any news site. There's a completely separate battle, which is one, the internet is infrastructure. There's a lot of components of that infrastructure, and none of us that use it every single day, spend a second thinking about that infrastructure. Just this notion that I thought it was fascinating in the book, you talk about that the internet got spun out of the Pentagon, that origin story is generally known, but then it evolved from there and really turned into this very Western democratic freewheeling movement, if you will.
Almost very similar to crypto today and now, China and other authoritarian governments around the world are now taking a look at this. Even just with the infrastructure, the way that it's set up, it does not really allow for control. It does not really allow for access to that information. So talk a little bit about the infrastructure of the internet and why that's such a pivotal important piece of this battle.
Jacob Helberg (19:21):
Well, I think we're used to thinking about the internet because a lot of us interact with the internet through the screens that we see on our phones, on our laptops. We're used to thinking of the internet as a very digital technology, and we're not used to thinking very much about the actual physical infrastructure side of how the internet works. The reality is that information gets transmitted between one region and between different regions around the world, through cables, through submarine cables that basically crisscross different oceans that are thousands of miles long. There's about 400 underwater cables on the ocean floor currently, and many are under construction.
Ultimately, these cables are connected by routers and part of what we have seen as being a major risk is China, as well as other countries tapping into those routers and basically being able to access, block and manipulate any type of information that passes through it. So ultimately that's why I raised the question. How do you define national sovereignty in a world where if Beijing controls the inner infrastructure in your country, is your country still sovereign, if Beijing knows all of the dirty secrets of all your journalist, politicians, judges in your country? Are you living in a sovereign country or are you living in effectively a satellite state? So, that's why ultimately, my conclusion comes to that if you control the wires in the ground, you no longer have to send troops on the ground.
Ultimately, Beijing understands that very, very well, which is why they have been so intent on exporting Huawei in other countries, and which is why they have really fought tooth and nail American sanctions against Huawei and ZTE.
Daniel Scrivner (21:21):
When you think about that battle playing out, and we'll talk about in a minute about all the different layers of that, because you do an amazing job on your book talking about, then this back end battle, there's the physical being able to build these things, which is happening largely in China. There's the protocol layer, there's a hardware layer, there's all these different layers. I'm curious to get your thoughts on where does this go, because obviously it seems like there is an attempt to try to own all of that infrastructure or be able to control as much of that infrastructure as possible. Is this a winner take all? Do you think it's just a market share basic battle between an autocratic internet and a democratic internet?
Jacob Helberg (21:56):
I think it's basically going to be a battle between a democratic internet and an autocratic internet. China is already basically building an autocratic internet, so I think the question is just do we essentially fortify a democratic what I call a techno block that is basically going to stand on its own vis-a-vis China's autocratic block. So, ultimately as you point out, there are two main types of networks that I describe in quite a bit of length in the book. There are the actual networks, the physical networks themselves, which are combination of satellites, cables, and 5G antennas. Then, there are the networks that build the networks, which are basically supply chains.
Unfortunately, China has an enormous amount of control over both because they're the factory floor of the world. They build nearly everything from windows to solar panels, to fiber optic cables and for a whole host of reasons that I describe in the book, that has been a trend, that has really cost us dearly in terms of compromising our national security.
Daniel Scrivner (23:04):
When you talk about just this notion that this battle will be waged digitally, as opposed to obviously with troops on a ground, it still feels like most of the coverage I hear about US versus China talks about the physical sphere. That's concentrating on things like warships being in different places. That's concentrating on things like incursion and airspace and all of that certainly is still happening, but why is this maybe completely misunderstood and an underestimated risk that the battle happens much more digitally than in the real world? What does that mean?
Jacob Helberg (23:34):
Well, I think what you're seeing with Taiwan is I think the question today, isn't so much whether we're living in a Cold War or Gray War, but whether ... I think the answer to that is overwhelmingly yes. So the real question is, does that war morph into a hot war and I think that's kind of what you're seeing in Taiwan. With Taiwan, you actually have a really interesting blend of, because we have such vital Gray War interests in Taiwan, meaning that Taiwan is home to a major supply of semiconductors, which we absolutely need for our economy is a major choke point in submarine cables that connect North America and the Indo Pacific, which we also need. I think we can't just ignore Taiwan and let China take it.
