Obama's Anxiety: Another Sputnik Moment
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
January 29, 2011
President Obama has just delivered his 2011 State of the Union Address. It was the first time in history that a US president openly expressed so much anxiety. He said that a half century ago, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite in history, it shocked America. Eventually America put a man on the moon, surpassing the Soviet Union. Obama said that America is now experiencing yet another "Sputnik moment."
When Obama speaks of America's current Sputnik moment, he is referring to the emergence of Mainland China and India. They have changed the rules of the global economic game. Mainland China and India present a challenge to the US. According to Obama, America can meet this challenge only if political parties set aside their differences and work together. His declaration has an underlying theme, namely, how can America, which is proud of its multiparty democracy, emerge victorious over Mainland China and India?
America is in decline. This is the subtext of Obama's State of the Union address. In his address, Obama mentioned Mainland China four times. He spoke of its rapid progress in education, technology, and infrastructure. He reminded the American people that they must not fall behind. He said South Korean households have more convenient Internet access than those in the United States. Europe and Russia have surpassed the US in terms of investment in roads and railways. Mainland China is building faster trains and upgrading its airports. Even the world's fastest computers are made in Mainland China. To Obama, the fact that South Korea's educational system had surpassed that of America's. To Obama, this constitutes today's Sputnik moment.
Never before has an American president's State of the Union Address betrayed such intense anxiety. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives responded to the Sputnik moment. For the first time in history, they seated themselves in Congress without regard for party affiliation. Together, they listened to Obama's State of the Union Address. In the past, Democrats and Republicans invariably sat on opposite sides of the aisle, according to party affiliation. When the president delivered his address, the ruling party would give him a standing ovation. The opposition party would remain silent and seated. But after the shooting in Tucson, champions of a centrist "third way" suggested that the two parties sit together without regard for party affiliation during State of the Union Addresses, in response to public expectations for bipartisan cooperation. This was a first. No one knows whether there will be second.
America's national power is in decline. The tea party has escalated the politics of hate, increasing public anxiety. To Obama and some Americans, this has already undermined America's chances of "winning the future."
Obama said that the ruling and opposition parties should compete on the basis of mutual respect. But governing the nation is the shared responsibility of all parties. When Obama referred to China for the fifth time, he did not do so by name. He said some countries don't need to hold political debates. If the central government wants a railroad, they build a railroad, no matter how many homes get bulldozed. If they don't want a bad story in the newspaper, it doesn't get written.
Obama compared the two systems, revealing mixed feelings. On the one hand, he said "As contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth."
Barak Obama's anxieties echo Francis Fukuyama's. Francis Fukuyama's famous "End of History" thesis argues that liberal democracy is the final form of human government. It will never be surpassed because it is the end of history as such. More recently however, he expressed concern over the state of democracy in America. The United States is mired in partisan power struggles, No one knows how to respond to the "Sputnik moment." Mainland China meanwhile, relies on Hu Jintao's "socialism with special characteristics" to launch its own Sputniks.
This is America's problem. This is the problem faced by human civilization. Years ago, the Soviets launched Sputnik. But Sputnik failed to save the Soviet Union's doomed political and economic system. As Obama noted, no one in a liberal democracy "would trade places with any other nation on Earth." They are unwilling to do so, even in the face of another Sputnik. But is a liberal democracy doomed? Must it remain mired in Republican vs. Democrat partisan political struggles, or be subjected to tea party style politics? Is it doomed to lose against "socialism with special characteristics?"
Members of congress may have sat together for an evening without regard for party affiliation. But how will America's democracy confront the current Sputnik moment? Americans are watching, The rest of the world is watching as well. Because America's democracy is a grand experiment, and human civilization is an even grander experiment.