Obama's Sputnik spin is way off orbit

Business Times - 03 Feb 2011

Obama's Sputnik spin is way off orbit


WHO could fault US President Barack Obama when he used his State of the Union Address last week as an opportunity to call for American economic renewal and for investing in scientific research technological development as well as in the reform of the education system and the rebuilding of the country's infrastructure?

After all, he proposed these and other ideas as part of a strategy aimed at unleashing another wave of American innovation and meeting the competitive challenges of globalisation in the 21st century.

And Mr Obama should be applauded for challenging the Americans, who are recovering from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, to look towards a better future by setting these ambitious goals that involve cooperation between government and business in investment in clean energy technology and biomedical research and in trying to open new global markets for US exports.

In particular, investors and US trade partners were probably encouraged by Mr Obama's reiteration of his commitment to work with Congress to start reducing the ballooning federal deficits and to revive the US global trade liberalisation agenda, starting with the expected approval of the proposed free trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea.

It is thus somewhat dispiriting that Mr Obama attempted to frame his appeal to Americans to 'win the future' as part of a new global geo-strategic and geo-economic rivalry and likening it to the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, suggesting that the challenges facing the American people today were 'our generation's Sputnik moment'.

'Half a century ago, the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik,' Mr Obama recalled. 'We had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.'

Impressive gains

It's one thing to refer to the impressive gains that China and other emerging markets have been making in improving their educational standards, in investing in clean energy technology, in building new bullet trains, and in expanding Internet access.

That could underline the concern that Americans could lose their global competitive economic and technological edge unless they start doing more and better in these and other areas.

But what does all of that have to do with the aggressive military confrontation over the control of the planet and furious ideological struggle between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War?

China is not an ideological challenge to the US and its strategic interests seem to be confined to its geographical backyard. Indeed, it makes very little sense to market a call for action to the American people by suggesting that the US is facing today a global threat akin to the Soviet Union.

Global peril

While Mr Obama refrained from pointing directly to China as the new global peril, he seems to imply that by referring to China's economic achievements and by contrasting America's open liberal-democratic system with those systems where the 'if the central government wants a railroad, they get a railroad - no matter how many homes are bulldozed'.

That is an echo of the argument raised by many American pundits and lawmakers that China's model of 'state capitalism' enjoys an unfair competitive advantage over America's free-market economy.

No one denies that China - or for that matter, the European Union (EU) - competes with the US in the global economy, or that Washington should challenge China, the EU, and other economic competitors when they are seen as not playing by accepted international rules.

But the notion that China is cheating its way to the top creates the impression that, indeed, the US and China are engaged in a zero-sum-game rivalry where only one side can emerge as a winner and that only ignites mutual accusations and rising protectionism.

In reality, healthy economic competition between the US and China that takes place with certain norms should benefit both nations as they seek to grow their economies.


Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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