Will Putin hand Obama his Sputnik moment?


Barack Obama has been struggling to galvanize the American public with a call to action around national competitiveness in the area of technology, energy, education for at least four years. Yet, time and again his calls for a Sputnik moment both in 2010 and in his 2011 State of the Union address have been lost amid the clatter of partisan wrangling.

The reason for his call is simple enough – the gap between the US’s technological and economic edge and that of the rest of the world is narrowing. The more it slims, the more trouble the US may find itself in geo-strategically. Of the countries posing the biggest challenge – without a doubt, China is already No. 1 on the list.

So it’s with some interest watching the hand-wringing and calls to action in Washington following Vladimir Putin’s move in Crimea. According to a Quinnipiac Poll more than half of Americans polled believe the “Ukraine situation could lead to a renewal of the Cold War.”

Others see Putin creating the “bad guy” the Obama Administration has lacked and needed to galvanize the American people and to show them the “merits of a rule-based international.”

The irony in all this would be that there’s little of a threat from Russia for the US economy. The real economic challenge to the US emanates from China. That means that a “Sputnik” moment received and acted upon in the US could actually alter the status quo between the US and China.

The Sputnik at the Far Side of the Pacific


Bremmer again. Notice how the top two issues for the incoming US secretary of state (whoever that might be) are 1) the pivot to Asia. 2) economic statecraft.

The takeaway:

All evidence suggests that China will continue to be a “frenemy” for the foreseeable future, and it is quite likely that relations will get worse. As China continues to grow (and as the U.S. finally disentangles itself from Afghanistan), China will become America’s No. 1 priority. 

But the issue is: how much do Americans realise this now? It would be unfair to say America’s attention has been on the Middle East since September 11, 2011. So much of America’s strategic imagination has been focused on Middle East since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. It’s hard for Americans to imagine that the same country where its electronics – and so many other manufactured goods come from – could be wishing for America’s demise.

Possibly for this reason, Bremmer keeps repeating that Obama himself called China an adversary. In Obama’s lexicon China is “an adversary” while it’s only a “potential partner in the international community if it’s following the rules.” Lots of qualifications around the “partner” label.

But Obama is also privy to a lot more of the behind the scenes shenanigans/threats with China in the areas cybersecurity, diplomacy, security, etc. He has been pushing for America’s Sputnik moment for a while. The question is: short of war, how do the Americans realize the looming and persistent challenge of China?