So, for that reason, if China became confident enough to carry out an invasion, you could actually see a real boiling point in having the risk of a hot war, but I think what you point out, what you alluded to is important and that's that this hot war is really going to be a blend of traditional hot war tactics like warships and planes and missiles, but it's going to be fought and complimented with a lot of Gray War weapons. For example, as a lot of American military experts have pointed out with a significant sense of urgency, a major risk for the US, if ever we did move into a hot war, is the risk of cyber attacks taking out our satellite communication that basically renders American forces, deaf, blind, and mute where they can't communicate.
That is a major, major risk. So, I think that whatever war crystallizes and I hope we never get to that point, but I think the risk is that you're going to see a whole blend of these different types of tactics.
Daniel Scrivner (25:34):
I mean, there are some, just building off of that last point around cyber attacks. I mean, something that's interesting as well is to think about recent watershed moments. One, you have a chapter in the book called Sputnik moment. I think that's funny because a big headline that's come out the last two weeks is that this hypersonic missile that was supposedly launched literally orbited the entire planet before coming and landing just about 24, 25 miles away from its target, that happened and then, there's something in the book that honestly, I don't remember ever reading any headlines about that I thought was staggering, which was, I've long read news stories around China and India fighting over their border.
Apparently in 2020, China was able via cyber attack to shut out power to 20 million people in India during the middle of a pandemic. So even hospitals were on backup power generators, which is frightening. I don't know, thoughts on that and why we continue to be surprised.
Jacob Helberg (26:21):
I mean, India is also a country with billions of people and not every single event in India unfortunately gets the attention it deserves. It's very possible that this cyber attack might have actually resulted in loss of life. I mean, if you have an elderly person that was fighting COVID or for a whole host of reasons, when you take out power on 20 million people, the chances of some people dying as a result of it is actually quite high. So this was a major significant event, but I think what it proved is that, to dial back to when we were talking about how there was a real risk of a blend of hot war and Gray War tactics, this is actually a great example. There was actually an exchange of firing of bullets at the border where 20 Indian soldiers died.
Ultimately, there was a stalemate and the shooting stopped, but what China did to send a signal to India and to try to ultimately intimidate India, is they carried out a cyber attack against an Indian city that took out power on 20 million people to basically tell them, push too hard and the lights will go out. Train stations stopped running. So, I think what the subtext for us is that if ever we did, God forbid, end up in an actual hot war with China, you could see the American Homeland impacted in a way that we have never experienced before as Americans, because we benefit from oceans and physical distance. So we're not used to seeing attacks on our Homeland, but you could see attacks on our power grid, on nuclear power plants, the way in which war would look like in the 21st century, especially between great powers is unlike anything we've ever experienced.
So I think ultimately it's really, really important for our country to take this extremely seriously and give a lot of thought to planning for the worst. I mean, always hoping for the best, but planning for the worst, because if we're not prepared, ultimately, there could be a lot of loose ends that could end up being very costly for us.
Daniel Scrivner (28:20):
And a lot of that obviously is clear underestimation and something. I know when you and I were talking about what we would cover, one of the big themes was just, we need to stop being surprised and underestimating China, which seems to be a maddening, recurring theme. Thoughts on like, why do we continue to underestimate China and/or is it just general public underestimating and people in Washington generally get it?
Jacob Helberg (28:41):
Well, I think for so long, we keep referring to China as rising and they're catching up. China is a peer competitor. They're not a near peer competitor. They are a peer competitor. They have risen. So, I think right now, one of the big political cleavages and differences that you see in the policy space is basically those that advocate for a variety of different policy, philosophies and solutions that basically amount to being reactive and those that advocate for more proactive solutions. I think that's the fundamental difference between the two opposing foreign policy camps. The way that'll manifest itself is say, for example, those that'll say we need to favor diplomacy.
We need to sit at a table. We need to focus on climate change. We need to do a lot of things that basically mean that you're going to deprioritize the deterrence aspect of it. When things do happen, you're going to have a reactive posture to that. Those that favor ... actually, we need to be much more proactive in preventing a lot of this behavior before it starts. That might mean you might run into some friction, but ultimately you're going to change the strategic calculation of the Chinese, where they think that conflict is going to be too costly to wage and therefore they're going to stand down. So, I think that's a big philosophical difference between opposing foreign policy camps.
Obviously, as I write in the book, I find myself decidedly in the camp of those that are much more in favor of a proactive philosophy on a lot of these issues.
