In another age, an industry-leading company joining up with the US government to identify and co-opt startups in foreign nations might have been regarded as dodgy.
But over the Christmas period exactly that was advertised in a bizarre feature which appeared on page five of the Sunday Times business supplement. Entitled “What Jeff Bezos wants for Christmas is World Peace,” it reads as a story about how tech giant Amazon is taking on the highest of causes in an uncharacteristic bout of philanthropic idealism.
It would, on the face of it, be something of a departure from Amazon’s previous MO of tax avoidance, hardcore worker exploitation, monopoly practices and near-total lack of interest in charitable giving unless it’s fueling their bottom line. But Amazon has clearly been thinking more strategically about charity since at least 2016, when it started putting out puff pieces in the tech press about its “community focus” in Seattle, where the firm is based and which has been seeing many of the same class-displacement problems as fellow tech industry city San Francisco.
This latest piece by Times Washington correspondent Danny Fortson appears initially to be in the same vein, pitching company CEO Bezos as “taking a plunge into the peace-making business” by joining up with “an obscure joint-venture of military men, former spies, peaceniks and … the PeaceTech Lab, a spin-off of USIP.”
Such a mashing up of the concepts of entrepreneurialism, the State and the forces of social improvement is of course a mainstay of neoliberal thinking, which is presumably why it passed through on the nod in the business section of a largely neoliberal paper. But the details are really quite something.
For its venture into “peacemaking” Amazon has joined up with globe-trotting anti-war initiative the US Institute of Peace (USIP), which you could be forgiven for not having heard that much about, even if you’ve been to more than your fair share of peace protests.
Founded in 1984 by the Reagan administration, USIP is wholly-owned by the US government, funded as part of the annual Congress budget and has for much of its existence been continually threatened by politicians looking for easy austerity cuts but repeatedly defended by US military figures, who seemingly understand its true worth as a vehicle for soft power far better than Capitol Hill’s representatives.
The names on USIP’s executive board alone are instructive. President Nancy Lindborg is a former leading staffer at USAID, notorious as a major soft power influencer for the States. Its vice president used to work for the State Department. The chair of the board of directors used to work for the NSA. Other board members include Rex Tillerson and General Jim Mattis (author of the 2004 Wedding Party Massacre). The people running the show are an integral part of the US state machine, a revolving cast of powerful Washington players.
USIP is actually surprisingly open about all this, saying outright in its strategic plan that it is there first and foremost to focus “on conflicts likely to remain critical to US security interests.” Former president Jim Marshall noted in 2013 that USIP’s form of “humanitarian” intervention was a core and very efficient method of spreading US influence overseas.
So what’s the deal?
There’s a lot of waffle in Fortson’s piece (mostly bigging up Amazon’s enormous wallet), but the key explainer paragraph is as follows:
The PeaceTech accelerator scours the globe for start-ups in conflict zones, brings them to the American capital for an intensive eight-week course of mentorship and meetings, and then sends them back to their home countries, often with a new government contract in hand.
What’s astonishing about this sentence is that Fortson genuinely doesn’t seem to understand how creepy it is. Take away the fig leaf of “peace” and what’s left is a quite blatant attempt to cultivate and co-opt upcoming power players in conflict zones to make them identify with, and be more amenable to, US interests. It’s essentially a more pro-active version of bringing the sons and daughters of tyrants to a red-brick university for their further education. Mould them in your image and the rewards down the line when they’re in charge will be substantial.
PeaceTech also gives some indication of why Amazon was brought in by the US government and given a “bat cave” to work in under the USIP building on the National Mall in Washington.
The “accelerator” requires Amazon, the biggest cloud services provider in the world, to go through its immense data stores to identify likely new start-ups in conflict zones, in co-ordination with the security services, then bring them in for the “mentorship” training and even provide them with $50,000 of free “cloud credits” as an added incentive for playing.
The corporate benefits meanwhile are obvious, and potentially spectacularly profitable for Amazon. In exchange for helping build a power base overseas, it is getting significant access to important parts of the vast Washington machine and some very, very powerful phone numbers. What’s more, it’s being given first digs at up and coming tech companies worldwide with the connivance of the US government itself. For a firm which has a famous focus on being first to buy out and dominate new trends and markets online, this is an extraordinarily sweet deal.
But for the rest of us, this is a chilling little insight into the sorts of collaborations that firms like Amazon are jumping at with imperial power. Where in the 1990s and 2000s Big Oil was forcing open pipelines using government guns, in the 2010s we have Big Tech extending extending its fibre optic dominance using government institutions. And the blatant appearance of such an initiative in a national right-wing newspaper is perhaps even more chilling – it suggests they don’t care who knows.