In his State of the Union speech, Obama compared today’s situation with the Soviet launch of the Sputnik. According to the received view, this launch showed that we had fallen behind the Soviets in key areas of technology and we were thus inspired to win the space race. This comparison raises two main questions: have we actually experience another Sputnik moment? If so, can we rise to the challenge?
Obviously, one key difference is that there does not seem to be one focal event that defines our alleged new Sputnik moment. The Chinese, for example, did not unveil a fusion power plant. Nor did the Indians, for example, reveal that all those tech support calls have actually been handled by a sophisticated artificial intelligence. Instead we are facing a wide range of challenges none of which seem to have the dramatic singularity of the Sputnik event.
The fact that we have not been clearly and dramatically shown up is actually not very reassuring. The reason is that rather than having one foe and one clearly defined goal (beat the commies in space) we now face a plethora of challenges and competitors. Rather than a space race between us and another contender, we are now competing in a veritable Olympics against many opponents and in many events. This, of course, makes facing up to the challenge even harder.
As such, I would say that we have not exactly had a Sputnik moment. Rather, we seem to be having something of a Roman moment: gazing out and seeing “barbarians” approaching the gates and gazing in to see a multitude of problems. This comparison, of course, nicely leads to the question of whether we can rise to the challenge or not.
In the case of Sputnik, we clearly won that round. We beat the Soviets to the moon and then helped bring the Soviet Union down. Of course, we are now relying on the Russians to get stuff into space. So much for that win.
As far as our current challenges, it certainly seems possible that we can meet them and make the 21st century an American century as well. While our economy has weakened, it still dominates the world. While our education system has decayed, our universities are still among the best in the world. While our innovation is not as dominant as it once was, we are still world leaders in many fields. As such, we are still contenders. No doubt the Romans thought the same shortly before the Empire fell.
While there are many things to worry about when facing such challenges, one factor well worth considering is the matter of cooperation. While it is unreasonable and undesirable for people to simply go along for the sake of cooperation, our “leaders” need to refocus their efforts on the general good rather than focusing so much on the good of their specific parties and interest groups. For example, for the Republicans to consider beating Obama in 2012 to be their main priority does not seem to be very helpful. Unless, of course, Obama is actually the greatest threat to America (which some folks seem to believe).
Just as in sports, if we are going to win, then we need to play as a team. This does not mean that we must match in unquestioning lockstep nor does it mean that we cannot dispute with each other or even try to get a new coach. It does, however, mean that we need to focus more on working together against our competitors rather than against each other.