Daniel Scrivner (30:07):
And it seems like clearly a part of that is when we've been reactive historically, I can't think of a single instance where it seemed like that was actually a good call after the fact
Jacob Helberg (30:15):
Think about the Cuban missile crisis. I mean, if we had been reactive, we would've ended up with missiles on Cuba. I mean, this does mean being proactive is scary because there's always risk and sometimes, humans don't like confrontation. I mean confrontation is not fun. So, I think a lot of people, sometimes there's a lot of wishful thinking where we tend to see others through the prism of thinking like ... that they would follow patterns of behavior that are similar to ours, but I think fundamentally with China, China is an autocratic country that follows a pattern of behavior that's completely different than our own. So we just can't deal ... we have to see the world for what it is, not as we wish it were.
Ultimately, in a war period, you saw the real downside of democratic governments that were fatigued of war, that wanted to avoid a war at all costs, and that waited way too long to confront Hitler to the point where their backs were completely against the wall and the decade ended in the bloodiest, most destructive war we've ever had. So sometimes being much more assertive, upfront and having clear red lines is actually incredibly important when you're dealing with someone that only understands that type of language.
Daniel Scrivner (31:33):
What case would you make to politicians in Washington that maybe want to continue to pursue diplomacy, want to continue to take the soft approach, what would you say to them to one, convince them that that hasn't worked, that's not going to work and then, two, why that is the wrong approach? Just to your point, it seems like obviously ... and I think this is a crutch or weakness, for democracies is you want to solve everything through democratic discourse and that's clearly not always the best path.
Jacob Helberg (32:02):
I mean, sometimes you just need to ... unless you have the hard power muscle to flex, I think bringing people to the table with, we always have to be willing to talk, but I think talking in a way, where you have the guarantee that you're going to engage with someone that's going to engage on good faith, it's always much more comforting as a country where you know that you can back up these talks with actual hard power than if you are maintaining yourself in a position of unpreparedness and we are continuously being surprised by events that are spinning out of your control. I don't think that's a formula for success.
I mean, as I talk about in the book, it has become a standard practice for these autocratic countries to take us by surprise with fait accompli politics, where they plot these strategic maneuvers secretly, and then they carry them out overnight and surprise us and then, we have basically have to deal with the fallout and decide how we respond to those, and you can think about Russia's invasion of Crimea or what they're doing at the border with Ukraine, or even China's building of artificial islands in the South China Sea. They didn't ask for our permission. They didn't give us a warning sign. They said that these islands weren't for military purposes, but yet they build landing strips on them and land war planes on them. What do we do? Do we send a blockade against it? Do we basically force them to dismantle them?
Dealing with things reactively is always much, much more difficult than if you try to approach these things proactively from a standpoint of deterrence, when you're dealing with autocratic powers that basically have a set agenda that they're going to try to push through no matter what you do. So ultimately, I think as a country, we should only be deceived so many times before we start assuming that these leaders are ultimately going to be better assessed, if we look at their actions, not just their words.
Daniel Scrivner (34:04):
That seems like a reasonable perspective, and I want to go back and talk a little bit about Crimea, which you talk about in the book and one thing, the book was fascinating in that, but it's not only covering all the techniques and tactics around disinformation and around manipulating opinions. It's not only covering the hardware stack, including the protocol layer that powers the internet and how that's even a potential battleground for autocratic versus democratic internets, but you also talk about that it was the first time I had read in a really wonderful, nuanced way, how cyber and in-person warfare are actually coming together and they've already come together. Crimea was this great example where you talk about that, I think it was in the 30 days leading up to that attack that you saw an enormous amount of hacks and misinformation campaigns and manipulation campaigns carried out.
Maybe you're in that country and you're like, "Something weird is going on," and then, all of a sudden that clearly was done as a pretext for being able to go in and you talk about everything from that this is partly to shape opinion so that the country that's invading can be able to go in and say, this is why we're invading. Talk a little bit about that in why that was so interesting from your perspective.
Jacob Helberg (35:09):
Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of it is basically about conditioning, the information environment to try to create what Xi Jinping calls, the balance of forces that is more favorable to your strategic agenda, and I think that's exactly what Russia did in Eastern Europe and what China has continuously tried to do by exporting Huawei, by banning TikTok within China, but obviously pushing TikTok aggressively abroad. It's ultimately to try to basically condition the information environment and ultimately the strategic balance of forces to create a setting and a playing field that's much more favorable to Chinese maneuvering.
