America banking on another “Sputnik moment”

AFP Photo / Nicholas Kamm
In his second State of the Union Address on Tuesday, US President Barack Obama conjured up images of America’s former Cold War achievements, reminding the American people of the perils of standing still.

­Perhaps even more important than Obama’s words, however, were the efforts on the part of the Democrats and Republicans to show some sort of bipartisan solidarity in light of the recent assassination attempt on Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

In a demonstration of political civility in the aftermath of the shootings, which attracted attention to the vitriolic and occasionally violent atmosphere of American politics, Democrats and Republicans broke with traditional seating arrangements and sat with members of the opposing party across the political aisle.

Whether such camaraderie can continue between the two parties remains doubtful, but it will be necessary in order for Obama’s ambitions to be realized.

"We … are mindful of the empty chair in this chamber," Obama said to applause at the start, "and we pray for the health of our colleague – and our friend – Gabby Giffords."

Obama then jumped into his speech, talking about America’s achievements on the technological and innovative front, while drawing allusions to former times when the United States was locked into an ideological contest against its communist foe.

“Half a century ago, the Soviets beat us into space with a satellite called Sputnik,” Obama said. “We had no idea how we would beat them to the Moon. The science wasn’t even there yet. NASA didn’t exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just pass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.”

The US president then laid down a challenge to the American people, saying, “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

Obama was referring to that historical moment on Oct. 4, 1957 – triumphant for the Soviets, and humbling for the Americans, when the Soviet Union launched the world’s first orbiting satellite into space. 

The successful mission took America by surprise and prompted a national introspection into the state of America’s educational system, as well as its R&D capacities. One year later, math and science were getting much more attention in the public school system, while NASA became a highly subsidized government entity.

Meanwhile, the accomplishments of Soviet science continued to storm ahead. Shortly after the Sputnik shock, cosmonaut Yury Gagarin became the first human in space on April 12, 1961, delivering yet another blow to America’s pride. 

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress the goal of putting an American on the Moon before the end of the decade. His goal was achieved on July 20, 1969, with the Apollo 11 mission.

Russia and its Soviet heritage

It is worth noting that Russians entertain mixed feelings over their Soviet heritage. While some remember all too vividly the inherent problems of a planned economy, and the empty store shelves, others point to the incredible human accomplishments – in the fields of sports, science and in the classroom – that the communist state achieved (On this score, it should not be forgotten that the hottest economy on the block, China, is a mixed bag of communist and free-market ideology).

Meanwhile, there were other aspects of the Soviet Union, unrelated to the field of technology, which instill a sense of nostalgia in many Russians. For example, the Soviets had none of the problems that multicultural America is experiencing today over inter-ethnic relations. This is a unique aspect of the Soviet system that deserves a second look.

In an interview with RT, publicist, writer, professor and TV presenter Vitaly Tretyakov discussed the record of the Soviet Union with regard to ethnic diversity.

“The USSR produced what was called a “new historical entity” – the Soviet people,” Tretyakov said. “The definition covered the ethnic variety of people living in the territory of the USSR. And this formula worked. No one within the community of the Soviet people aired grievances as to whether you were [ethnic] Russian or non-Russian.”

These are lessons that America (and increasingly Russia) will need to remember as the world continues to become a diverse and multicultural arena for globalization.

Jump-starting America

President Obama, still struggling to jump-start the American economy, as well as American initiative and know-how, is harking back to those golden days of the Cold War era in an effort to revolutionize other parts of economy, mostly in the energy sector.

"There will be no single Sputnik moment for this generation's challenge to break our dependence on fossil fuels," he said. "In many ways, this makes the challenge even tougher to solve – and makes it all the more important to keep our eyes fixed on the work ahead."

The momentary bipartisan mood in the hall dissipated, however, when Obama revealed how his new energy program would be financed.

“To help pay for it [investment in environmentally energy resources], I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies,” he announced.

Prior to this statement, Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, seated directly behind the US President, were seen clapping together following every new Obama initiative. Boehner, however, refrained from joining in the applause when the idea of ending oil company subsidies was suggested. 

The thing that really set Obama’s speech apart from past presidential addresses is that he was not shy about speaking of the achievements of other countries. 

Talking about China, which has shown remarkable technological prowess of late, Obama mentioned several of the communist nation’s achievements.

“Just recently, China became the home to the world’s largest private research facility, and the world’s fastest computer,” he noted.

Clearly, for a country that prides itself on introducing the world to the personal computer, not to mention the internet, the idea of another country developing the fastest computer in the world is every bit as shocking for Americans as was the news of the Sputnik launch.

“We’re issuing a challenge,” Obama said. “We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time.

"With more research and incentive, we can break our dependence on oil with bio-fuels and become the first country in the world with 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015.”

Obama highlighted the problem, however, with America fulfilling its ambitious dream as forwarded by the Democrat president, which essentially boils down to education.

“As many as a quarter of our students are not…finishing high school,” the US President noted. “The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to ninth [position in the world] in the proportion of people with a college degree.”

Then, Obama stressed that America needs to celebrate not just the winners of America’s favorite sport.

“Only parents can make sure that the TV gets turned off, and the homework gets done,” he said. “We need to teach our kids that it’s just not the winners of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair. We need to teach them that success is not a function of fame, or PR, but of hard work.”

While Obama’s hour-long speech was full of inspirational moments, and dozens of standing ovations, delivered by perhaps the most gifted political orator in American history, it will take more than just words to deliver the United States back to the pinnacle of the global summit.

The world, as Obama mentioned, is a much different place than it was just half a century ago. Meanwhile, America’s two political parties, constantly at each others necks, seem more concerned about winning the next election cycle than securing America’s long-term success.

Although the world promises to be a better place when America is on the right track, it seems that Washington needs to put aside its internecine feuding before it can enjoy another "Sputnik moment."

And as hard as this may be, it may even want to tear a few pages from Russia's chapter on Soviet history to find answers to its most pressing problems, like adjusting to the strains of a multicultural society.

Robert Bridge, RT