Friday, January 28, 2011

Obama's 'Sputnik call' a desperate distraction

Jan 28, 2011

Real issue US faces isn't threat from rising Asia, but domestic politicking

By Chua Chin Hon, US Bureau Chief

WHEN the former Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1, the world's first earth-orbiting satellite, in October 1957 and beat the Americans into space, it produced a wake-up call that many here have since dubbed the 'Sputnik moment'.
More than half a century later, President Barack Obama is hoping to rally the United States around a second 'Sputnik moment' supposedly created by the rise of new economic powerhouses in Asia.
In his annual State of the Union speech on Tuesday, he cited the following as examples of how the US might be falling behind: South Korea has faster Internet access, India is investing more in mathematics and science education, and China has the world's largest private solar research facility and the world's fastest computer.
He added: 'The world has changed. The competition for jobs is real...This is our generation's Sputnik moment.'
It is a memorable line. The only problem is that no such moment exists.
For one thing, the successes that China, India and South Korea currently enjoy accrue from decades of steady development, and not from any singular event.
Neither have these Asian powers produced an economic or technological game changer on the same scale as the Sputnik.
The successful launch of the Soviet satellite in 1957 not only showed up the inadequacies of the American space programme at that time, but also posed a range of uncomfortable security and military questions for the US. Some worried then, for instance, that Soviet nuclear weapons might start dropping on American cities from the sky.
The solar research labs and fast computers in Asia, while impressive, simply don't pose the kind of existential threat that the Sputnik represented at the time.
This is not to say that China or India will not produce a new breakthrough at some point in the future that will change the world. But for now, it is clear that the real question surrounding the future of US leadership and the nation's competitiveness does not come from developments in Asia or elsewhere.
The real issue at hand - as evidenced by the two distinct governing philosophies offered by Mr Obama and the opposition Republicans on Tuesday night - is how the US resolves its own deepening political divide at home.
At one end of the argument we have Mr Obama calling for a new wave of investments that would allow America to 'out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world'.
In his view, the US government, as it had done through history, should take the lead in these reforms and innovations, such as by providing the seed money for scientists who might not otherwise find support in the free market.
He cited examples like the computer chip and global positioning system, inventions which started out as military or government programmes before they found widespread commercial application.
On the other end of the argument, we have the Republicans and the conservative Tea Party movement clamouring for a return to smaller government. They also believe that Washington's most urgent mission is to reduce, not increase, runaway government spending.
Republican lawmaker Paul Ryan, a rising star who was picked to deliver the official opposition response to Mr Obama's address, said on Tuesday night: 'Depending on bureaucracy to foster innovation, competitiveness and wise consumer choices has never worked - and it won't work now.
'We need to reclaim our American system of limited government... and free enterprise (which) have helped make America the greatest nation on earth.'
The central dilemma boils down to this: Will America recover its footing best by emulating a little of what its competitors are doing in terms of state-led capitalism and strategic planning?
Or would it do better by returning to its founding principles of liberty and limited government, as Mr Ryan and most conservatives suggest, and let the free market work its magic?
The commonsensical answer would be a combination of both approaches. But as the heated political rhetoric and bitter election of the past year have shown, there is little chance the two sides can reconcile their fundamental differences any time soon.
If anything else, most Tea Party activists regard Mr Obama as a bigger 'threat' to America than foreign competition, frequently citing his ambitious agenda and governing philosophy as a roadmap to 'socialism' and financial ruin for the country.
In Tuesday's address, Mr Obama made brief references to the realities of governing in a democracy - 'we will argue about everything' - but said almost nothing about how he planned to bridge the political divide.
Will invoking the spectre of a foreign threat help coax a little more support from the opposition? Maybe, but it smacks of desperation.
More importantly perhaps, it is out of step with a leader who has spoken so eloquently about ushering in a new era of comity and cooperation in international relations.
As Mr Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution points out: 'Do we want to go back to that kind of mindless 'oh my god, the Soviets are going to beat us' (attitude)? That's an interesting framework to want to introduce in 2011.'

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