Daniel Scrivner (35:51):
It's fascinating. So, part of that obviously is developing the pretext for war so that you can go and say, "Well, this is why we went to war, it's because of this reason." Part of it is being able to, because it's all done in this soft cyberspace, you can deny that you were ever involved, that you knew about it, which is fascinating. You obviously can't do that in real world warfare. It's just fascinating to think about all the ways in which the rules are different when you're competing or fighting digitally versus in the real world.
Jacob Helberg (36:16):
Yeah, and China has actually carried out cyber attacks against American entities by trying to dress up the attack in a way that would lead forensics experts to believe that it was Iran. So they tried to frame the Iranians to carry out cyber attacks against American companies. That's the kind of thing that makes it hard sometimes to have a clear picture in this whole gray zone space, and that's ultimately why I think that the Gray War nomenclature is so apt to describe this new environment where ambiguity is a predominant feature.
Daniel Scrivner (36:52):
Maybe it'll be helpful to talk about that for a second. I was initially thinking we might cover some terminology, but we've covered things on the go. One thing I thought was really helpful was one, the definition of the book of Cold War as a piece that is no peace. Talk about how that is subtly and slightly different from a Gray War.
Jacob Helberg (37:09):
So let me just preface with saying that I actually don't have an aversion to using the word Cold War. I think my stronger preference is to call it a war, whether it's gray or cold versus those that like to call it a competition. With that being said, I think that the reason that I like the word Gray War is because I think it's slightly more precise and it's more descriptive in referring to the types of tools and tactics that are used for everyday political warfare. The definition of the Cold War that is often forgotten in contemporary foreign policy debates, George Orwell helps define that definition and he defined it back in the very early days of the Cold War, right after World War II as a peace that is no peace.
I think fundamentally you have had ... the question today isn't whether or not we're reliving the Cold War, but it's whether or not we're living through a Cold War, and there have been many chapters in history where you've had Cold Wars between great powers. Some have resulted in hot wars, some haven't. Today, we are living through a peace that's not really a peace. So, ultimately, I characterize this ... Mike McFaul calls it a hot peace. I call it a Gray War. I don't think it's a hot peace. I think we're definitely in war territory, but I think the big picture is you do have an unfortunate set of circumstances where you have a bit of a zero sum dynamic where unfortunately today, because China and the US, both have global aspirations for how the world should be run and because those aspirations are antithetical to each other, China's vision of success is completely at odds and antithetical to America's vision of success.
You unfortunately have a very zero sum power dynamic between the US and China right now, where if China wins, it's an American loss. If America wins, it's a Chinese loss, and that is a very common, fundamental component of what constitutes the Gray War.
Daniel Scrivner (39:12):
I love the term hot peace. I'm going to try to find ways to incorporate that into my everyday language. It seems like I think Cold War suggests nothing is really happening and it seems like this is incredibly active. It's just very ambiguous and it's beneath the surface. So, I mean, it makes a ton of sense.
Jacob Helberg (39:25):
Just to add one extra point to that, I think one of the reasons that I also opted for the Gray War nomenclature is that ultimately during the US Soviet Cold War, there was a lot of indirect fighting between the two players. I think one of the differentiating aspects of this geopolitical struggle is that there's actually a lot of direct fighting, especially in cyberspace. So, I think that's one of the reasons why I think the nomenclature of the Gray War is more apt is because we're not just fighting through proxies like Afghanistan or Vietnam. We're actually fighting directly one another in cyberspace.
Daniel Scrivner (40:02):
Yeah, truly aggressive, combative ways. I'd love to wind down, in the book, you have the last few chapters are dedicated to basically just kind of your strategy in terms of some of the tactics you would use in order to be able to win this Gray War. So, I'd love to talk about that in a couple different veins and the first one would be ... I remember we were preparing for this conversation. One of the things you were talking about is that you really like to think strategically as a system and do that over longer arcs of time. So instead of trying to address whatever individual thing happened most recently in treating that as a one off, you're truly trying to string together a strategy that's long term and trying to think about it systematically.
I'd be curious if you can cover some of what you share in the book, just around your advice for the US government and just to make that broader, obviously it's US versus China as one context in the book, but the bigger one is democracy versus autocracy, what should the US be doing to preserve democracy in the 21st century and to preserve the democratic internet?
Jacob Helberg (40:57):
Well, fundamentally, I think I'll start with high level principles and then, I'll go down to slightly more tactical details prescriptions, at a high level, I think philosophically I'm very much in favor of referring to this current geopolitical struggle as a war, not a competition, and I think that's really important because if you call it a war, you inherently and intuitively understand that it's urgent. Your survival depends on it. You are willing to absorb short term costs for the overriding objective of being successful and you understand that because your survival depends on it, it is important that your domestic companies comply with the overriding goal that you have as a country, which is to come out on the other side successfully.
When you call it a competition, you don't have that level of strategic clarity and you kind of see that with the government trying to balance 20 different priorities. I mean, when we were fighting World War II, we were not trying to issue a raft of different social programs because you had to be focused on fighting the war and winning the war, and that was the number one objective and everything that you do has to be evaluated through that prism. So, I think today, especially because I think we need to be honest about the fact that we're on our back foot at this point. I mean, China's launch of a hypersonic missile was a watershed moment that I think crystallized to a lot of people in the US that China is much, much more advanced than we expected.
So we can catch up, but if we're going to catch up, we have to be laser focused. We can't start distracting ourselves. So, ultimately I think calling it a war is very important to have that kind of focus, urgency and determination. At a more tactical level, I'm very much in favor of creating an outbound CFIUS framework whereby, I think the US ... one of the dynamics that has caused a lot of friction to having a cohesive national security strategy for China, and that has prevented a lot of needed collaboration between the private and the public sector has been the fact that we have a private sector that has built out a lot of dependencies on China in a whole host of ways, over the course of two decades. I think starting to unwind some of that is incredibly important to get the business community to fall in line and pick a side.
I think as long as you have companies that are trying to straddle both sides of the fence, even if that fence is becoming increasingly uncomfortable to sit on, we're going to move too slowly and it's going to be hard to actually get a lot of big things done. So ultimately I think the US government should be able to evaluate and potentially block on grounds of national security, any American investment headed towards China, the US government should be able to review and potentially block. So for example, when Blackstone announced that it was going to invest 100 billion dollars in the Chinese market, some of those dollars are money from American pension funds, retirement accounts.
That is something that makes absolutely no sense to me at all. I mean the US government should absolutely be able to review that and kindly respectfully tell Blackstone to go invest that money elsewhere, but not in our number one, geopolitical rival. In the outbound CFIUS framework, in the book, I also make the case ... I won't reveal all the prescriptions to encourage people to read the book, but I also make the case that it's very important to de-globalize what I refer to half tongue in cheek as China's Eye of Sauron, which is this notion that China is using the internet to basically see all things at all times in all places and ultimately, undercutting their strategic capabilities is going to require de-globalizing their reach in cyberspace, and we can do that by basically preventing the expansion of Chinese information networks abroad.
Daniel Scrivner (44:57):
I'd love to talk a little bit about now, coming down a couple levels to your advice for founders and CEOs, and I think the context here is in the book. You talk a lot about ... you and I spent a lot of time talking before we did this interview at length, that if you are based in the United States and you are here because you love the daily life that you get to live in America, you love that you can be who you are, you love that you can express your points of view. You love that we can get to enjoy things like decentralization, Dows and crypto, and very innovative things. So if you like those things, then everyone has a role to play in terms of helping national security, so that we can defend those things, we can keep those things. I felt like one, just articulating it that way for me was a pretty big unlock because it came about defending these ideals that I think all of us hold really near and dear.
So the question there is I've been really encouraged the last few years to see more companies starting to innovate in the defense sector. I think one that it's very innovative, I think is doing really incredible things is Anduril, there's Saildrone, there's Varda, there's a bunch of companies now I think that are starting to do really interesting things, leaning into those interests. What advice would you have for founders and CEOs just in terms of how they should think about this and some of the decisions they should make?
Jacob Helberg (46:08):
So as you point out and allude to, I think that one of the ways in which it's really important for people to think about this geopolitical struggle is about more than just ... this isn't just a contest between the US and China, two countries. It's a contest between values. So I think one of the things that's impeded in the past, a lot of companies feeling comfortable to basically put their thumb on the scale in the favor of the US government, is that they feel like it's basically a geopolitical dispute between two governments and they just want to be neutral and stay out of it. Fundamentally, it's a dispute between values. Values that American companies depend on every day to do business, to compete on a level playing field, to make sure that as everyday internet users, we're all safe.
We can express ourselves freely and companies can protect their IP and a set of values that is based on basically surrendering all of those rights to a system that's fundamentally predicated on total compliance with the CCP. So ultimately, long-term, American companies, whatever they are, are not going to be successful and global in a world where China rewrites the rules. That's just a fact and you can see that by what's going on within China. In fact, today, it was just announced that Yahoo pulled out of China, citing a quote, "Challenging environment." Microsoft pulled the plug on LinkedIn there, also citing a challenging environment. If China is able to expand its reach beyond its borders in cyberspace, you're going to see American companies retreat in a lot of parts of the globe.
So ultimately trying to make a quick buck for a quarter or two in China, is going to be digging the grave of a lot of American companies and many other parts of the world and it's just not worth it. So I would appeal to their values, but also their interests long term ... medium and long term, it's not that far off to ask, not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country and the values that your country has been a vehicle for.
Daniel Scrivner (48:12):
I think to just end with the closing message. So we'll talk in a second about where people can find the book, I have read it. I've listened to a lot of it on audio book, both have been incredible. So I highly recommend people pick up either the book, the audio book, wherever they can find it, if there's a last message you would leave everyone listening with, what would that be?
Jacob Helberg (48:30):
The message I would leave everyone listening with is twofold. The first is I want to footnote everything I just said and everything that I say in the book with the caveat that all of these topics about geopolitical disputes between the US and China are fundamentally a political matter between two types of regimes and in no way is meant to include, in no way scopes in, the Chinese people, Chinese culture, the Russian people, Russian culture. Chinese culture is an incredibly, historically significant rich culture that has a very long history. In the US, we've been incredibly fortunate to benefit from the very many contributions of the Russian and Chinese diaspora. Ultimately, it is that very open model that we have had in the US where you can come from anywhere and compete on a level playing field and fulfill your God-given potential. That is the model that we stand for.
And that's the very model that makes us virtuous in this political struggle, that if we want to continue living in a world where we have more opportunities like this and where that model survives, that's why we need to stand with the US government in this struggle. This leads me to the second point that I was going to close on, and that's that, at the end of the day, there's a lot of pessimism right now going around the foreign policy community about whether or not the US and China, about whether or not it's too late for us to actually come out successfully in this struggle. But the one thing that ... the factor that I think that a lot of pessimists overlook is the fact that China can have all the airplanes and all the warships and all the tanks that it wants.
You see their Achilles heel and the fact that Xi Jinping is a leader that is terrified of words and thoughts. He surrounds himself and showcases himself in front of the world, surrounded by heavy military equipment and these parades that they have in Beijing, but a mouse of thought and word is something that throws them in a tailspin and they ban Winnie the Pooh on the Chinese internet and they censor a lot of Chinese celebrities and pop culture figures because they're terrified of thoughts and words. Ultimately, what that says is that what we stand for are a set of values that are universal. I mean, America is a vehicle for them, but they're at human aspirations to yearn to be free and live freely.
Dictators will say, "Oh, this is an American idea. Human rights are an American invention." You have people, democracies in every part of the globe on every continent and they're fundamentally universal ideas. They're not just American ideas. So that is what places us on the right side of history. So, I think that we can absolutely be successful in this struggle because we stand on the side of people's natural human instincts.
Daniel Scrivner (51:34):
I think that's beautifully said and I'm so glad you said that first point as well too, because that one, that wasn't my ... it's not how I went in reading the book that this was against the Chinese people or against any people. It's really not. It's against waring ideals, wording ideologies, waring values and I think that's what's fascinating, is that's really the subtext, obviously that ends up being country versus country people versus people, which is unfortunate. Where can people go to follow you online and any recommendations about where people can find the book, who should buy the book.
Jacob Helberg (52:02):
They can buy the book on amazon.com, if they type The Wires of War, Jacob Helberg and they can follow me on Twitter, @jacobhelberg.
Daniel Scrivner (52:11):
Thank you so much for the time Jacob, this has been an amazing interview. I really appreciate it.
Jacob Helberg (52:15):
Thanks Daniel. I really enjoyed it.
Daniel Scrivner (52:18):
Thank you so much for listening. You can find links to everything that we covered along with the show notes and transcript at outlieracademy.com/67. For more from Jacob, listen to his 20 minute playbook interview in episode 68. There, we dive into everything from Jacob's favorite books, tools, habits and routines to his favorite failure, all in less than 20 minutes. Finally, visit outlieracademy.com to explore more incredible interviews with the founders of Rally, Titan, Superhuman, Primal Kitchen, as well as New York Times bestselling authors and many of the world's smartest investors. From our entire team at outlier academy, we hope you enjoyed the show. I hope to see you right here next week on Infinite Games.